China’s Position on Climate Change – Truly Sustainable?

By Kerry Brown and Benjamin Barratt

Back in 2009, the world would not have thought that China will be taking a leadership role in humanity’s struggle against climate change. Today, Kerry Brown and Benjamin Barratt discuss how China’s position has transformed and why it will stick.

 

With the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the USA in 2016, the issue of the global effort to combat climate change underwent a potential transformation. In his campaign at least, Trump had been at best ambiguous, and at worst antagonistic to the idea of human activity impacting on temperatures, and the potentially disastrous consequences that might come from this. While not withdrawing from the Paris Convention at the time of writing (May 2017) the US has gone from being proactive and engaged in this space to being passive, and possibly even opposed.

That immediately opened up space for the Chinese, the other essential constituent in the international effort. This in itself is a remarkable moment. In a key area, China, not the US, is displaying leadership. This is one of the most powerful illustrations of just how prominent China has now become, and how global the read of its influence.

This in itself is a remarkable moment. In a key area, China, not the US, is displaying leadership.

It is ever more noteworthy because less than a decade ago, when the Copenhagen Summit was convened in 2009, China would not have been placed amongst the more positive and co-operative players. Despite recognition domestically, by politicians and academics within the People’s Republic, that climate change was a serious problem, and that more needed to be done in terms of use of clean technologies and reduction of reliance on fossil fuels (the key contributor to greenhouse gases), the attitude remained that economic growth was the priority, and that it was the responsibility of the developed world, and in particular the US and the EU, to take the lead in cutting emissions.

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At Copenhagen, China was accused of leading a 77 strong cohort of developing nations in opposing a stronger joint communique at the end. This wrecking role attracted savage criticism. China was painted as a spoiler, a nation that was standing between the rest of the world, and the attempts to find a sustainable solution to combatting climate change. By 2014, a series of events started to disrupt this narrative, marking the transition in a short period to China being a leader, rather than opponent, for global efforts.

There were three key moments in this path to change. Firstly, from the elevation of Xi Jinping as party Secretary in 2012, China’s whole domestic political story changed. GDP growth started to slow down. The government proposed that economic growth alone was not the key thing. There were other equally important targets. One of these, conveyed in the China Dream idea, was of a clean, pleasant environment. Chinese cities blighted by thick smogs that threatened lives became a huge and very visible impediment to this. This meant that the government started to reprioritise and place providing a better living environment at the heart of its programme.

That led in 2014 to the surprising joint agreement between China and the US on the side lines of the Asia Pacific Economic Meeting (ASEM) that year to mutually agree a cap on carbon emissions. For the first time ever, China legally committed to having a peak by 2030, and then aiming for reductions after then. That the two most important players in this space were willing to signify their work together was a huge symbolic and practical step.

It was a step like this that made the even more dramatic events in Paris a year later possible. In front of the rest of the world, China reversed its strategy from Copenhagen in 2009 and played a proper leadership role, making a meaningful international accord possible.

What were the reasons behind this change, and will it prove sustainable? All signs at the moment are that for Xi Jinping and his government, regardless of what the Americans eventually do, they will abide by their commitments made in Paris, and that they will continue to support further efforts. This might seem generous and altruistic. But in fact, it is simply an acceptance of the overwhelming scientific evidence of a clear link between human activity and rising temperatures, and, more importantly, a clear acceptance that as a global problem, China has to take a major role in this whatever the rest of the world might think.

If we take air quality, the reasons for why China might take this more proactive stance are clear. Within China, air pollution in the form of thick, obscuring smog, has become a widely publicised side effect of a rapidly evolving economy dependent on fossil fuels and heavy industry. What is a present, but largely invisible threat to public health in Trump’s America, has become a visible symbol of environmental degradation in China.

It is simply an acceptance of the overwhelming scientific evidence of a clear link between human activity and rising temperatures, and, more importantly, a clear acceptance that as a global problem, China has to take a major role in this whatever the rest of the world might think.

The most recent Global Burden of Disease estimate for deaths associated with air pollution in China stands at 1.6 million per year, a problem that will become more acute as its population ages and becomes more susceptible to disease. Such a high number reflects the severity of the situation. Daily average concentrations of PM2.5 (fine dust in the atmosphere small enough to enter your lungs when breathed in) across China frequently exceed 250 µg/m3, which is 10 times the World Health Organisation guideline (25 µg/m3). After initial reticence to publish data, the Chinese government has rapidly expanded its network of air quality monitoring stations and issues smog alerts when levels exceed certain thresholds. These data also provide a means to evaluate, and publicise, its efforts in bringing down pollution levels via a raft of emissions control legislation. As many of the main culprits for this public health crisis, principally coal burning, are also high on the list of climate change contributors, improvements will have dual benefit; a win-win situation for climate and health.

As a government focussed on delivering more for the rising urban based, service sector working, high consuming middle class, ignoring the very clear impact this has on the health and quality of life of this core group would be political folly, even in a non-multi party system such as the one China currently has. The Chinese government therefore has a profound reason for addressing these concerns. If it manages to clear up the air across China, and particularly in its cities, it will, to put it more simply, be more popular. If it fails to do this, then its legitimacy will be questioned. And it might be one of a number of issues that create the sort of accumulation of grievances that might threaten the stability of the one party state.

It is intimately linked to its own vision of how to maintain its power, and to the creation of what it calls its central mission – a rich, proud and strong country in the next decade.

This stark possibility means that China’s commitment to combatting climate change is very unlikely to weaken or change. It is intimately linked to its own vision of how to maintain its power, and to the creation of what it calls its central mission – a rich, proud and strong country in the next decade. Having polluted cities and ill, resentful inhabitants would be a massive barrier to achieving this goal.

That it has such domestic importance is a good thing for the rest of the world. While Trump in Washington can dismiss the lobbying of most groups around needing to combat climate change, it is unlikely he will be able to push away the intercession of his largest trading and economic partner. China has unique leverage here. And the fact that its president, Xi, draws such a strong link between his domestic prosperity and addressing this issue is a good thing. It means that he has, and will, continue to support not just China, but America and the rest of the world in their efforts to fight climate change. This, above all else, is why the Chinese position on this issue is unlikely to change, and is sustainable.

Featured Image: A solar farm in Xinjiang. China has pledged to generate 20% energy from sources that are not fossil fuel, including solar, by 2030. © Gilles Sabrié

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About the Authors

Kerry Bown (left) is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London. Benjamin Barratt (right) is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Environment at the Lau China Institute and in the Division of Analytical and Environmental Sciences at King’s. [/ms-protect-content]