This is an expanded and update version of the 2019 article China leads the way in tackling climate breakdown. A concise summary of the current version was carried by the Morning Star on 19 November 2022.
We must strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. We will be more conscientious in promoting green, circular, and low-carbon development. We will never again seek economic growth at the cost of the environment. (Xi Jinping)
The cost of development
Few events in human history have resonated throughout the world as profoundly as the Chinese Revolution. Standing in Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1949, pronouncing the birth of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong said “the Chinese people have stood up”. In standing up, in building a modern socialist society and throwing off the shackles of feudalism, colonialism, backwardness, illiteracy and grinding poverty, China has blazed a trail for the entire Global South. Lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty has been described even by ardent capitalists as “the greatest leap to overcome poverty in history”. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) describes China’s development as having produced “the most rapid decline in absolute poverty ever witnessed”. It is an extraordinary accomplishment that all Chinese people now have secure access to food, housing, clothing, clean water, modern energy, education and healthcare.
In environmental terms, however, this progress has come at a cost. Just as economic development in Europe and the Americas was fuelled by the voracious burning of fossil fuels, China’s development has been built to a significant degree on ‘Old King Coal’, the most polluting and emissions-intensive of the fossil fuels. Two decades ago, coal made up around 80 percent of China’s energy mix. Environmental law expert Barbara Finamore notes that “coal, plentiful and cheap, was the energy source of choice, not just for power plants, but also for direct combustion by heavy industry and for heating and cooking in people’s homes.”
China’s use of coal was not based on ignorance or irresponsibility. Rather, it was a matter of development by any means necessary. The abundance of cheap fossil fuel energy enabled China to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty whilst simultaneously establishing itself as a global leader in science and technology, thereby building a foundation for the construction of a modern and sustainable socialist society. Schools, hospitals, roads, trains, factories and laboratories all need energy to build and operate. Chinese people now have energy in their homes, powering fridges, lights and washing machines – indispensable components of modern life.
Furthermore, China’s ability to attract foreign investment and learn from US, European and Japanese technology was in no small measure based on turning itself into a manufacturing hub to which the advanced capitalist countries exported their production processes. Martin Jacques observes that “40 percent of China’s energy goes into producing exports for Western markets, in other words, the source [of China’s greenhouse gas emissions] is multinationals rather than Chinese firms. The West has, in effect, exported part of its own greenhouse emissions to China.” The developed countries have been able to “socialise and export the costs of environmental destruction”, reducing domestic pollution and emissions whilst maintaining unsustainable levels of consumption.
The choice facing China in the last decades of the 20th century was between economic development with environmental degradation, or underdevelopment with environmental conservation. Western environmentalists can’t reasonably complain about the Chinese people opting for the former. Development is recognised by the UN as a human right. Advanced countries fuelled their own industrial revolutions with coal and oil; they bear responsibility for the bulk of currently existing atmospheric greenhouse gases (the US and Europe have contributed to just over half the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions since 1850). It would be hypocritical in the extreme for these countries to tell poor countries that they don’t have the right to develop; to feed, clothe, house and educate people. If advanced countries want developing countries to leapfrog fossil fuel-based development, the primary responsibility is on them to provide the technology and the finance – which principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is a cornerstone of international environmental law.
Nonetheless, there is no getting away from the fact that China now faces a looming ecological crisis. It overtook the US as the biggest overall emitter of carbon dioxide in 2007 (although its per capita emissions are around half those of the US, Canada and Australia). Martin Jacques writes that, as a result of China having “torn from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first century in little more than three decades”, it has worked up “a huge ecological deficit of two centuries accumulated in just a few decades.”
Even without the last few decades of rapid industrialisation, China is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to the World Food Programme, China is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, with up to 200 million people exposed to the effects of droughts and floods. Already hundreds of thousands have to be evacuated every summer in response to flooding in the Pearl River Delta. High levels of air pollution in the major cities are a major health issue for the population. Judith Shapiro observes that “China is poorly endowed with farmable land and its water resources are unevenly distributed both geographically and seasonally. It has nearly a quarter of the world’s population but only five percent of its water resources and seven percent of its arable land… China’s per capita water resources are already among the lowest in the world, at just one-fourth of the world average.”
