How green is China?

China has ostensibly transformed from the world’s environmental ‘baddie’ to its ‘poster child’. But the reality on the ground is more complicated, argues Ma Tianjie 

A fisher catches crayfish near a canopy of solar panels in Yangzhou. China has quickly become the world's poster-child for renewables. Meng Delong/Getty

In early December 2017, the notorious Beijing smog that had, in previous years, shrouded the city in a state of ‘airpocalypse’ was nowhere to be found. Normally, when large parts of north China turn on their central heating around November, the additional coalburning exacerbates air pollution in the region. Not in 2017. The capital city enjoyed such an extensive period of crisp, fresh air that researchers declared China was ‘winning’ its war on pollution.

But 60 kilometres southwest of Beijing, the situation was anything but celebratory. In the suburb of Zhuozhou, Hebei province, villagers were anxiously waiting for their new gas-powered heating system to work as the temperature sank to seven degrees below zero. The hastily installed devices, which were meant to replace coal furnaces, faced all kinds of technical glitches as well as a more fatal problem: a shortage of natural gas. Disappointed, some households stealthily turned on the coal furnaces. Others had to endure freezing cold nights.

‘Ecological civilization’

The shift from coal to gas was a key part of the Chinese government’s effort to rid north China of its notorious smog. And the end of 2017 was a critical deadline: nobody could object. The goodbye to little coal furnaces was non-negotiable, even if it meant freezing nights for villagers.

China’s decisive move away from coal as a primary source of energy is probably one of the few pieces of good news in terms of humankind’s efforts to avoid the worst of climate change. In a remarkably short time span, coal’s share of China’s energy pie dropped from 72 per cent in 2005 to 59 per cent in 2018; at the same time, wind power has grown 173 fold, nuclear 5.4 fold and solar energy from virtually nothing to producing 170 gigawatts (GW) a year, according to government figures.

Experts are predicting that China’s carbon emissions will peak well ahead of its Paris Agreement commitment of 2030. As the US, under President Trump, withdraws from climate leadership, China’s actions are providing the global community with a level of certainty and confidence.

The transformation of China from the world’s environmental ‘baddie’ to its ‘poster child’ in a matter of years is both the result of catastrophic pollution (‘airpocalypse’) leading to national soul-searching and the top-down enforcement of a green vision held by President Xi Jinping himself. Compared to his predecessors, whose environmentalism was mainly rhetorical, Xi’s is much more advanced. He is probably the first Chinese leader to articulate an environmentalism that is built upon the idea of nature as a ‘national asset’: he famously opined that ‘green mountains are essentially gold mountains’.

In 2018, the concept of ‘ecological civilization’ was elevated to unprecedented heights: it was written into the constitution. At the same time, the entire central government structure was reconfigured to match Xi’s view that China’s natural resources and ecological wellbeing should be carefully protected and managed.

Environmentalism from above

Chinese environmental policymaking did not, of course, begin with Xi Jinping. In the years before his ascent to leadership, there was a notion that the environmental field, less politically sensitive than other domains, could serve as a ‘lab’ for experimenting with ideas like information transparency and participatory decisionmaking.

The thinking was that these ideas could be tested in an area less threatening to the Communist Party’s core concerns before being rolled out to wider applications. In the early 2000s, China’s environmental policy area saw the trial of public hearings about Environmental Impact Assessments, the introduction of progressive freedom of information rules and the expansion of judicial access to communities affected by environmental degradation.

But Xi’s green turn is different: its realization is more reliant on centrally controlled, top-down mechanisms. In the past few years, the most visible environmental campaigns have been run by the Party’s disciplinary arm, detaining thousands of government officials for negligence and other offences. Public-interest litigation, a key tool for holding environmental violators to account, is now brought more by government prosecutors than by NGOs. In a 2013 Politburo meeting, Xi stressed an appraisal system with clear indicators, rewards and punishments as the ‘most crucial’ to realizing an ‘ecological civilization’.

