Can China transform itself into a green powerhouse?
by Hope Sutherland and Zhining Liu
'[We want] clean rivers and green mountains, as well as mountains of gold and silver.'
So goes the well-publicised sound-bite from President Xi Jinping's otherwise obscure 2013 speech at a Kazakh university. Representing a synthesis of economic and environmental concerns, it has since become a signature slogan of Xi’s vision for China, marking an ambitious turn in Chinese politics towards climate-friendly policy-making.
The success story of China's 'rise' has reverberated worldwide. In four short decades, it has transformed itself into the world’s second largest economy. This explosive growth, the result of a government that has prioritised economic concerns over environmental costs, has produced a country filled with contradictions, especially when combined with China’s new approach to climate policy. Today, China is the top emitter of greenhouse gases and contains sixteen of the world's most polluted cities. However, it is also the world's largest investor in clean energy. China is meeting its extensive Paris Climate commitments ahead of schedule, yet experts maintain that China’s actions are still insufficient if global warming is to be kept below 2°C.
The extent to which climate policy permeates President Xi’s vision for China’s future demonstrates his novel approach among world leaders. Indeed, this image of a cutting-edge progressive policy is part of the allure; positioning China as a forward-thinking country with respect to environmental issues enforces the country’s image as a global leader in progress and innovation. The bottom line, however, must necessarily be economic rather than environmental progress, given the importance of economic growth in providing legitimacy for the government. Perhaps it is a question of when, not if, the two will conflict.
The act of harnessing climate change policy for national strategic goals presents another kind of contradiction. While a potent tool for effecting actual change in China, marrying a global issue to national causes puts climate change policies in a contradictory, politically charged position which may lead to a neglect of the global dimensions of climate change. Whatever we are to make of these paradoxes, China’s crucial position as the top greenhouse gas emitter necessitates paying close attention to the Chinese leadership’s attempts to resolve them.
Chinese nationalism and climate change
Given the emphasis that its government now gives to climate issues, it is easy to forget that until recently, public denial of climate change caused by human activities was commonplace in China. Opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change was overwhelmingly the result of a single cause: suspicion of the West. After disagreements between China and the US led to the collapse of the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009, Chinese media commentators, academics, and even top climate officials all pushed the message that the West was using the issue to constrain China’s economic rise.
Significantly, Chinese climate change denial was short-lived. By 2011, debates at the highest levels of the Communist Party had produced a consensus around the immediate necessity of combating China’s human impact on climate change. Overnight, denialist statements disappeared from the airwaves and bookshelves. Chinese climate change denialism is not so much important for its actual impact as for what it reveals about the lens through which the government and society view climate issues. For the Chinese denialists, climate change was primarily objectionable because of the suspicion that it was a foreign plot aiming to sabotage China’s rise, revealing that for both its supporters and detractors, climate policy was inexorably entangled with ideas about development, nationalism, and China’s global position.
Climate policy in the era of Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping Thought, President Xi’s new guiding ideology for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), recognises this entanglement of climate change with China’s development. Through it, the President aims to tackle the issue head-on by integrating climate policy into all areas of government, from domestic and national security to industrial strategy. This was explicitly articulated in the President’s speech at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, where he called for the building of a ‘socialist ecological civilization’.
In order to achieve this, Xi called for ‘[a] revolution in energy production and consumption’, and to ‘build an energy sector that is clean, low-carbon, safe, and efficient’. Within diplomacy, Xi envisions Chinese ‘[active involvement] in global environmental governance’ and reiterates China’s commitment to its emissions reduction goals. Climate policy will even be incorporated into the Party’s anti-corruption and anti-extravagance campaigns, with officials and citizens encouraged to pursue ‘simple, moderate, green, and low-carbon ways of life.’
'Protecting the environment is the same as protecting production.'
However, these policies are not being introduced as ends in themselves. President Xi aims to leverage environmental issues to achieve the New Era’s two main ‘Centennial Goals’: to become the world’s largest economy by 2021, and to become a ‘fully developed’, powerful country by 2049. While the country’s environmental and developmental goals may appear incompatible to commentators pointing to China’s status as the ‘factory of the world’, Xi insists this a synthesis, not a contradiction, since “protecting the environment is the same as protecting production”.
The importance of Xi’s new approach cannot be overstated. Leaders of the CCP have often put forward ideological theories as a means of solidifying their power and expressing their vision for governance. These ideologies are enshrined in the Party’s constitution, and officials at all levels study them intensively. Therefore, Xi Jinping Thought will come to shape the response of the CCP, and by extension the response of a fifth of humanity, to climate change during years that will define whether global warming can be kept below 2°C.
Chinese climate successes
China’s new focus on integrating climate policy at the national level under Xi Jinping Thought is a crucial and positive step. Yet, key questions remain. What do the new policies look like in practice? Has China’s new focus upon environmental issues at the national level translated into genuine progress on the ground?
Speeches from senior CCP leaders and big budget state media productions all extol the successes of China’s climate and environmental policies. Swelling music, shots of smiling citizens, and idyllic scenery accompany endless positive statistics in documentaries such as 2017’s Amazing China, pushing the message that recent policies are making a genuine difference.