Environmental issues have become a top priority for China. Over the last decade in particular, the Chinese political leadership has focussed its attentions on transitioning to a green model of development in order both to contribute to the global fight against climate breakdown and immediately improve the wellbeing of the Chinese people. Barbara Finamore notes that the Communist Party of China (CPC) leadership has accelerated efforts to “transform its economic structure from one reliant on fossil fuel-driven heavy industry and manufacturing to one based on services, innovation, clean energy, and environmental sustainability.” Chinese policy-makers have started to de-emphasise GDP growth and to encourage green development, whereby “living standards continue to rise, but in a way that is much less energy and carbon intensive.” The goal is to construct “an energy and resource efficient, environmentally friendly structure of industries, pattern of growth, and mode of consumption.” In her popular 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State, economist Mariana Mazzucato notes approvingly that China more than any other country is prioritising clean technologies “as part of a strategic vision and long-term commitment to economic growth.”
In the first volume of The Governance of China, published in 2014, President Xi Jinping put forward a comprehensive outline of China’s commitments in relation to the environment:
The leadership’s increasing focus on environmental issues reflects a growing concern among the public, especially now that China, while still a developing country, is no longer poor. GDP growth has become less of a priority for hundreds of millions of Chinese. “In terms of social conditions and public opinions, with the gradual improvement of people’s lives, there is a fundamental change of social mentality from ‘satisfying basic needs’ to ‘pursuing environmental protection’, from ‘seeking survival’ to ‘seeking ecology.’”
In order to avert climate breakdown, humans need to find ways to meet their needs without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and without causing permanent damage to the ecosystem. There are numerous components to this, the most urgent of which is to decarbonise our energy systems such that we can power our lives from non-fossil sources.
China has been aggressively pursuing decarbonisation for over a decade. In his address to the UN General Assembly in 2020, Xi Jinping announced two major goals agreed by the Chinese government: to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. He stated bluntly that “humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature and go down the beaten path of extracting resources without investing in conservation, pursuing development at the expense of protection, and exploiting resources without restoration.”
China has reiterated its goals on carbon peaking and neutrality many times, and has formulated a detailed action plan around them, and has incorporated them into law. At the World Economic Forum in January 2022, Xi stated that the realisation of carbon neutrality is an “intrinsic requirement of China’s own high-quality development and a solemn pledge to the international community.”
China’s goals are of historic significance. Columbia University professor Adam Tooze enthused that, with Xi Jinping’s 2020 announcement, “China’s leader may have redefined the future prospects for humanity… As the impact of his remarks sank in, climate modellers crunched the numbers and concluded that, if fully implemented, China’s new commitment will by itself lower the projected temperature increase by 0.2-0.3 deg C. It is the largest favourable shock that their models have ever produced”.
According to a recent study published in Science, these targets are “largely consistent” with the goal established in the Paris Agreement (2015) of limiting overall average global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial era. Meanwhile, credible analysis indicates that China’s emissions will likely peak several years earlier than 2030. And, unlike the major capitalist countries, China has a very strong record when it comes to meeting its international commitments. Even the New York Times had to reluctantly admit that “Beijing has met or has come close to meeting every major energy and environmental target it has set.”
Cutting out coal
Not all fossil fuels are created equal. Carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy generated are twice as high for coal as for natural gas, and the air pollution impact is an order of magnitude higher. As such, reigning in coal use is a major ongoing project for China, a country where, as recently as 2007, over 80 percent of generated electricity came from coal sources.
In the 15-year period from 2007 to 2022, coal’s share of the power mix was reduced from 81 percent to 56 percent, putting it in the same range as Australia – a country which could and should have begun its low-carbon transition decades ago, and which has a per capita coal production figure eight times higher than China. Various commentators have pointed out that China continues to build new coal-fired power plants; however, these are almost invariably modern, cleaner and more efficient replacement for existing plants.
In 2017, China’s National Energy Administration cancelled plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants, in order to divert power generation efforts into the renewable sector. This will eliminate 120 gigawatts of future coal-fired capacity. Beijing closed its last coal-fired plant in 2017. One particularly symbolic project is a giant floating solar farm – the largest in the world – on top of a former coal mine in Anhui. Datong, China’s “coal capital” is seeking to put its coal reserves to better use: producing hydrogen for use in emissions-free hydrogen-powered vehicles and electricity storage.
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian reported in July 2022 that, “by the end of last month, the share of coal-fired power in China’s installed power capacity dropped to a historic low of under 50 percent; total emissions of the coal-fired power industries reduced by nearly 90 percent over a decade; coal consumption by power generation units has been slashed, saving over 700 million tonnes of raw coal over the past decade.”
The drop in coal consumption has already had a noticeable impact in the big cities. The New York Times observed that, in the period from 2014 to 2018, Chinese cities cut concentrations of atmospheric fine particulates by an average of 34 percent. Beijing in the 1990s was among the most polluted cities in the world, but due to a decade-long ‘war on pollution’, its air quality index has improved by 50 percent. In 2019, Beijing dropped out of the list of the 200 most-polluted cities. Writing in 2012, Martin Jacques talks about China having sixteen of the world’s twenty worst-polluted cities. A decade later, only two Chinese cities are on the list.
