Can China save the planet?

Last week, in one of his first acts as President of the Unites States of America, Joe Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris climate agreement. This is...

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February 2, 2021

Last week, in one of his first acts as President of the Unites States of America, Joe Biden signed an executive order to rejoin the Paris climate agreement. This is marvelous news!
Especially, as the world had lived in suspense with Trump’s denial on climate change and America leaving the Paris commitments in 2017. All environmental eyes were focused on the U.S. election for the past months. But unless we get China to play its role, the world will enter the worst of times this decade – a point of no return. China’s battle to heal its environment is even more urgent and challenging than it is for America or Europe. Therefore, we cannot afford to look away if we still intend to save humanity. Not Biden, but Xi will decide the fate of our planet. We should look towards the East instead of the West to save the earth.

In 2007, President Hu Jintao had already expressed China’s plan to become an ecological society, but it was not until 2012 that this ideal was written in the Party’s Constitution. As Xi Jinping came to power in 2013 the storyline evolved: China’s sovereign right to develop its economy as it seemed fit changed into its responsibility to address the global environmental threats. In 2014 Xi Jinping took his vision and pledge global at the APAC meeting in Beijing and in 2015 he made his most historical speech at the World Climate Change Conference in Paris. Tackling climate change became China’s shared mission to save mankind. At the end of last year, China would set an example for the world by promising that by 2030, it would cut the nation’s carbon emissions per unit of economic output by over 65% and boost the share of renewable energy use to 25%. Three months earlier, Xi Jinping had already assured the United Nations that China would be carbon-neutral by 2060. Considering that today China is still the cause to 26% of CO2 emissions in the world, China’s bold promise could bring the international community closer to achieving the Paris target of keeping global warming below 1,5°C above the pre-industrial levels. The EU is responsible for 7,8% of the world’s carbon emissions, North America is guilty of 15%, and India of 6,7%. We all remember how in 2018 a 15-year-old Swedish climate activist called Greta created a global climate crisis awareness movement with a call to action for politicians all around the world. What far fewer of us appreciate however, is that China is truly the last resort to save our planet, and as such mankind. Without China’s efforts, a hundred Greta Thunberg’s will not be able to save the planet. For that reason alone, we do need to try to comprehend and trust China’s intentions to go green.

Can we trust China to go green?

Can we trust China on its promises? Especially now that the world’s distrust in China is sky high. What does it mean for our future when an authoritarian top-down regime like China sets rules for an ecological society? What does that mean for the more citizen and company inclusive Western ecological model in contrast to China’s coercive environmentalism? Could China abuse its new “clean currency” superpower to pressure the West into submission? Soo many questions. So much fear of the unknown. Should we fear China more than the survival of the planet? Why don’t we start by taking away our fears and think of solutions?

We constantly hear conflicting stories about China’s incredible investment and adoption of clean energy, but at same time building a new coal plant every two weeks and still burning half of the world’s coal. Coal produces 66% of China’s power and covers 57% of China’s energy consumption today. The media reports China’s actions as deceitful, while Chinese celebrate the technological progress of the new coal plants. China is the world’s top climate champion, but does also not want to jeopardize its bold ambitions at the cost of becoming energy dependent of America and its allies. China wants to move at lightning speed, but not without a safety net. New coal plants are replacing the dirty small-scale coal burning plants and should form China’s last investment in coal as solar and wind power will soon become cheaper than coal power. What China as such needs to do, is to build its renewable energy infrastructure fast and at scale to make it pointless to keep running coal power plants.

