Is “Red China” about to become a green superpower?


While China is still officially opposing the Western world in international environmental talks, the country’s position is evolving. Its economical growth is threatening to be curbed by ecological problems if no ambitious action is taken. And with people’s level of awareness rising on these issues, it is becoming politically crucial for the Chinese government to deliver solid results. Will these new challenges establish China as the leader of the developing world’s commitment to environmental protection?


The Warsaw Climate Change Conference that took place in November was once more the stage for strong disagreements between North and South around environmental issues. The Conference actually had to last a day longer than planned in order to reach an agreement.

The divergence of views concentrated on two main issues. Firstly, the reduction of carbon emissions: post-industrialised countries are setting goals that today’s rapidly developing nations, with two-figure growth each year, cannot achieve. And while the richer countries have had all the time they wanted to develop without any concern for the fate of the planet, emerging countries cannot afford the same carelessness. They are left with a feeling of injustice. Secondly, there is the “loss and damages” mechanism: because poorer countries are also the ones that suffer the most dramatic consequences of climate change, it was decided internationally that the developed world would help them face these consequences financially. But the amount of that aid is still open to debate, to say the least. And developing countries feel that the richer ones are not willing to make enough of an effort.

These two points of disagreement resulted in 132 countries, led by China, walking out of the talks at the Warsaw Conference.

Yet, China is slowly abandoning its leading role in opposing the richer countries of the world on environmental issues. Here is why.


Environmental problems are taking too great a toll on the Chinese economy


China has long been opposed to the United States and other developed countries on these matters. But, as The New York Times  explains, the country is now coming around and showing more signs of cooperation. Things have changed: “With China having recently overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the countries are finding that their interests increasingly overlap.” Not only is China the biggest polluter, but it is also the world’s second-largest economy. Still, “it is treated under the rules of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as though it were the relatively poor developing country it was when the treaty was created. China has until now allied itself with the poorest African countries and most vulnerable island states in demanding a set of rules and obligations separate from those that apply to the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada and European nations.

But the country’s economical and environmental situation is progressively bringing it closer to the interests of post-industrialised countries.

As China specialist Stéphanie Balme, a researcher at CERI-Sciences Po, explained to the forecast magazine Usbek & Rica (an editorial partner of down to Earth), environmental issues are now taking such a toll that the country “no longer has a choice: either it dies a slow death, or it emerges from ecological disaster.”

The situation is in fact highly problematic: 20% of rivers and streams are polluted, one-third of the territory suffers from acid rain, and the air is so polluted that 300,000 people die prematurely every year. 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are Chinese… During the winter of 2012, Beijing experienced an “airpocalypse” that saw the concentration of fine particle pollution reach unprecedented levels. As Le Monde tells us, by 2017, the surrounding provinces of Beijing will have to intensify their efforts and cut the concentration of the most harmful fine particles by 25%. And this is not the only decision that has been made. In fact, in spite of what we might think, looking at China from afar, the country has already taken a considerable environmental turn. Stéphanie Balme reminds that a Ministry of Environmental Protection was created 25 years ago; the circular economy was included in the Constitution in June 2013, and the “crime of pollution” can even incur the death penalty. Overall, China has dedicated 26 laws, 50 administrative regulations and over 1,600 local decrees to environmental questions. “The legal framework is very comprehensive: everything is here, no laws are missing.”

China’s energy needs are enormous and its massive coal consumption is generating more costs than benefits. Le Monde reports that costs for getting rid of pollution have skyrocketed over the past years. Chinese authorities now hope to keep driving growth by fostering investments in clean energies. The country is in fact already putting a great deal of effort into their development. Bloomberg Businessweek, quoting the World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency, reports that

China will add more electricity generating capacity from renewable sources by 2035 than the U.S., Europe, and Japan combined.

Hydro power and wind power will be the two main sources of China’s renewably sourced electricity, with solar photovoltaic cells coming in a distant third.” As a result, “China’s share of global coal consumption will shrink somewhat from 2011 to 2035,” while the country plans to double its GDP from 2010 to 2020 – which requires 7.5% annual growth…


Politically, China cannot afford not to act


At international level, China is also making new commitments. At the Warsaw Conference, President Obama and President Xi Jinping agreed to work together on reducing the use of hydrofluocarbons (greenhouse gases used in propellants and refrigeration). China’s chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, also acknowledged that his country was the largest source of carbon emissions, but stated that the growth rate of emissions was slowing down and that more substantial measures would be taken even before the Chinese population reaches the living standard of wealthier countries. On top of that, “in April, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the formation of a United States-China climate change working group,” writes The New York Times.

Why is the country accelerating the process? For economical reasons, as previously stated. But also – and this is new – for political reasons. Le Monde explains that Chinese citizens are developing ever-stronger ecological awareness, and tend to express their discontent more and more. They no longer hesitate to demonstrate against the government’s inability to tackle the environmental problems that are taking dramatic tolls on their health and lives. The 2012 Beijing “airpocalypse” in fact spurred a wave of discontent, making the winter of 2013 crucial for the authorities. In Kunming, in May, a petrochemical project brought people onto the streets. Everywhere in the country, farmers regularly revolt against soil contamination and polluting industrial plants. Le Monde quotes Zhou Rong, in charge of climate and energy at Greenpeace’s Beijing office:

People in China have long been materialistic. Now that they are richer, they want a cleaner environment.

Stéphanie Balme agrees that the ability of the Chinese population to gather and protest against polluting activities (refineries, nuclear plants, incinerators, etc.) worries the authorities and forces them to drive change.

There are still obstacles though, and the main ones derive from the country’s very organisation and objectives. Zhou Rong explains: “All through the past decade, the growth imperative was the most important thing for local managers. China has set strict norms to control pollution, but they remain widely unenforced, because they mean extra costs.” There is in fact tension between the ecological intentions and the growth objectives set by the central government. Stéphanie Balme says that these tensions are transmitted to local authorities, who find themselves unable to satisfy expectations at both ends, and often choose growth over environmental protection. Citizen awareness and mobilisation thus become ever more crucial to effectively drive change everywhere in the country.


Will China lead emerging countries towards environmental action?


Will China’s efforts inspire other emerging countries to become more environmentally aware? This is what Robert N. Stavins, director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, hopes for. He told The New York Times that a more cooperative approach from China could help persuade other emerging countries (Brazil, India and South Africa) to join in global environmental efforts. “If the 20th century was the American century, a lot of people expect the 21st century to be the Chinese century. And if it’s your century, you don’t obstruct, you lead.”

Of course, ability and willingness to act always depend on local contexts and international power balances. China is starting to take action now because it really needs to if it wants to keep growing and establish itself as a leading power on the international scene. These preoccupations are likely to spread to the rest of the BRICS group as they move closer to Western countries in terms of standard of living, pollution, and international weight. We have already talked on down to Earth about the ecological goodwill of Brazil. Who’s next?

Photo: © ArtisticPhoto

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