Although it will take China many more years to completely phase out coal, it has already announced that it will not finance any new coal-fired power plants abroad. Meanwhile, US-based analysts KJ Noh and Michael Wong note that the bulk of China’s coal plants are now advanced supercritical or ultra-supercritical plants, which means they are much more efficient and cleaner than many of the industrial-era legacy plants of the US.”
Investing in renewables
While reducing its use of coal, China is rapidly becoming the first “renewable energy superpower”, accounting for 46 percent of new solar and wind power generating capacity in 2021. International energy analyst Tim Buckley observes that China is the world leader in “wind and solar installation, in wind and solar manufacturing, in electric vehicle production, in batteries, in hydro, in nuclear, in ground heat pumps, in grid transmission and distribution, and in green hydrogen.” In summary, “they literally lead the world in every zero-emissions technology today.”
China is responsible for around a third of global renewable energy investment, and 28 percent of its electricity is already generated from renewable sources (compared to 20 percent for the US). Out of 12.7 million jobs in the renewables industry worldwide, 42 percent (over five million) are in China. The Chinese government has set itself the target of getting renewable energy sources (including solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower) to 33 percent of its total energy mix by 2025. Non-fossil energy sources are set to supply 50% of China’s electric power generation by 2030.
China has been the world’s largest producer of solar panels since 2009, and it now accounts for over 80 percent of global solar panel production. China’s investment in solar power research and development has been so extensive as to push down prices worldwide to a level where solar is increasingly competitive with fossil fuels. An International Energy Agency report notes: “Chinese industrial policies focusing on solar PV as a strategic sector and on growing domestic demand have enabled economies of scale and supported continuous innovation throughout the supply chain. These policies have contributed to a cost decline more than 80 percent, helping solar PV to become the most affordable electricity generation technology in many parts of the world.” In general, China’s sustained investment in renewable energy has meant a global reduction in costs – an important contribution to global decarbonisation.
The People’s Republic has also been pushing forward in wind power, with data indicating that “China now operates almost half of the world’s installed offshore wind, with 26 gigawatts of a total of 54 gigawatts worldwide” – a statistic that prompted Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of US climate think-tank Climate Interactive to remark: “While the US can’t quite agree to build back better, China just builds better”.
China’s progress on renewables has been such that, in November 2022, the Nobel Sustainability Trust Foundation issued a letter or recommendation, publicly commending China’s carbon-neutral leadership: “China’s renewable energy installed capacity accounts for one-third of the world’s. More than 50% of the world’s wind power equipment and more than 85% of the world’s photovoltaic equipment components come from China. The cumulative investment in renewable energy has reached 380 billion US dollars, ranking first in the world.”
China’s renewable energy capacity as of 2021 was 1,020 GW – three times more than the second country on the list (the US). This is expected to reach around 1,500 GW by 2030. Five of the ten biggest solar parks in the world are in China. “Every hour, China now erects another wind turbine, and installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field.”
Construction has begun on a series of hybrid wind and solar-power bases in the north-western part of the county, “which by 2030 will contain about as much renewable capacity as currently in all of Europe.” Alongside these bases is the construction of ultra-high voltage transmission lines to transport the energy to the densely populated southern and eastern zones.
One of the most complex challenges facing widespread adoption of renewables is transmission of variable power from point of production to point of use. Environmental expert Mike Berners-Lee notes that “China is investing in huge transmission lines to move electricity from one end of its country to the other. There are losses on the way but it is an increasingly doable exercise.” Chinese scientists have recently developed the world’s first prototype of a superconducting hybrid power line. The full-scale version will transmit energy from one side of the country to the other with zero resistance.
China is also innovating on “green hydrogen” production – converting solar or wind energy into hydrogen via electrolysis. Hydrogen can be used directly as a battery fuel, and also has a potentially highly significant role in transmission, as it can be sent from point of production to point of use in existing gas pipelines. At the time of writing (in late 2022), the world’s largest green hydrogen factory is underway in Kuqa, Xinjiang.
China is also leading research into nuclear power, including fourth-generation reactors, the first of which was connected to the grid in December 2021. Fourth-generation reactors promise to be significantly safer and to produce far less radioactive waste than earlier nuclear technology.
In 2021, China surpassed France in nuclear energy generation to become the second-highest nuclear producer, behind the US. As part of its commitment to reaching carbon neutrality, China has “plans to generate an eye-popping amount of nuclear energy, quickly and at relatively low cost,” with a view to building over 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, “more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35.”
