China and the Environment: Responsible Great Power or Too Little Too Late?

By William Thompson

Climate change politics can often be a subject of frustration and disappointment. As a transborder phenomenon, climate change mitigation can only be reified through cooperation between states. Yet such cooperation has hitherto been grossly inadequate, as institutions such as the Paris Climate Accord, and the Kyoto Protocol do not encode specific reciprocity. With no legal requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, states become concerned with ‘free riders’: a phenomenon where countries can bandwagon off the sacrifices made by others in order to gain an economic advantage. China has perennially been regarded as one such ‘free rider’, especially if one considers that Beijing secured status as a ‘developing country’ in the Kyoto Protocol, allowing it to forgo the emissions targets placed upon high-income countries. Now as the world’s largest economy (In terms of PPP, considered the best metric for assessing relative economic strength) such behaviour is evidently absurd.

In 2017 China accounted for 27.21% of global greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 14.58% in the USA. China is the world’s largest consumer of oil and coal, and the scale to which it both produces and uses cement (a resource with a notoriously high carbon footprint) is simply beyond comprehension – from 2011-2013 it produced and used more cement than America in the entire 20th century. Given China’s ‘free ride’ to economic pre-eminence the USA has been compelled to limit its contributions to climate change governance in the hope of balancing Beijing’s rise. Hence, the Trump administration decided to leave the Paris Climate Accord, which is a move that tragically places in the environment in ever greater peril (especially if one considers that America is the arbiter of the liberal international order).  

China’s moment of historical reckoning has arrived. As a lynchpin of the global economy it is reclaiming its status as Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom), and as such its duties to the maintenance of a stable international order must be followed. In late September, President Xi Jinping thus gave the international community a glimmer of hope in expositing China’s new environmental policy, for in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, he argued that China is committed to reaching an emissions peak by 2030, and will eventually become carbon neutral by 2060. With analysts predicting a reduction to projected temperatures of 0.2-0.3 degrees Celsius, it seems China has afforded humanity a moment of respite in our inexorable demise into oblivion. Yet are these goals realistic?

Coal accounts for 69% of China’s energy consumption, and the number of coal-fired power plants continues to proliferate (58 gigawatts of coal fired capacity have been approved in the first six months of this year). Furthermore, China’s investments in clean energy are plummeting- down from US $76 billion in the first six months of 2017 to US $29 billion in 2019. In addition, climate analysts such as Lord Turner (chair of the Energy Transitions Commission) argue that increasing emissions until 2030 will be a recipe for disaster. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has repeated ad nauseum that action must be taken this decade in order to avoid runaway climate change, yet China’s new policy resigns this decade to ‘business as usual’. Perhaps it could be argued China’s policy is now too little too late.

Note also how President Xi worded his statement. He argued that China will become carbon neutral in 2060, not climate neutral, meaning that China will be able to continue pumping other greenhouse gasses such as methane into the environment. Given that methane is 84 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide this is a particularly worrying ambiguity to the policy. It could be argued that China’s policy is thus an ephemeral veneer of responsible great power behaviour. For example, the EU has pledged to curb carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, and Japan also pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26% in 2030 and by 60% in 2050. China’s environmental policies could therefore be much more ambitious, especially if it wants to enhance its soft power.

However, one can still be hopeful. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attains its legitimacy as the ruling body on the back of China’s astounding economic progress. If, in the near future, environmental degradation was to significantly inhibit China’s economic growth, then perhaps the CCP would be forced to take more radical action in tackling climate change. However, with both the USA and China currently unwilling to make such changes the prospects of a healthy environment by the end of this century appear to remain a wistful fantasy. One can only hope the cataclysm does not arrive too soon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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