This brand of environmentalism can be effective, to an extent. As scholar Bruce Gilley noted in his paper on China’s ‘Authoritarian Environmentalism’, the model is good at producing ‘outputs’ rather than ‘outcomes’: ‘rapid-fire’ environmental laws and regulations from the top down delivers short-term, low-hanging fruit results, but the lack of extensive deliberation may undermine long-term implementation.

The nature of China’s environmental programme means it almost entirely relies on the efficacy of an expansive state machinery to deliver results. But the bureaucracy can be distracted or overwhelmed by other priorities, while the rest of society lacks the motivation to sustain these environmental gains. (There is a common phenomenon of ‘compensation pollution’ when, after a period of production restrictions are lifted, industries produce excessively to compensate for the previous loss.) This is in contrast to the United States, where state and non-federal level environmental initiatives may continue to shape the country’s environmental path at a time when Washington retreats from climate commitments.

Even though China’s elaborate state machinery may be the envy of many governments struggling to ‘get things done’, its non-participatory way of doing business can lead to poor decisionmaking. The error with the rapid coal-to-gas transformation – authorities miscalculated available gas supplies – led to it being officially aborted in July this year.

Getting things done

Weak public opinion is also an issue when it comes to climate change, especially when compared to the strong public outcry on more visible issues such as air pollution. Polling done in the past few years tends to show Chinese public support of climate actions to be ‘shallow’. They generally view ‘low-carbon development’ in a positive light, as that’s what the government has been selling for years, but they also defer much of the decisionmaking on climate policies to the government, showing a reluctance to make substantial contributions to the cause.

Pushing for positive climate action requires a level of intellectual investment that most members of the public, including journalists, are not ready to make. This problem looks worse in light of the current data: even though China has been relatively successful so far in slowing emissions growth, after a period of plateauing between 2014-17, emissions have started rising again due to new stimulus spending in infrastructure aimed at staving off an economic slowdown.

Then there are areas where consumption patterns, rather than compliance, will decide emission trajectories. Increasingly affluent Chinese consumers have demonstrated a penchant for bigger houses and bigger cars, two trends that keep climate scientists awake at night. SUV sales in China surpassed those of smaller vehicles for the first time in the second half of 2012 and have since increased, as middle-class consumers get a taste for ‘American lifestyles’. Such behavioural change might be subdued through restrictions but ultimately requires a societal conversation about values and culture.

One world, two systems

Finally, China’s preservation of its environment as a national asset poses a challenge for global governance. As the country, albeit belatedly, embraces and appreciates clean air, green forests and abundant coastal waters, it tends to push those same problems out of its borders. China has quickly become the world’s largest financier and builder of coal-power plants overseas. Based on a recent estimation, Chinese financial institutions and corporations are funding about 102 gigawatts of coal-power plants overseas, which is close to the total electricity capacity of Italy.

This is in stark contrast to what’s happening domestically, where, in early 2017, the government cancelled or mothballed 120 gigawatts of coal-power construction. This contradiction has alarmed environmentalists. In April 2018, ahead of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum, a coalition of Chinese NGOs called on the government to ban overseas coal financing ‘unless no other resources exist to meet demand’.

But cutting down coal consumption at home while building up coal capacities abroad is no contradiction under Xi’s ecological nationalism. The state-owned enterprises that lose out on their coal plants in China are effectively paid off by a Chinese state that is using all available means to export its coal technologies abroad: the resilience of these enterprises is a key part of the ‘national strength’ that the leadership is keen to build up. The same goes for having increasingly strict fishery regulations domestically to preserve the depleted coastal environment while strengthening a formidable deep-water fishery fleet to exploit more efficiently the high seas, and introducing a decisive natural forest logging ban, which turns timber traders to look elsewhere. Exporting environmentally destructive industries abroad and cutting them at home are both means of strengthening the nation – this, rather than any conception of a global commons that needs protecting, is what drives China’s environmentalism.

About 10 years ago, at an environmental seminar in Washington DC, one participant asked a room of environmental scholars: ‘Deep down, aren’t you all just grateful that China implements the one-child policy?’ Ten years later, there are parts of China’s determined green agenda that are worth celebrating. But when the world lauds China’s green leadership, it should be careful of what exactly it is grateful for.