Invent the Future

"We must dare to invent the future" - Thomas Sankara

China, Environment

China leads the way in tackling climate breakdown

Posted by Carlos Martinez on Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Printer-friendly Printer-friendly


We must strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. We will be more conscientious in promoting green, circular, and low-carbon development. We will never again seek economic growth at the cost of the environment. (Xi Jinping)1

The cost of development

Few events in human history have resonated throughout the world as profoundly as the Chinese revolution. Standing in Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1949, pronouncing the birth of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong said “the Chinese people have stood up”. In standing up, in building a modern socialist society and throwing off the shackles of feudalism, colonialism, backwardness, illiteracy and grinding poverty, China has blazed a trail for the entire Global South. Lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty has been described even by ardent capitalists as “the greatest leap to overcome poverty in history”.2

On all key indicators, China has made extraordinary progress since 1949, and its performance has far outstripped other developing countries. Life expectancy now exceeds 76,3 more than double what it was in 1949.4 Adult literacy stands at 97 percent (for 15-24 year olds it’s 100 percent).5 The UN’s World Food Programme website states: “By lifting millions out of hunger, the country met its Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 and reduced the global hunger rate by two thirds.”6 China is on the cusp of having completely eradicated extreme poverty.7 One hundred percent of the population has access to electricity.8 The UN Development Programme (UNDP) describes China’s development as having generated “the most rapid decline in absolute poverty ever witnessed”.9 The scale of these achievements can perhaps be best understood by comparison with India – a neighbouring country with a similar population size and at an equivalent stage of development in 1949. India currently has a life expectancy of 69, a literacy rate of 74 percent, and an electricity access rate of 85 percent.

But in environmental terms, this progress has come at a cost. Just as economic development in Europe and the Americas was fuelled by the voracious burning of fossil fuels, China’s development has been built to a significant degree on ‘Old King Coal’, the most polluting and emissions-intensive of the fossil fuels. In 2010, coal made up around 80 percent of China’s energy mix. Environmental law expert Barbara Finamore notes that “coal, plentiful and cheap, was the energy source of choice, not just for power plants, but also for direct combustion by heavy industry and for heating and cooking in people’s homes.”10

The choice to use coal was not a simple case of ignorance or lack of responsibility; it was a matter of development by any means necessary. China has been able to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty whilst simultaneously establishing itself as a global leader in science and technology. This process required vast energy consumption at minimal expenditure. Schools, hospitals, roads, trains, factories and laboratories all need energy to build and operate. Chinese people now have energy in their homes, powering fridges, lights and washing machines – indispensable components of modern life.

Furthermore, China’s ability to attract foreign investment and learn from US, European and Japanese technology was in no small measure based on turning itself into a manufacturing hub to which the advanced capitalist countries exported their production processes. Martin Jacques observes that “40 per cent of China’s energy goes into producing exports for Western markets, in other words, the source [of China’s greenhouse gas emissions] is multinationals rather than Chinese firms. The West has, in effect, exported part of its own greenhouse emissions to China.”11 The developed countries have been able to “socialise and export the costs of environmental destruction”,12 reducing domestic pollution and emissions whilst maintaining unsustainable levels of consumption.

The choice facing China in the last decades of the 20th century was between economic development with environmental degradation, or underdevelopment with environmental conservation. Western environmentalists can’t reasonably complain about the Chinese people opting for the former. Development is recognised by the UN as a human right.13 Advanced countries fuelled their own industrial revolutions with coal and oil; they bear responsibility for the bulk of currently existing atmospheric greenhouse gases (the US and Europe have contributed to just over half the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions since 1850).14 It would be hypocritical in the extreme for these countries to tell poor countries that they don’t have the right to develop, to feed, clothe, house and educate people. If advanced countries want developing countries to leapfrog fossil fuel-based development, the primary responsibility is on them to provide the technology and the finance – which principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is recognised in the various international agreements on limiting climate change, but which has yet to manifest itself in reality.