Nuclear energy is of course highly controversial, especially in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The question of whether nuclear power has a significant long-term role to play in meeting human energy needs is beyond the scope of this article. However, premature phasing out of nuclear power (as has happened in Germany and other countries) before it can be immediately replaced with solar or wind energy seems decidedly shortsighted. As David Wallace-Wells points out in The Uninhabitable Earth, “Already, more than 10,000 people die from air pollution daily. That is considerably more each day than the total number of people who have ever been affected by the meltdowns of nuclear reactors.” Nuclear power currently makes an important contribution to the energy mix in many countries, and in the words of Mike Berners-Lee, “anyone taking a firm anti-nuclear stance needs to have a coherent plan for the low carbon future without it.” Nuclear power is the main source of electricity in France and, “as a result, France has about half the carbon emissions per head of the OECD as a whole.”
Nuclear power will likely continue to be one of the important non-fossil fuel energy sources for the medium-term future, and China’s investment to make it safer, cheaper and less contaminating is therefore a valuable contribution to the overall project of decarbonising the world’s energy systems.
China is among the world leaders in the effort to generate energy through nuclear fusion, which has the potential to some day generate unlimited, safe, emissions-free and radioactive waste-free power. There is a long-running joke that viable nuclear fusion reactors are “always 30 years away,” but Chinese scientists – working in collaboration with their counterparts in Russia, the US and elsewhere – have made promising progress in recent years.
While it is less headline-grabbing than replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, it’s widely understood that improving energy efficiency is one of the most crucial steps towards reducing the quantities of greenhouses gases we are placing in the atmosphere. Neil Hirst opines that “the biggest part [of a transition to a zero-carbon economy] is to improve the energy efficiency of all the main areas of energy use, power generation, heating of buildings, transport, and industry.” For developing countries in particular, carbon intensity – carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product – is a valuable metric, since it encapsulates two indispensable and sometimes contradictory goals: improvement of living standards, and reduced impact on the natural environment. China pledged at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen that it would reduce its carbon intensity by two-thirds by 2030, and is on track to achieve this goal ahead of time. It has already succeeded in halving its carbon emissions per unit of GDP since 2005, and by almost 75 percent since 1990.
According to the International Energy Efficiency Scorecard, which ranks 25 of the world’s largest energy users on 36 efficiency metrics, China is in 9th position for energy efficiency – one place ahead of the US, and the highest ranking of any developing country. Such progress has been achieved, in Barbara Finamore’s words, “thanks to strong government commitment, ambitious targets, and effective policies for energy conservation and emission reduction.”
Globally, transport is responsible for around one-fifth of carbon dioxide emissions. Along with the emissions from industry (around 20 percent) and agriculture (around 10 percent), these are among the most difficult emissions to get rid of, because so many of the vehicles in existence are reliant on burning hydrocarbons in an internal combustion engine.
China is the only country so far to have made really meaningful progress in terms of decarbonising transport. The 14th Five Year Plan for a Modern and Comprehensive Transportation System (2021-2025), published in January 2022, sets the goal of 72 percent of China’s urban public buses being electric by 2025. As of 2021, the figure is 59 percent, up from 16 percent in 2016. A number of major Chinese cities, including Shenzhen, Tianjin, Guangzhou have already achieved 100 percent bus fleet electrification. Around 98 percent of the world’s electric buses are in China.
Investment regulations are being introduced that will effectively phase out fossil fuel-based cars in the next few years. More electric cars are sold per year in China than in the rest of the world put together. “The Chinese government has spent nearly $60 billion in the last decade to create an industry that builds electric cars, while also reducing the number of licenses available for gasoline-powered cars to increase demand for electric cars. And Beijing plans to spend just as much over the next decade.” To go with all the electric cars, there is also a network of 1.15 million electric vehicle charging stations – 65 percent of the global total.
High-speed rail (HSR) is another important tool for decarbonising transport. Here again, China is well out in front, with more high-speed rail miles than the rest of the world combined. As of 2022, China has 37,900 kilometres of HSR, and over 75 percent of China’s cities with a population of 500,000 or more have a high-speed rail link. Compare this with the US, which has a grand total of 80 km of HSR.
HSR has reduced the journey time between Beijing and Xi’an (similar to the distance between London and Berlin) to 4.5 hours, down from 11 hours on a regular train. As a result, inter-city transport in China increasingly takes place on rails rather than in the air. From a climate point of view, this is good news: rail produces far lower emissions and, since HSR is electrically powered, its path to becoming emissions-free follows that of the electricity grid.
