What we need to learn from China and India if we want to save our planet

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February 28, 2023

Did you know that if China or India emitted as much greenhouses gasses as Europe or America did in the past, we would never be able to save our planet from global warming? The United States (25%) and the EU-28 with the U.K. (22%) have so far been responsible for twice as much CO2 emissions as China (11,7%) and seven times as much as India (3,4%). In 2021 China emitted 8,73 tonnes per person (pp) and India 1,9 tonnes pp as compared to 14,2 tonnes pp for the United States and 6,25 tonnes pp for the EU-27. That seems very unfair, right? But that matters very little if we are to create a sustainable and livable planet for all humans.

As the factory of the world, China is responsible for one third of the total global annual CO2 emissions. India is the third largest CO2 polluter (7%) and had the world’s largest emission increase (6%) in 2022. Both China (56%) and India (74%) still rely heavily on coal for power generation and together they account for 60 per cent of global coal use. On top of that, more than 70% of growth in global electricity demand is predicted to come from China, India and Southeast Asia in the next three years.

So that explains my seemingly bold statement that we are not going to save the (biodiversity of) our planet, if China and India do not reduce their carbon emissions.

That is also why so many believe that China and India are really to blame for the world’s climate change. Shifting the responsibility of the global north onto China and India as justification to take no action has even become a self-fulfilling prophecy of climate change deniers. But it’s time that we become a little more critical about that. Given all the products we import from China or India, the carbon emissions released in those countries are as much our responsibility as theirs. Instead of finding a culprit for the climate problem we should look at the initiatives China and India are taking to mitigate climate change and learn from their successes.

Existential urgencies

I used to live in Shanghai for the two decades prior to 2017 and can assure you that there was little need to build awareness around the city’s problems caused by polluters. Back then, our daughter’s school was sometimes closed because the air quality was simply too bad. The same things happened in India. New Delhi has topped the most polluted city in the world for the past four years. Every year, each country has 1 million casualties caused by air pollution.

Rural areas in both countries are just as much affected by climate change. In 2023, China experienced the worst drought on record, affecting millions, damaging crops and limiting drinking water. While at the same time other places in China experienced terrible floods and landslides. In India and neighboring Pakistan, we have seen these same floods displacing and killing millions. Extreme rainfalls in India have tripled over the past 70 years while the total amount of rainfall keeps dropping every year. This creates water security issues and unpredictability for 70% of Indian households. The human cost to climate change in both China and India is looming large over the existence of a culture of 5,000 years. No wonder that Chinese and Indians expect their respective governments to act now. This is why both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi are committed to reach carbon neutrality as fast as they can: China by 2060 and India by 2070.

Effective Statecraft

But China and India seem like two opposing worlds when it comes to political governance. India is seen as the world’s largest democracy. China is seen as a one-party state autocracy. That said, both country’s leaders Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi have much more in common than we might think.

First of all, their resemblance as leaders is most visible through the extraordinary cult of personality built around them. They both experienced hardships living amongst the underprivileged and common people. They experienced a quite similar rise to the top, both emerging as ‘honest, just and tough administrators. Both leaders are unforgiving towards corruption or abuse of power. Their leadership unites the majority of their nation’s population with a sense of cultural pride and economic nationalism.

Both statesmen enjoy a strongly centralized and consolidated power through a bureaucratic model that gave them unprecedented influence in their nation’s policy making. Xi and Modi both seek to develop their respective countries through collective hardship and the optimism of 1.4 billion people to gain a better, more fair and sustainable prosperity and society. As a result, both leaders hold the trust of hundreds of millions of citizens far beyond their own party members and that enables them to launch and realize bold, large and visionary environmental projects. We must dare to ask ourselves this controversial question: whether our planet would allow us enough time if Xi or Modi would hold a much less autocratic power to govern on the one hand or think more like a climate denier such as Trump on the other?

China’s green factory

While Western leaders and media talk non-stop about sustainability and the need to quickly transition to a green economy, we have to acknowledge that in reality China is dominating all the renewable energy sectors. China is the world’s biggest producer, seller, buyer, patent owner and controlling power of green products and supply chains. China contributes globally well above 45% (up to 80%) of the following: newly added solar-, wind-, hydrogen- and hydropower capacity, photovoltaic panel supply chains, rare earth metals, graphite, lithium-ion battery production and refining, electrical vehicles sold, EV charging stations… China’s overwhelming success and future as the green factory of the world can be contributed first and foremost to the industrial policy from Beijing, promoted by president Xi himself.

