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Is China taking climate change more seriously than the West?

The country has shown that there is an authoritarian path through the climate crisis. We need to follow the democratic one

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
13 October 2021, 12.00am
Roads became rivers in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou following torrential downpours in July
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Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

On 20 July, 20 centimetres of rain fell on Zhengzhou in a single hour. Normally, annual rainfall in the capital of Henan province in central China is 60 centimetres. Almost as much as that fell during that one day. Subway lines were submerged. Roads became rivers. More than 300 people died, 50 are missing and around ten million were affected by the ferocity of flooding. So far, the financial cost is estimated at around $12.7bn.

A Chinese reporter, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the floods were followed by a wave of media coverage, not just about effects, but also about causes. “In China, we can’t really go into the street and protest,” she tells me from Shanghai, but there has been a drive “from the bottom up” to take climate change seriously.

“There are foundations, they write articles, they submit to the government – a lot of people raise awareness in China’s media. You have more stories, better coverage, experts writing […] There’s been more and more discussion on social media.”

More and more journalists are addressing environmental issues, she says. A few years ago, when she worked for a major Chinese newspaper, she was one of the few reporters interested in the subject. At a recent workshop on how to cover climate change, she was amazed by the number of attendees – “especially younger journalists,” she adds.

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She says “it’s been hard work over the last decade” to shift public opinion on climate change. But it does appear to be working.

China is responsible for around half of global coal production. In part because of this, and more simply, because it’s the world’s most populous country, it now produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other country – in total, around 27% of the global total (though its per-capita emissions are about half those of the US).

But the country is also victim to many of the brutal consequences of global heating. The Himalayan glaciers whose meltwater feeds the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers are shrinking, threatening to disrupt water systems that supply hundreds of millions.

The Gobi desert is the fastest-growing arid area in the world, swallowing up more than 3,600 square kilometres of grassland a year. Sea level rises threaten the vast portion of the country’s wealth which teeters on its south-eastern coast. Nearly 80% of Chinese people are either ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about climate change, according to one major poll.

China’s climate pledges

At the failed Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009 (COP15), the Chinese government got much of the blame for the disaster. A dozen years on, things seem a little different. Last month, President Xi announced that his government would stop building coal-fired power stations overseas, closing the lid on the world’s biggest pot of public money for new coal – Chinese financing was involved in 13% of the coal power capacity operational or under development between 2013 and mid-2019. Japan and South Korea have made similar pledges in recent months, meaning that all of the main public financiers of coal have closed their coffers to the most polluting of fuels.

A year ago, Xi committed China to peaking domestic carbon by 2030, and becoming carbon neutral by 2060. As a result, the country introduced an emissions-trading scheme at the start of 2021, which will regulate 2,200 companies in the power sector, which between them are responsible for 40% of China’s emissions.

The country is currently in the process of developing its 14th five-year plan, and its strategy for meeting its carbon targets. This includes a commitment to cut the amount of carbon produced per kilowatt-hour of electricity it produces by 65% by 2030.

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According to my contact, this change hasn’t just been driven from the bottom up – but is also thanks to President Xi himself. “This will be this government’s heritage for the country. Xi has a very strong commitment. Even a few years ago, they were still saying Western countries want to put pressure on China.” But Xi Jinping, who has been president since 2013, “wants China to be the leader in the world”, she says.

Speaking from an office in Shanghai, she says that many of the environmental organisations she talks to have been surprised to see the Chinese government completely adopt their plans. Most climate experts in China expect that the country will meet its targets, as long as the government remains committed.

There is some justification for their confidence. As my colleague Laurie Macfarlane pointed out last year, China has spent more on greening its economy in recent years than the EU and US combined. Also, “out of the 425,000 electric buses that exist worldwide today, 421,000 are in China – the US accounts for a mere 300.”

Authoritarian capitalism

We need to see all of this in a broader context. As Laurie reported, the start of the COVID outbreak brought with it “the single largest change in capital markets in anybody’s lifetime”, as Western investors “piled into Chinese government bonds on an unprecedented scale”.

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government and civil society sent PPE to countries in Europe and in the Global South. In 1985, 70% of people in China lived in absolute poverty. Today, it’s 0.6%.

The country’s distinct form of authoritarian capitalism means that, when the government puts its mind to something, it tends to achieve it. Perhaps the biggest lever it has for this is the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), which reports directly to China’s state council and, as Laurie put it, “owns and controls the firms that oversee the commanding industrial heights of the Chinese economy”.

To put some numbers on it, “The companies under [SASAC] control have combined assets of $26tn and revenue of more than $3.6tn – more than the GDP of the United Kingdom – making it the largest economic entity in the world.”

In January this year, SASAC said that an array of its companies had “announced their timeline for achieving corporate carbon neutrality and increasing their clean energy installed power capacity to contribute to the national goal, which analysts said was in line with the government's pledge to make the country carbon neutral by 2060.”

China’s is a more serious commitment than many of the flimsy targets of Western states

On the one hand, this isn’t enough: the world needs to be carbon neutral by 2050, not 2060. On the other hand, it’s a more serious commitment, with more actual action attached, than many of the flimsy targets of Western states.

A similar set-up in the UK would be if the government had controlling stakes in AstraZeneca, BP, HSBC, Rio Tinto, Shell and Unilever, and forced them to produce plans to reduce their carbon emissions to zero over the next 40 years. In reality, the UK government does own more than half of the shares in the Royal Bank of Scotland, and has required the company to do no such thing.

Of course, there are important questions about the viability of China’s plan: to what extent is it just ‘offshoring’ its emissions to other countries, as it moves its factories to states further down the income chain? How will they respond when they realise that carbon cuts conflict with consumer-led growth? What will happen to it as China is engulfed in a major debt crisis? But, unlike most of the West, it is, at least, a serious plan.

The Chinese story is an important one, not just because it is in some ways positive, but also because it is in many ways negative. The same regime that is pushing down carbon emissions is also committing genocide against Uyghur people and brutally suppressing much of its population. We need to negotiate our path away from free market-driven climate breakdown by deepening our democracy and protecting everyone’s rights. Because the alternative is a grim authoritarianism.

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