Left to their own devices, trees absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, thereby mitigating the greenhouse effect. One of the reasons for the climate crisis humanity now faces is that we’ve cut down so many trees in order to make way for us to live and to grow our food. Reforestation and afforestation could have a profoundly positive impact in our fight against climate catastrophe. Scientists recently estimated that a vast reforestation programme “has the potential to cut the atmospheric carbon pool by about 25 percent”.
Xi Jinping has often emphasised the importance of forest development: “Forests are the mainstay and an important resource for the land ecosystem. They are also an important ecological safeguard for the survival and development of mankind. It is hard to imagine what would happen to the earth and human beings without forests.”
China is carrying out the largest forestation project in the world, planting forests “the size of Ireland” in a single year and doubling forest coverage from 12 percent in 1980 to 23 percent in 2020 (sadly the global trend is in the opposite direction). The government’s target is to continue increasing coverage until it reaches at least 26 percent, by 2035. Meanwhile, hundreds of national parks have been developed and a third of the country’s land has been placed behind an “ecological protection red line.”
It should be noted that there has been some valid criticism of the “rush to reforest” in China and several other countries, on the basis of poor tree selection and other factors. “With a little more knowledge and long-term thinking, the rewards would have been even greater, with greater sandstorm prevention, carbon storage and habitat.” Such criticisms are being actively addressed in current reforestation and afforestation projects, for example the Millennium show forest, which, “unlike a general urban afforestation project, follows the principles of natural forest succession to construct a close-to-natural urban forest composed of mixed-aged, multi-layered (canopy, mid-level, and understory), mixed species forests.”
Towards a Green GDP
Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures the market value of all goods and services produced in a specific time period, is a global standard for measuring national economic performance. With large parts of its economy geared towards manufacturing consumer goods for the global market, Chinese policy has since the 1980s made GDP growth one of its top priorities. This was in the context of the CPC leadership having defined the principal contradiction in Chinese society as being between people’s ever-growing material and cultural needs and China’s relatively backward social productive forces. A strong orientation towards GDP growth represented a development-at-all-costs strategy, one that can only be said to have been phenomenally successful.
At the 19th Congress of the CPC in 2017, Xi Jinping announced that the party’s definition of the principal contradiction facing Chinese society had changed; that it was now between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life. “While China’s overall productive forces have significantly improved and in many areas our production capacity leads the world, our problem is that our development is unbalanced and inadequate. This has become the main constraining factor in meeting the people’s increasing needs for a better life.”
Addressing unbalanced development means shifting emphasis from quantity of growth to quality of growth: pursuing high-quality development – “a change from seeking growth to seeking better growth.” Such growth is “innovative, coordinated, green, open and inclusive,” and seeks to find “development opportunities while preserving Nature, and achieve win-win in both ecological conservation and high-quality development.” It incorporates a “new vision of green development and a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable.” Such a vision shifts the development goal “from maximising growth to maximising net welfare,” in the words of the influential Chinese economist Hu Angang.
Hu Angang proposes a ‘Green GDP’ that comprises nominal GDP, green investment measures (environmental protection, renewable energy usage, energy saving measures), investment in human capital (education, health, research), alongside a subtractive component for greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, forest depletion, mineral depletion and losses from natural disasters. Such a model encourages moderate consumption, low emissions, and the preservation of ecological capital as a fundamental economic goal. Its basic aim is “the accumulation of green wealth and improved human welfare to achieve harmony between humanity and nature.”
The concept of a Green GDP is implicitly recognised in China’s updated economic strategy and its de-emphasising of traditional GDP as a measure of economic performance. What’s more, a number of major Chinese cities are experimenting with implementations of Green GDP or a variant of it. Shenzhen is the first city in the world to have adopted an accounting system based on gross ecosystem product (GEP) – “the total value of final ecosystem goods and services supplied to human well-being in a region annually… measured in terms of biophysical value and monetary value.” Finamore observes that, since 2013, GDP growth has been deprioritised as a measure for evaluating the performance of regional officials. The evaluation criteria now “also focus on the quality and sustainability of economic development, including progress in reducing emissions.”
The West attempts to shift responsibility onto China
As early as 2015, China was being recognised by the UN’s leading climate expert for its “undisputed leadership.” Unfortunately, as part of the West’s escalating campaign of hostilities against China – and in order to deflect from their own shameful lack of progress in environmental protection – the US and its allies have been conducting a coordinated campaign to shift responsibility for the climate crisis on to China. For example, US President Joe Biden claimed on the eve of the COP26 Summit in 2021 that China “basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change.” He further stated that meaningful progress on climate change negotiations is “going to require us to continue to focus on what China’s not doing.”