Changing priorities

That said, China now faces very serious environmental problems. It overtook the US as the biggest overall emitter of carbon dioxide in 200715 (although its per capita emissions are less than a third of the world’s worst culprit, Canada).16 Martin Jacques writes that, as a result of China having “torn from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first century in little more than three decades”, it has worked up “a huge ecological deficit of two centuries accumulated in just a few decades: growing water shortages, over three-quarters of river water that is unsuitable either for drinking or fishing, 300 million people lacking access to clean drinking water, rampant deforestation, sixteen of the world’s twenty worst-polluted cities, acid rain affecting a third of Chinese territory, desert covering a quarter of the country, and 58 per cent of land classified as arid or semi-arid.”17

Even without the last few decades of rapid industrialisation, China is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to the World Food Programme, China is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, with up to 200 million people exposed to the effects of droughts and floods.18 Already, pre-climate breakdown, hundreds of thousands have to be evacuated every summer in response to flooding in the Pearl River Delta.19 High levels of air pollution in the major cities are a massive health issue for the population. Judith Shapiro observes that “China is poorly endowed with farmable land and its water resources are unevenly distributed both geographically and seasonally. It has nearly a quarter of the world’s population but only five percent of its water resources and seven percent of its arable land… China’s per capita water resources are already among the lowest in the world, at just one-fourth of the world average.”20

Environmental issues have thus become a top priority for China. Over the last decade in particular, the Chinese political leadership has focussed its attentions on transitioning to a green model of development in order both to contribute to the global fight against climate breakdown and immediately improve the wellbeing of the Chinese people. Barbara Finamore notes that Xi Jinping’s administration has significantly accelerated efforts to “transform its economic structure from one reliant on fossil fuel-driven heavy industry and manufacturing to one based on services, innovation, clean energy, and environmental sustainability.”21 Chinese policy-makers have started to de-emphasise GDP growth and to encourage green development, whereby “living standards continue to rise, but in a way that is much less energy and carbon intensive.”22 The goal is to construct “an energy and resource efficient, environmentally friendly structure of industries, pattern of growth, and mode of consumption.”23 In her popular 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State, economist Mariana Mazzucato notes approvingly that China more than any other country is prioritising clean technologies “as part of a strategic vision and long-term commitment to economic growth.”24

In his widely-read volume of speeches and articles, The Governance of China, Xi Jinping puts forward a comprehensive outline of China’s commitments in relation to the environment:

“China will respect and protect nature, and accommodate itself to nature’s needs. It will remain committed to the basic state policy of conserving resources and protecting the environment. It will promote green, circular and low-carbon development, and promote ecological progress in every aspect of its effort to achieve economic, political, cultural and social progress. China will also develop a resource-efficient and environmentally friendly geographical layout, industrial structure, mode of production and way of life, and leave to our future generations a working and living environment of blue skies, green fields and clean water.”25

The leadership’s increasing focus on environmental issues reflects a growing concern among the public, especially now that China, while still a ‘developing country’, is no longer poor. GDP growth has become less of a priority for hundreds of millions of Chinese. “In terms of social conditions and public opinions, with the gradual improvement of people’s lives, there is a fundamental change of social mentality from ‘satisfying basic needs’ to ‘pursuing environmental protection’, from ‘seeking survival’ to ‘seeking ecology.’”26

Decarbonisation

“The world has never before seen a climate programme on this scale… China has stepped up its climate leadership dramatically in recent years, and is now increasingly seen as filling the leadership void left by the US.” (Fred Krupp, Environmental Defence Fund president)27

In order to avert climate breakdown, humans need to find ways to meet their needs without releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The key to this is decarbonising our energy systems – moving to a ‘steady state’ ecosystem where we derive all the energy we need to power our lives from non-fossil sources. As part of commitments made at the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, China pledged to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. On the basis of its current trajectory, its emissions will likely peak several years earlier than that.28