That is China’s masterplan. It’s not elegant, nor economically sound, to keep investing in coal, but it’s the most pragmatic to achieve both long-term goals and fit short-term needs. Such an ultra-pragmatic target-based Chinese approach however sometimes works so well that it creates additional new problems. Local Chinese governments have faced a lack of energy this winter because they closed too many coal mines to please Beijing. On top of that, the recent fierce China-Australia trade war has put coal export to China to a standstill. Chinese are freezing at home due to political tensions and environmental plans made by the central government. But results are visible. The North of China, had 55 percent of households using clean energy last year, with 28 cities including Beijing as high as 75%. It’s an impressive achievement, but also a very fragile transition to reach 100% clean energy all the time. Without America’s existential threat to try to decouple China from the world, especially potentially cutting China off from imports of oil, Beijing would probably not want to retain the country’s main abundant fossil fuel – coal. The dichotomy between China’s independence from the world’s energy supply and accountability on its global commitments is a straddle.

China’s obsession with targets

This reveals how the Chinese government makes change happen. Targets are the best tool for governing a vast, complex and diverse nation through a centralized system. This 2500-year-old bureaucratic accountability model evaluates local government officials based on clear set of metrics to get promotions and demotions, and in worst case, lose their jobs. In the past, the sole performance targets for local governments were directly linked to growth and social stability; but since 2017, environmental targets would outweigh economic growth in China’s five years plan. Target-setting has always been China’s modus operandi to realize projects on schedule. Their dogmatic trust in data and scientists however resulted often in local governments to overinvest, resort to short-term fixes and lead to corruption to reach the target numbers set in the Capital. It is after all what caused China’s fast environmental decline in the first place - to maintain growth numbers.

But in 2020, Xi Jinping did not only wage a war on pollution, but also corruption. Through environmental campaigns, citizen complaint hotlines, unannounced inspections, forceful crackdowns and environment courts, Beijing is now better equipped to enforce regulations over the whole country. Corruption is wielded out with iron fist under Chairman Xi. Targets are of course not unique to China, as over 100 countries out of 196 signatory members signed the Paris Climate Agreement to be carbon-zero by 2050. Even going beyond global warming, most countries seek to reverse the destruction of nature by meeting clear biodiversity and pollution targets. The difference with China’s administration is that this top-down coercive target-model has been perfected so well over the centuries that Chinese are even known to achieve their targets sooner than planned. Could this be what we need right now to save the planet from global warming?

There is a lot to be said about how state-led environmental campaigns and crackdowns have badly and arbitrarily affected lower-value industries, factories and farms. Questions can also be raised in the manner how, in the name of global sustainable development goals, China has appropriated massive areas of nature. Since 1990, China planted over 500 thousand square kilometers of new forests, built five of the world’s ten biggest hydropower dams, and took 70% of the world’s poor out of extreme poverty. These admirable mega-projects made China the fastest growing ‘ecological and inclusive’ nation in the world. Such vast initiatives however did coerce many rural citizens to relocate to new cities, caused loss of biodiversity and endangered species to make place for monocultural forests, affected the rich cultural heritage and lifestyle of some ethnic minorities, and disrupted major natural ecosystems by opening up to eco- or ethno-tourism. How do we calculate the trade-off between protecting nature versus culture? How do we value China’s most impressive environmental protection track record against the future risks of losing legacy and habitats?

Action or awareness first?

This deliberation is primarily made by the technocratic leadership in Beijing that attempts to re-engineer nature with copy-paste ecological policies in order to reach China’s ambitious goals. Western commentators often draw attention to the heartless Chinese authoritarian power whereby the means justifies the end. Although it raises a valid concern, the world is also facing a doomsday scenario where climate change could bring about the end of our habitat as we know it. Are we not concerned that in 2021 the hands of the Doomsday Clock remain at 100 seconds to midnight, as close to midnight as ever? If we are to enter our final countdown this decade, could the left-brained Chinese politicians who rely more on science and data, and able to act swiftly and change people’s behavior also become our last resort? Does 100 seconds still give us enough time to gather broad enough citizens consensus and create public awareness about the environment to empower our Western democratic elected politicians to take more unpopular actions?