The “it’s all China’s fault” narrative rests on two key themes: first, that China has for the last few years been the world’s largest emitter (in absolute terms) of greenhouse gases; second, that China has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, whereas the US and Britain have said they will bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Such a narrative is flawed in several ways:
First, China is the world’s most populous country, with a population of 1.4 billion. Measured on a per capita basis, China’s emissions are very ordinary – around the same level as Austria and Ireland. The per capita emissions figure for the US and Australia is almost twice as high.
Second, the comparison of current annual emissions distorts the overall picture. Greenhouse gases don’t suddenly disappear from the atmosphere; carbon dioxide hangs around for hundreds of years. In terms of cumulative emissions – the quantity of excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere right now – the US is responsible for 25 percent, although it contains just four percent of the world’s population. As agrarian sociologist Max Ajl puts it, “North Atlantic capitalism enclosed the atmosphere as a dump for its waste eons ago.” China, 18 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 13 percent of cumulative emissions. Over the course of two hundred years, Europe, North America and Japan have become modern industrialised countries, burning enormous quantities of assorted fossil fuels and creating an environmental crisis. Now it seems they want to both shift the blame onto others and pull up the ladder of development.
Third, the reason China’s emissions have gone up in recent decades while the West’s emissions have gone down has nothing to do with people in the rich countries compromising on their lifestyles, and very little to do with governments making impressive progress on decarbonisation. Rather, it’s that the advanced capitalist countries have exported their emissions to the developing world. Chinese emissions are not to any significant degree caused by luxury consumption – average household energy consumption in the US and Canada is nine times higher than in China. Canadian ecosocialist Ian Angus writes that, while more greenhouse gas is now produced in China than in any other country, a great deal of those emissions are “generated to produce goods that are destined for the Global North. Rich countries have outsourced a significant part of their environmental destruction to the Global South.”
Fourth, and related, is the fact that China is a developing country. The leading capitalist countries of Europe, North America and Japan reached peak greenhouse gas emissions in the 1980s, after nearly two centuries of industrialisation. If they succeed in achieving net zero emissions by 2050, their journey from peak carbon to net zero will have taken six or seven decades. Before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China’s economy was based overwhelmingly on small-scale agriculture. There was very little industry, very little transport infrastructure; only a tiny fraction of the population had access to modern energy. Since then, China’s use of fossil fuels has steadily increased as it has industrialised and modernised. If it meets its targets of reaching peak emissions by 2030 and zero carbon by 2060, both achievements will have taken less than half the time they took in the major capitalist countries.
Furthermore, while China makes world-leading progress in transitioning away from fossil fuels, the major capitalist countries are failing dismally. The US passed the Inflation Reduction Act in August 2022, including climate commitments that Joe Biden considers to be a landmark success of his presidency to date. This set of climate commitments is the most important so far from the US; unfortunately, that’s not saying very much. Certainly it’s nowhere near the type of unprecedented action the world needs. Even if the US meets its targets under the Inflation Reduction Act, by 2027 it will still be generating significantly less renewable energy than China will generate in 2022.
Meanwhile the US is driving NATO’s proxy war against Russia, which is nothing short of disastrous in environmental terms. In order to punish Russia, to consolidate the Western military-economic-ideological alliance, and to generate profits for the US’s domestic fossil fuel industry, the Biden administration has been heavily promoting sanctions on Russian gas and pushing Europe towards reducing its reliance on Russian energy long term. Among the results of this are: a major increase in US exports of fracked shale gas to Europe; the reactivation of coal plants in Germany and elsewhere; along with ramped-up oil and gas extraction in the North Sea. All of these are significantly more damaging in environmental terms than Russian natural gas.
At the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, rich nations pledged to channel 100 billion US dollars a year to less wealthy nations in order to help them adapt to climate change and transition to emissions-free energy systems. Even though “compared with the investment required to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, the $100-billion pledge is minuscule”, the rich nations have not kept their promise. The US spends upwards of 800 billion dollars a year on its military, but seems to be almost entirely unresponsive to the demands of the Global South for climate justice.
The persistent attempts by imperialist politicians and media to blame China for the climate crisis are pure propaganda. In fact, even leading US politicians have occasionally recognised China’s progress. Back in December 2019, setting out his vision for the US to accelerate its decarbonisation, John Kerry observed in an article for the New York Times that “China is becoming an energy superpower” and that “China has surpassed us for the lead in renewable energy technology.” In August 2022, he acknowledged that China had “generally speaking, outperformed its commitments” in relation to environmental issues.“They had said they will do X, Y and Z and they have done more… China is the largest producer of renewables in the world. They happen to also be the largest deployer of renewables in the world.”
