BEIJING Less than 48 hours after landing in Beijing, Gov. Jerry Brown appealed to an audience in this heavily polluted city today to step up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expanding for a global audience on a case he has made for decades in California.
"The problem of dealing with climate is not an optional kind of problem," Brown told about 200 people at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "It's mandatory. There is no escape. Nature doesn't play games."
The speech was the most explicit yet in a series of public events Brown arranged to highlight environmental policies while on a week-long trade mission to China. The Democratic governor, a longtime champion of environmental causes, is making climate change a focus of his first official trip abroad since taking office in 2011.
Brown's overtures come at an opportune time: Record air pollution in Beijing earlier this year raised local alarms about the country's poor air quality. China's new leadership is discussing a potential tax on carbon emissions, and several local, carbon-related initiatives have gained attention in provinces around China.
"We've got a new administration, the air pollution in January and February was the worst it's been, and you had the media state or private reporting on it broadly," said Alvin Lin, China climate and energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing. "You're starting to see a little bit of a shift."
The country's environmental policies are significant internationally because of China's size. Not only have scientists documented particulate pollution blowing over from the Middle Kingdom to California, but China is now the world's largest producer of carbon dioxide, and activists fear that emissions there may minimize the effect of efforts elsewhere to combat climate change.
"China is key," Brown said before traveling to the country. "So goes China, so goes the world."
California is widely viewed as a model for vehicle emission standards and renewable energy policies, and here in China's capital city, interest in Brown and his advisers is high. A group of nongovernment organizations working on environmental issues overfilled a small conference room at the Grand Hyatt Beijing on Tuesday for a discussion with regulators from the California Energy Commission and California Environmental Protection Agency.
For better or worse, said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission, "what China's doing is going to overwhelm California."
Brown met privately Wednesday with China's minister of environmental protection, Zhou Shengxian, and they signed a nonbinding, largely ceremonial agreement to share information about regulatory practices and policies to reduce pollution.
Following his address at Tsinghua University, Brown was scheduled today to ride the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai, where he is expected to continue pressing Chinese audiences on climate change.
The high-profile nature of the appearances will likely serve to burnish Brown's reputation abroad as an environmentalist.
His potential effect on China's environmental policies, however, remains uncertain. While Beijing forced hundreds of thousands of vehicles off the roads and shuttered factories to clear the air in time for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, five years later factories have resumed operation, and enforcement of fuel and other standards has relaxed, Weisenmiller said.
Heavy smog in the city forces residents to stay indoors some days, and surgical masks are a typical part of the local wardrobe.
"In some sense, it's like Jerry goes to China," said Maximilian Auffhammer, an environmental economist at the University of California, Berkeley. "But I think it's meaningful. The Chinese are starting to talk about a carbon tax, and from what I can tell they're serious about it."
Auffhammer called Brown "the most progressive governor in terms of carbon in the U.S.," and he said that if the United States and China "got together and said we're going to do something meaningful then we're talking."
Brown's visit to China comes five months after California held its first auction of carbon allowances under California's landmark greenhouse gas reduction law, Assembly Bill 32. Brown is hoping to create 20,000 new megawatts of renewable electricity by 2020, and he signed legislation requiring utilities to obtain one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by that year.
At a luncheon Wednesday hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, a businessman mentioned to Brown that his visit came "on a beautiful Beijing day where we see the blue sky, but that, in fact, is a rarity."
Brown told the audience that reducing China's reliance on fossil fuels would be difficult, but he suggested reducing air pollution is a matter of money and will.
"The fact of the matter is that could be cleaned up," Brown said. "I don't want to sound too flippant, but just spend a few billion $40 or $50 billion and you can clean it. It will take you a few years."
Yet even in California, a state relatively accommodating of environmental regulation, Brown has found progress on his environmental agenda toilsome. Developers of green energy projects complain of stringent permitting requirements and difficulty obtaining financing. Those concerns and a broader objection from some business interests to environmental regulations they say are unduly burdensome are present in China, as well.
"I don't think that the questions in China about climate change are very different than the questions in the U.S.," said Fredrich Kahrl, of the San Francisco-based consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics Inc. "I think most people in China would be willing to grant that it's real and it's something that China as a country should be worried about. The question is about who does what."
Kahrl said Brown and the environmental officials traveling with him may be particularly well positioned to assist Chinese officials particularly local ones on environmental matters.
"A lot of people in senior-level positions are already sold that this is a good idea," Kahrl said. "But then, when it gets down to the actual bureaucrats and technocrats who have to do things, there's sort of an 'oh-shoot' moment, when no one really knows how to do it."
Brown had largely avoided lecturing the Chinese, instead praising the country for its advances on wind and battery technology.
"I'm looking very much forward to Chinese technology in battery improvement, because if the 80 or 100 companies in China keep making progress, California will have a million electric cars on the road in the next 10 to 12 years, and that will be a major step forward," Brown said at an event in Beijing on Wednesday. "Today is a time when we explore what is common, what we can do together. China plus California is bigger than the both separately."
In his speech today, Brown said it was remarkable he was even here that it would have once been inconceivable for a California governor to talk openly about climate change in China. He read from the teachings of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher.
"To go unacknowledged by others without harboring frustration, is this not the mark of an accepting person?" Brown said. "Well, I've gone unacknowledged for a long time. I'm not frustrated, but I'm sure glad to be here this morning."
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.