If the handling of the covid-19 crisis is any reference, it does not feel too reassuring. Shouldn’t all of our politicians be seriously worried and start to act more than talk? A year ago, no Western politician would have ever thought that we too could put a population in lockdown, force all people to wear masks and invade their privacy when checking on people’s whereabouts? But we did, because we had to.

The question is whether the environmental crisis needs more action or awareness first?

It would however be a mistake to believe that the Chinese government does not have the general population’s support for its actions – quite the contrary. But despite China’s public awareness of the environment, Chinese citizens generally speaking consider it the task of the government alone to protect the environment. It does not mean that Chinese citizens are not engaged, but besides purchasing masks or air purifiers, most of their actions are government-mandated such as planting trees, sorting garbage, buy an electrical vehicle or carry your own chopsticks; or for the less fortunate, relocate to make place for a hydro dam or national park. This is not so strange considering grassroots climate protests as we see in the West are not the ideal way to make change happen in China’s authoritarian regime. In the West, young generations all around the world have partaken in the “Fridays for Future” climate protests. The majority of protesters felt worried, frustrated, angered, hopeless and despair – the “Greta” effect.

In China, over the past 2 decades, Beijing has launched big initiatives to propagate sustainable production and consumption. In contrast with the West, China’s storyline is one of hope and trust, not despair and distrust. A message to create a “sustainable future” and “harmonious society” with initiatives such as “Environment Risk Management Initiative”, “Green Belt and Road” and “Sustainable Economic Zones” and “Green Cities”. It is political in nature, but not trivial. The net result is that while many Western youngsters feel more “responsible” to do something about the environment than China, the young Chinese feel more “empowered” to help the government do something about the environment. Despite the political power Beijing has to coerce people, they need much less effort to motivate their citizens to act. By means of what we can call consultative authoritarianism, Beijing has a good feel for what lives amongst its citizens in order to activate their contribution when and where needed. Could the West move its fatalistic ecology story away from guilt and fear into a positive picture of hope and collective power?

Let’s help China save our planet

The tough question we have to be brave enough to ask ourselves is whether our planet still has enough time to afford a liberal democratic debate process that is more transparent, is citizen inclusive, and equal human-rights abiding. As we look at how Western countries managed the covid-19 virus so far, the Chinese model looks appealing to save the planet from a major environmental crisis. As we just discovered, to handle a crisis, we can learn a lot from countries like China that have a more coercive, decisive governance as well as a much more collectively responsible society. The answer for the West is definitively not to evolve towards an autocratic type of governance, but such hypothetical concern should not prevent us from learning any good practices coming from China to tackle climate change. And let’s not fool ourselves; the environmental crisis is a crisis of a magnitude much bigger than COVID-19, as we won’t develop a vaccine when the planet’s natural ecosystem is broken. So, let’s avoid the same mistake as we did with COVID-19 to not want to learn from China because we did not trust their approach – which we replicated anyhow once the virus became a global pandemic.

But on the other hand, the West is much more likely than China to go beyond quick fixing of the environment; and truly change the behavior of citizens and corporations to genuinely care more about our shared future. As such, China could also benefit to learn from our consultation-based public-participation driven model to make environmental protection the final responsibility of all of us, not just that of the government. What the West could do is to help China realize how to make sustainability interdependent with broader social consensus of public awareness.

My plea for the West is not to focus only on what China is doing wrong when it comes to climate change, but think about how we could help China to be more consistent, prudent, sustainable and consensus-driven. That means listening and coaching China to do even better, maybe even better than us. We could invite Chinese think tanks and academics to the West to learn about how to create constructive, non-threatening bottom-up citizen behavior change. We want China to be more transparent and collaborative by involving Western academics, anthropologists and Environmental NGOs to fight the war on climate change all together, not a war amongst us. After all, managing the environment is becoming a global threat we have to tackle all together before the planet becomes unlivable. “You may say I’m a dreamer”, but as John Lennon sang, “I am not the only one”.

Pascal Coppens
Pascal Coppens
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February 2, 2021