Sadly, the US has not responded to China’s progress by stepping up cooperation for the benefit of humanity. Instead, it has imposed sanctions on Chinese-manufactured solar power materials, based on disgraceful slander about “slave labour” in Xinjiang. Discussing a previous round of tariffs launched by the Trump administration against China’s solar panel industry, Barbara Finamore commented: “The damage this policy will cause vastly outweighs any potential benefits. Higher-priced panels will significantly reduce the pace of new solar energy installations, increase climate change emissions, and lead to significant job losses nationwide.” It’s all too clear that there is a bipartisan consensus in the US that waging a Cold War against China is more important than either boosting the domestic economy or saving the planet.
The fruits of Chinese investment in green energy are being reaped beyond the borders of the People’s Republic, with Chinese companies supplying renewable energy infrastructure around the world. Charlie Campbell writes in Time that “China is better placed than the US to instil green energy practices in the developing world” and that the Belt and Road Initiative “provides an opportunity to export green technology across Central Asia and Africa.”
Chinese financing for renewable power generation overseas increased more than fourfold between 2015 and 2019, and now accounts for the large majority of Chinese-financed overseas power generation capacity. Ma Xinyue of Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center opines that “by combining rapid phase-out of coal finance across the world and facilitating the world’s energy and economic transition, China has the opportunity to assume international climate leadership during an absolutely critical time.”
Chinese policy banks such as Eximbank and the China Development Bank are leading the finance of significant projects throughout the developing world, including the enormous Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park in Pakistan. Latin America’s largest solar plant, Cauchari Solar Park in Argentina, was built with Chinese investments and technological assistance. “The world’s highest altitude facility provided power to 160,000 families and turned into a poverty alleviation and social welfare effort when it hired local residents after providing technical training, and was projected to generate $400 million in net profits for the province, widening fiscal space for establishing new schools.” China is actively supporting Cuba’s bid to generate 24 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and Cuba has joined the China-initiated Belt and Road Energy Partnership.
China is also involved in a number of green energy projects in Africa, including the construction of Zambia’s largest hydropower plant, the Kafue Gorge Lower Hydropower Station. Nigerian journalist Otiato Opali writes: “From the Sakai photovoltaic power station in the Central African Republic and the Garissa solar plant in Kenya, to the Aysha wind power project in Ethiopia and the Kafue Gorge hydroelectric station in Zambia, China has implemented hundreds of clean energy, green development projects in Africa, supporting the continent’s efforts to tackle climate change.”
Addressing the UN General Assembly in September 2021, Xi Jinping announced that China will not build any new coal-fired power plants overseas, and would increase its support for developing countries to pursue green and low-carbon development. The announcement didn’t come out of the blue – Christoph Nedopil, a development economist at Fudan University in Shanghai, notes that “China’s government institutions were working with Chinese and international partners to evaluate a possible coal exit for a number of years.” It’s worth noting in passing that, contrary to media-fuelled myth, China has never been the principal backer of overseas coal power. China makes up 13 percent of investment in such projects; the rest comes mostly from Japan, the US and Britain.
China’s ministries of commerce and of ecology and environment have issued a comprehensive set of guidelines for greening foreign investment. These constitute “the most comprehensive document by any country regulator to guide environmental management of overseas projects by either public or private companies.” This document sends a very strong signal to both state-owned and private companies that, going forward, outbound foreign investment should always consider environmental impact as a top priority. In a presumably inadvertent admission of the strengths of socialist governance, China Dialogue notes that “such policy signals are more important to Chinese businesses, especially state-owned ones, which are more driven by top-down signals from government and state leaders, as compared to many western businesses, which are more influenced by bottom-up signals, such as financial markets, shareholders or civil society.”
Aside from its investment activities, China also offers an example for others to follow in terms of charting a course towards sustainability. In Hu Angang’s words, China’s model can “provide southern countries with a new path leading to ecological civilisation and development – the green development path.”
Conclusion: socialism is the key
Scientists have understood the issues surrounding climate change for a long time. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, with its objective of “stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, was adopted in 1992 and ratified by 154 countries. And yet precious little progress has been made at a global level. Indeed, more than half of all carbon dioxide emissions in the industrial era have been generated in the three decades since then.
Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel writes: “The past half-century is littered with milestones of inaction. A scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change first began to form in the mid-1970s… The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992 to set non-binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. International climate summits – the UN Congress of Parties – have been held annually since 1995 to negotiate plans for emissions reductions. The UN framework has been extended three times, with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, and the Paris Agreement in 2015. And yet global CO2 emissions continue to rise year after year, while ecosystems unravel at a deadly pace.”
