How green is China?

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How green is China?

It seems that China has changed from the world’s environmental ‘baddie’ to its ‘hero’. But the situation is more complicated, says Ma Tianjie.


A fisher near solar panels in Yangzhou. China is now world's hero for renewable energy. Meng Delong/Getty

In past years the Beijing smog covered the city but in early December 2017 it was not there. Usually, when large parts of north China turn on their central heating in November, the extra coal makes the air pollution worse. Not in 2017. The capital city had such fresh air that researchers said China was ‘winning’ its war on pollution.

But 60 kilometres southwest of Beijing, the situation was not so good. In the suburb of Zhuozhou, Hebei province, villagers were worried as they waited for their new gas heating system to work as the temperature went down to seven degrees below zero. The government had put in the new gas heating very quickly to replace coal furnaces. But there were many technical problems and a bigger problem: not enough natural gas. So some households quietly turned on the coal furnaces. Others had freezing cold nights.

‘Ecological civilization’

The change from coal to gas was an important part of the Chinese government’s action to end north China’s smog. And the end of 2017 was an important deadline: nobody could say no. The little coal furnaces must stay, even if it meant freezing nights for villagers.

China’s decision to move away from coal is probably one of the few pieces of good news in the world’s efforts to avoid the worst of climate change. In a very short time, the Chinese government says the use of coal dropped from 72 per cent in 2005 to 59 per cent in 2018; at the same time, wind power has grown 173 times, nuclear 5.4 times, and solar energy from almost nothing to 170 gigawatts (GW) a year.

Experts say that China’s carbon emissions will reach a peak far ahead of its Paris Agreement commitment of 2030. As the US, under President Trump, withdraws from climate leadership, China’s actions are giving us some certainty.

The change for China from the world’s environmental ‘baddie’ to its ‘hero’ in a few years is the result of terrible pollution. This led to the green ideas of President Xi Jinping himself. He is probably the first Chinese leader to talk about the idea of the environment as something valuable for the nation: he said that ‘green mountains are really gold mountains’. In 2018, the idea of ‘ecological civilization’ became very important: it was part of the constitution. At the same time, the central government was changed to match Xi’s idea to protect China’s natural resources.

Environmentalism from above

Chinese environmental policies did not start with Xi Jinping. In the years before he was leader, there was an idea that the environment was not so much a political problem and that it could be for experimenting with ideas like being open about information and people making decisions together.

But Xi’s green ideas are different. They are more centrally controlled. In the past few years, the Party’s disciplinary arm has run environmental campaigns. It stopped thousands of government officials for negligence and other offences. Government prosecutors bring public-interest litigation more than NGOs. In a 2013 Politburo meeting, Xi spoke about a system with clear rewards and punishments to bring an ‘ecological civilization’.

China’s environmental programme relies mostly on the state for results. But sometimes there are too many other problems for the bureaucracy to think about. And the rest of society doesn’t have the motivation to sustain the environmental progress. This is very different from the United States. There state and non-federal environmental actions may continue to work for the country’s environmental plans when Washington is doing nothing about the climate.

Many governments are trying and finding it difficult to do things and they may envy China’s state control. But China’s way of doing things can lead to poor decisions. The mistake with the fast change from coal to gas led China to stop the idea in July 2019.

Getting things done

Weak public opinion is also a problem when it comes to climate change, especially when there are problems like air pollution. Chinese public support of climate actions is often weak. They think ‘low-carbon development’ is positive, as that’s what the government has been selling for years, but they also leave a lot of the decision making on climate to the government.

China has been quite successful so far in slowing emissions, after a period when they were the same between 2014-17. But emissions have started rising again because of new spending in infrastructure to stop an economic slowdown.

Then there are areas where what Chinese consumers want and not state control will decide carbon emissions. More and more rich Chinese consumers prefer bigger houses and bigger cars, two problems for climate scientists. SUV sales in China were higher than smaller cars for the first time in the second half of 2012. The sales have increased, as middle-class consumers want ‘American lifestyles’.

One world, two systems

As the country likes clean air, green forests, and plenty of coastal waters, it pushes those same problems out of its borders. China has quickly become the world’s largest financier and builder of coal-power plants overseas. Chinese financial institutions and corporations are funding about 102 gigawatts of coal-power plants overseas. This is close to the total electricity use of Italy. This is very different from what’s happening at home in China. In early 2017, the government cancelled or postponed 120 gigawatts of coal-power construction. This worries environmentalists. In April 2018, ahead of the 2nd Belt and Road Forum, Chinese NGOs called on the government to ban overseas coal financing unless there are no other ways to meet demand.

But cutting down coal use at home and increasing coal use abroad is not a contradiction under Xi’s ecological nationalism. The state-owned businesses that lose on their coal plants in China are paid by a Chinese state that is doing all it can to export its coal technologies abroad. In the same way, there are strict fishery regulations at home but a strong deep-water fishery fleet on the high seas, and introducing a ban on natural forest logging, which makes timber traders look elsewhere. Exporting industries bad for the environment abroad and cutting them at home are ways to make the nation strong. This is what drives China’s environmental policy and not the idea of protecting the global environment.

About 10 years ago, at an environmental meeting in Washington DC, someone asked the environmental scholars: ‘Really, aren’t you all just thankful that China has the one-child policy?’ Ten years later, there are very good parts in China’s green plans. But when the world is thankful for China’s green leadership, it must be careful what exactly it is thankful for.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)