Not the Villain: China’s Role in Our Green Future

Zach Morgenstern is a second year law student at McGill. He graduated with an Hon. BSc. in Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from the University of Toronto. His extra-curricular explorations have led him to participate in, and occasionally explore, environmental issues via campus journalism, community radio, and the Toronto and Montréal folk music scenes.

Tackling global climate change can feel like a hopeless task. One reason for this is the fear that as countries in the Global South pursue First World living conditions, they will inevitably emit large quantities of greenhouse gases. China, as the world’s leading CO2 emitter,[1] (though, far and away, not its leading emitter per capita) and a rising political superpower, particularly factors into this pessimistic fantasy. However, this caricature of China as a polluting, rapid-industrializer, is, at the very least, a gross oversimplification. Chinese President Xi Jinping, after all, has established a longstanding rhetorical commitment to building a nation of “clear waters and green mountains.”[2]

In 2005, China passed the Renewable Energy Law, which amongst other things, requires that energy providers incorporate all possible renewable energy sources into their grids.[3] Since the passage of the act, China has seen notable development in its renewable energy industries, particularly wind, making China the world’s leading producer of wind power. China aspires to produce 20% of its power from renewable sources by 2020.[4] China also has plans to reduce its carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020. While this target sounds ambitious, the country had previously set a goal of reducing its carbon intensity by 20% relative to 2005 levels by 2010[5] and it came close to achieving it, reaching a 19.1% reduction.[6]

Chinese policy, however, is not the only basis to question pessimistic visions about the environmental potential of the Global South.  Indeed, the assumption that developing economies are so single-minded that they will industrialize without any concern for climate change ignores the salient conditions that exist in countries like China. According to a Pew poll, Chinese citizens widely view pollution as a matter of national concern: the only issue noted by a greater portion of respondents was corruption.[7] One consequence of this pollution is water contamination. This is a particularly important problem for China given that it has 20% of the world’s population, but only 5-7% of the world’s fresh water supply.[8] While it is apparent that strong evidence about the risks of climate change in the abstract is insufficient to drive governments to take drastic action, mass public exposure to and awareness of the consequences of pollution (the presence of which is often connected with climate change) can pressure governments to pursue meaningful reforms.

Nationalism is another factor that seems to be shaping the Chinese green transition. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao argues that economic crises can be an opportunity for countries to adapt their economies to changing times.[9] He noted that many countries seemed to be ‘going green’ and argued that it would be a shame for China to fall behind on this trend. Nationalistic motivations are not just evidenced in Chinese state rhetoric, but also in its approach to promoting green energy: providing substantial subsidies to domestic companies, requiring that industries (e.g. wind) primarily be populated by domestic companies, etc.[10] China’s nationalist approach could alternatively be described as a socialist one. It is not characterized by hardline, chauvinistic patriotism so much as an approach to economic development that holistically considers the wellbeing of the country. This is illustrated by the fact that China’s 5-year plans have included calls for reductions in growth targets, with Wen explaining that “China must stop sacrificing the environment to wasteful energy use and unsustainable development.”[11] As Professor Zhang Yongsheng argues, China’s status as a developing economy does not necessarily mean that it is just starting on the Western path of emission-heavy development:[12] rather, China and its nationalist and socialist leaders have an opportunity to reimagine development as a green process.

It should be added that Chinese leadership has also clearly indicated its understanding that ecological protection and economic development are not necessarily opposing ends. Xi explains “We will promote green development to achieve better economic performance. I have said for many times that green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver. To protect the environment is to protect productivity.” Again, such perspective is sparked by the salience of pollution’s effects in China. In 2000, 470 000 premature deaths were tied to pollution: it is hard to grow your economy when you are losing your population.[13]

China still has a long way to go before it puts a major dent in the process of global climate change. Nonetheless, if world leaders are to collectively address climate change, it is important that they have faith in the ability of their colleagues, including those who lead rising economies, to contribute. China has a bad environmental reputation, and some of that is deserved, but credit should still be given where it is due. We live in a bleak era. The so-called leader of the free world, President Trump’s United States has withdrawn from the Paris agreement. We now must count on China and President Xi, who has vowed to do the opposite.

[1] “Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions” (Nov 20 2017) Union of Concerned Scienists, online: <https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/science/each-countrys-share-of-co2.html#!>.

[2] Sam Geall, “Clear Water and Green Mountains: Will Xi Jinping Take the Lead on Climate Change?” (Nov 16 2017) Lowy Institute, online: <https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/clear-waters-and-green-mountains-will-xi-jinping-take-lead-climate-change>

[3] Barbara Fimore, “China Renews Its Commitment to Renewable Energy” (Feb 1 2010) Natural Resources Defence Council, online: <https://www.nrdc.org/experts/barbara-finamore/china-renews-its-commitment-renewable-energy>.

[4] Andrew B. Kennedy, “China’s Search for Renewable Energy: Pragmatic Techno-Nationalism” (2013) 53:5 Asian Surv p 909 at 909.

[5] Justin V. Remains & Junfeng Zhang, “Environmental Lessons from China: Finding Promising Policies in Unlikely Places” (2011) 119:7 p 893 at 894.

[6] Jane Qiu, “China Announces Energy-Saving Plans”  (Mar 14 2011), online: <http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110304/full/news.2011.137.html>

[7] Remains & Zhang at 893.

[8] Geall.

[9] Kennedy at 916.

[10] Ibid at 920.

[11] Qiu

[12] Yongsheng Zhang, “Can China Achieve Green Growth?” in Ross Garnet, Cai Fang, and Ligang Song eds. “A New Model for Growth and Development” (Action: Australia National University Press, 2013) 267 at 274.

[13] Remains & Zhang at 903.

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