This lack of progress seems inexcusable. Humanity has done almost nothing in the face of a global existential crisis, and the reason is simply that the dominant economic system in the world is capitalism. As Ian Angus bluntly states: “when protecting humanity and planet might reduce profits, corporations will always put profits first… Capital’s only measure of success is accumulation. How much more profit was made in this quarter than in the previous quarter? How much more today than yesterday? It doesn’t matter if the sales include products that are directly harmful to both humans and nature.” When a society is organised primarily around the pursuit of private profit, rather than addressing the long-term needs of humanity, the question of saving the planet will never be an urgent priority for the ruling class.
Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster describe the absurd situation in the US where “three out of four oil and gas lobbyists in Washington in 2010 formerly worked for the federal government,” the result of which is that even such limited environmental regulations as exist don’t get properly enforced. “Given the power exercised by business interests over the economy, state, media, and even theoretically independent nonprofit organisations, it is extremely difficult to effect fundamental changes opposed by corporations. It therefore makes it next to impossible to have a rational and ecologically sound energy policy, health care system, agricultural and food system, industrial policy, trade policy, and educational system.”
The balance of power in capitalist countries is such that even relatively progressive governments find it very difficult to prioritise long-term needs of the population over short-term interests of capital. Meanwhile, “everywhere in China today, and at all levels, there are enormous efforts being made to restore the environment.” The fundamental reason is that China is “a socialist country of people’s democratic dictatorship under the leadership of the working class based on an alliance of workers and farmers; all power of the state in China belongs to the people.”
China’s economic development proceeds according to state plans, not market anarchy. As a result, the interests of private profit are subordinate to the needs of society. “China’s economic planners have the power to make decisions that cost a lot of money, but will benefit the people — and the world — over the long run. They’re not driven by profits and each quarter’s bottom line. In countries where the super-rich run and control everything, you get a well-financed campaign of lies by the polluting corporations to turn public opinion against science and the environmental movement. But not in China.”
China can direct investment and resources towards green development precisely because of the socialist basis of its economy. China’s enormous investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, afforestation and ‘circular’ waste management have largely been made by state banks, and its projects carried out largely by state-owned enterprises, according to strategic guidelines laid out by the government.
One example is how the Chinese government manages unemployment resulting from coal power plants being shut down. Barbara Finamore notes that the state “set aside a $15 billion fund to relocate and retrain laid-off workers, and has encouraged firms and local governments to help find new jobs for them, including in the services sector, which is growing rapidly.” Hundreds of thousands of workers in polluting industries have been able to re-skill and get jobs working in the clean energy sector. It’s a planned economy that makes this possible.
Mariana Mazzucato has written that “what is separating China from its international peers is its courage to commit to renewable energy and innovation in the short and long run.” She makes this point in order to encourage Western governments to be more courageous in their pursuit of a green agenda – a noble motivation. But of course it’s primarily a question not of courage but of political power. As Hu Angang points out, “the capitalist development model has a fundamental and irreconcilable contradiction between infinite capital expansion and limited natural resources”.
China still faces an intimidating array of obstacles on its path to realising an ecological civilisation. Judith Shapiro notes that there’s a growing middle income group – currently estimated to be nearing half a billion people – which aspires to “own automobiles, live in spacious homes and apartments with comfortable and fashionable furnishings, eat higher up the food chain by switching from grain to meat-centred diets, and increase household energy use by using more appliances, heat, and air conditioning.” Local officials struggle with conflicting goals of economic growth and environmental protection, tending through habit to privilege the former over the latter. Furthermore, China is still a developing country and millions of its people still live in relative poverty. Their immediate needs include using significantly more energy than they currently do, and meanwhile China is still “sitting on a mountain of cheap coal.”
However, China is more focused on this issue than any other country and its progress is already formidable and its commitment unquestionable. In his work report to the 20th National Congress of the CPC in October 2022, Xi Jinping said:
Those in the major capitalist countries should take inspiration from China’s example of addressing the ecological crisis, and feed this inspiration into a powerful mass movement capable of effecting the meaningful change that humanity desperately needs. Just as progress made on social welfare in the European socialist countries in the mid-20th century created tremendous pressure on the capitalist ruling classes to grant concessions to the working class (in the form of universal education, social housing and healthcare systems), so can China’s environmental strategy in the 21st century create pressure on the capitalist ruling classes to stop destroying the planet and commit to climate justice.
Mao Zedong said in 1956 that, by the beginning of the 21st century, China would have become “a powerful socialist industrial country” and that “she ought to have made a greater contribution to humanity.” Over the last decade in particular, China has emerged as the undisputed leader in the fight against climate breakdown, and the results of this leadership are reverberating globally. It would be difficult to overstate the profound significance of this for our species and planet.
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