To an extent, reality matches government publicity efforts. What strikes the observer is not only the scale of Chinese climate policy, but also the ways in which it has been leveraged in the service of other issues. For instance, climate policy has been impactful in China’s extensive and ongoing anti-corruption and clean governance campaigns. In the past, environmental regulations were patchy. However, recent environmental inspection campaigns have targeted not only polluting companies, but also the government officials that facilitate them. For instance, a 2017 environmental enforcement campaign led to the disciplining of 5,700 officials, as well as punishments for 30,000 companies.
The government has also promoted clean energy to position China as globally competitive in future growth industries. State support for electric vehicle manufacturers, including extensive subsidies, has led to the development of the world’s largest electric vehicle market, with seven million EVs expected to be sold per year by 2025. Efforts to encourage the energy industry to transition away from coal to cleaner sources have been furthered by the carbon credits trading market launched in 2017. China’s carbon credits market is already the world’s largest and is only set to grow as more economic sectors are included. This cuts China’s carbon footprint, encourages economic growth, and improves what Chinese leaders have termed the ‘quality’ of GDP, by moving Chinese industry up the value chain from basic industry towards technologically intensive, advanced manufacturing. As such, climate policy is a crucial tool towards accomplishing the ‘Centennial Goals’. These examples show that the Party recognises its own long-term interest in pursuing climate action for the purposes of economic development and anti-corruption.
The hidden costs of China’s approach
Of course, viewing a global problem in terms of national goals presents a theoretical contradiction; one which is already leading to practical problems. Climate and environmental policies often fall by the wayside when they are at variance with social stability and economic growth. Recent examples of the government’s treatment of activists and whistleblowers are concerning. Zhang Wenqi, whistleblower for Henan Jianghe Paper Co. Ltd.’s extensive, illegal chemical dumping, was convicted for ‘damaging’ the company’s ‘business reputation’ despite official investigations proving his accusations were true. This kind of punishment discourages environmental activism, leading to a culture of silence in which companies are not kept accountable, and in which the CCP pushes its economic agendas as China’s priority. One can imagine that other areas outlined by Xi Jinping Thought, most particularly poverty alleviation and economic development, may likewise take priority over environmental accountability in the future.
As for China’s ‘clean energy revolution’, while the country’s solar farms are large enough to be seen from space, a reliance on solar energy could be a ‘ticking time bomb’ according to some experts. The vast majority of China’s solar panels have a lifespan of just three decades and are manufactured using environmentally damaging materials. No extensive recycling facilities exist to process the waste that will accumulate as the panels deteriorate. While problematic solar panels are not specifically an issue of climate change policy, they indicate something of China’s short-term approach to environmental policies more generally. This is perhaps an inevitable side effect of the ambitious national vision that the ‘Centennial Goals’ present; one that has demonstrated China’s willingness to settle for subpar development so long as it is implemented at an impressive rate.
Another serious consideration is the contradiction between Chinese climate policy, for all its internationalist aspirations, a nationalist exercise, and China's rapid expansion of influence and investment overseas. Climate-friendly initiatives, along with many other progressive environmental policies, show few signs of being implemented in Chinese activities abroad both in terms of governmental and private initiatives. Chinese power companies increase coal capacity in Pakistan and Egypt even as they reduce coal capacity at home. Across Africa, where China has made extensive ‘soft power’ inroads, many private companies carry out their work using environmentally damaging business practices that often disregard local regulations. President Xi talks of China’s responsibility in the ‘global fight’ against climate change, but such disappointments reveal the deep contradiction between the international nature of the climate change struggle and the focus of Chinese climate policy on national rejuvenation.
Can mountains of gold be green mountains too?
The lessons which China’s approach to climate change provide for foreign policymakers are still unfolding in real time. As an emergent world power, China’s recognition that it must engage with carbon emissions reduction as part of its national development strategy is an important example to similar countries undergoing explosive growth. The Chinese approach should remind international policymakers that it is in their own long-term interest to pursue strong climate policies as early as possible.
China’s approach provides some undeniable warnings: while climate policy should be integrated into other policy areas and placed in service of other goals, problems do arise from this type of integration. If it is not treated as its own priority of global significance, climate policy can too easily be politically sidelined. As much as possible, such policies should not be viewed as a means by which to achieve nationalist aims, but as ends in themselves.
However, China’s approach represents an experiment as to how climate policy can move forward in an imperfect world where such issues are inevitably politicised. While other major governments, for example the current US administration, find themselves in the grips of fossil fuel companies’ monopolising business interests, China is decisively and deliberately placing itself at the forefront of an essential emergent world movement. Nonetheless, Chinese carbon emissions reduction efforts are still insufficient if global warming is to be kept below 2°C. In the coming years, the Chinese government will be increasingly faced with a dilemma: the choice between combating climate change and economic growth. It remains to be seen whether ‘green mountains’ are truly compatible with ‘mountains of gold’.
Zhining Liu reads for a BA in History and Politics at Pembroke College, Oxford. He follows Chinese politics and climate issues closely.
Hope Sutherland reads for a BA in Medieval English and the English Language at Magdalen College, Oxford. She has a wide-ranging interest in international politics and culture.