Western commentators often draw attention to China’s use of ruthless authoritarian power, where the end justifies the means as we have seen during China’s covid lockdowns. While this is a very justified concern, the world is also facing a doomsday scenario because climate change could actually mean the end of our civilization. Paradoxically, China’s authoritarian model could one day become our very last resort if we persevere to decouple from China’s factory and supply chain.

If the world wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, our best bet is to keep relying on China’s green supply chains until at least 2030, while at the same time learn from China’s incredible eco-investments, semi-forceful environmental policies and rapid adoption of clean energy alternatives. Let’s not forget that our planet never picks sides.

Another common scapegoat for global warming is overpopulation. It is hard to deny that more people create more pollution. However, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population is responsible for the consumption of 80 percent of natural resources. If every person on the planet would live like the average American (4,73% of the world’s population), we would need five planets in resources to supply to everyone. Generally speaking, the wealthiest countries and richest people fuel much higher levels of pollution than the global south or poor people. Too many people in the global north feel it is their right to consume more than they actually need. China is as guilty as the West of an acquired privilege to overconsume. This is where India is different.

India’s green mindset

Sustainability is deeply embedded in the Vedic philosophy of Indian culture, values and way of life. Ancient Indian scripts contain some of the earliest messages on ecological balance, how we should only consume according to our needs and how to maintain a virtue of non-attachment to materialistic possessions. In many ways, today India still represents one of the few ancient civilizations that embodies an adaptability to the conditions provided by local resources only. It is not India’s poverty, but rather India’s culture that makes Indians consume only as much as they need – showing respect for nature and mindful consumption. This includes traditional practices such as eating locally grown, seasonal food in order to produce minimum waste; old habits to recycle, upcycle and reuse naturally grown cotton as hand-made fabrics for clothes or blankets; eco-friendly construction of houses built by and for communities; water conservation through harvesting and storage of 4 months per year monsoon rainfall.

80% of Indians, like Narendra Modi, are of Hindu faith. The BJP as largest ruling political party in the world promotes a Hindutva ideology of ‘integral humanism’. That’s a concept based on Mahatma Gandhi’s vision to renounce materialism as the driver of socialism and capitalism as well as reject individualism of modern society, instead favoring traditions and values of conservation and moderation. It is therefore no surprise that Modi, the most popular Indian leader since the nation’s independence in 1947, has been very successful nationwide in promoting strong Hindu values of communities living in harmony with nature and respecting the planet. Now Modi is taking that mindset global. At the end of 2022 he launched the mission ‘Lifestyle for the Environment - LiFE’, an India-led global movement to protect and preserve the environment. He now invites global minds to gather human-centric and collective ideas on engaging people across the globe to adopt a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. India is hereby taking the lead to encourage people to live a lifestyle in tune with the planet – or “Pro-Planet People” as Modi calls them.

Modi has the track record to show for as India has so far done much more than its fair share to address climate change. At the forecasted average annual GDP growth rate of 6,3% this decade, India will become the third largest economy in the world by 2030. It will also experience the world’s highest growth in energy demand during this period. And yet, India seems to be one of the only G20 countries that is on track to reach its climate goals under the Paris Agreement by 2030 with a national target to reduce its carbon intensity by 45% and achieve a 50% renewable energy capacity.

Modi states that during his 8-year leadership India increased its renewable energy capacity by 300%, its forest cover has grown by over 20,000 square km and it doubled its tigers population. Pretty impressive. But what made Indians trust Modi even more are his endeavors to help the poor in India: the 20 million families that today have a house instead of living outdoors, the 400 million people that are financially included, or the 200 million people who can now get a loan without any collateral. Because Modi has positively changed the lives of millions, he is capable to inspire Indians and unite them for a cause – saving the world. In its new role as G20 chair in 2023, India is set to focus on the climate and serve as the voice for the global south.

China can teach us, India can unite us

China and India have their own extensive environmental challenges, but both countries are committed to making a real difference. They show us two different paths forward that we can learn from. China is one of the best teachers when it comes to policies and incentives to build infrastructure at scale for a sustainable future. This not only helps China reach its own sustainability goals, but provides a supply chain the world can source from for realizing every nation’s energy transition. There is but one condition: The West should not decouple from the green factory of China.

India on the other hand is the best coach we can find to change our mindset and awareness on how to live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. This path helps India towards the collective engagement of hundreds of millions of Pro-Planet People based on a century old wisdom of traditional practices as well as the community-based local knowledge used by its ancestors. One condition: The West should be open-minded to learn from traditions to make a lifestyle shift to live more in balance with nature again. The world could learn much from China’s skills and India’s wisdom to save the planet.

Pascal Coppens
Pascal Coppens
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February 28, 2023