Cutting out coal

The most urgent priority for China is to rein in its coal use. Carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy generated are twice as high for coal as for natural gas, and the air pollution impact is an order of magnitude higher. This project is very much underway: over the last decade, China has been able to reduce coal’s share in the power mix from 80 percent to 60 percent,29 meaning that its coal use is now on a par with that of Australia – a country which could and should have begun its low-carbon transition decades ago.30 In 2017, China’s National Energy Administration cancelled plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants, in order to divert power generation efforts into the renewable sector. This will eliminate 120 gigawatts of future coal-fired capacity.31 Beijing closed its last coal-fired plant in 2017.32 One particularly symbolic project is a giant floating solar farm – the largest in the world – on top of a former coal mine in Anhui.33 Datong, China’s “coal capital” is seeking to put its coal reserves to better use: producing hydrogen for use in emissions-free hydrogen-powered vehicles and electricity storage.34

The drop in coal consumption has already had a noticeable impact in the big cities. The New York Times observed that, in the period from 2014 to 2018, Chinese cities cut concentrations of atmospheric fine particulates by an average of 34 percent.35 Progress over the past few years has been so impressive that Beijing is expected to be removed from the list of the world’s top 200 most-polluted cities towards the end of 2019.36

Investing in renewables

While reducing its use of coal, China is rapidly becoming the first “renewable energy superpower”,37 responsible for 32 percent of global renewable energy investment last year,38 creating millions of green energy jobs along the way.39 Out of 11 million jobs in the renewables industry worldwide, over four million are in China (compared to 118,000 in Britain).40 The Chinese government has set itself the target of getting renewable energy sources (including solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower) to 30 percent of its total energy mix by 2020.41 Non-fossil energy sources are set to supply 50% of China’s electric power generation by 2030.42

China has been the world’s largest producer of solar panels since 2009, and it now accounts for around 70 percent of global solar panel production, with a generating capacity of 43 gigawatts.43 China’s investment in solar power research and development has been so extensive (approximately doubling year-on-year for the last few years)44 as to push down prices worldwide to a level where solar is increasingly competitive with fossil fuels.45 China’s solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity is expected to reach around 210 gigawatts by 2020, double the target laid down in the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) and approximately five times the PV capacity of the US.46 The list of biggest solar parks in the world is dominated by China.47 The International Energy Association (IEA) estimates that solar PV in China could reach a total of 320 GW by 2022 – equivalent to Japan’s total electricity capacity. “Every hour, China now erects another wind turbine, and installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field.”48

The People’s Republic has also been pushing forward in wind power, installing nearly half of the 63 gigawatts of wind power added globally in 2015.49 The International Renewable Energy Agency noted that, between 2007 and 2011, China installed more wind capacity than the US had installed in over three decades of wind power development.50 One out of every three installed wind turbines in the world can be found in China. China’s sustained investment in renewable energy has meant a global reduction in cost51 – this is a profound contribution to the green development revolution worldwide.

China is also leading the world in research and development on renewable energy. One of the most important challenges facing widespread adoption of renewables is transmission of variable power from point of production to point of use. Environmental expert Mike Berners-Lee notes that “China is investing in huge transmission lines to move electricity from one end of its country to the other. There are losses on the way but it is an increasingly doable exercise.”52 Chinese scientists have recently developed the world’s first prototype of a superconducting hybrid power line. The full-scale version will transmit energy from one side of the country to the other with zero resistance.53

Nuclear power

Meanwhile China is leading research into next-generation nuclear power technology, which promises to be safer and to produce less radioactive waste than currently-available nuclear power stations.54 Nuclear energy is of course highly controversial, especially in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.55 The question of whether nuclear power has a significant long-term role to play in meeting human energy needs is beyond the scope of this article. However, premature phasing out of nuclear power (as is happening in Germany and Sweden) before it can be immediately replaced with solar or wind energy seems decidedly shortsighted. As David Wallace-Wells points out in The Uninhabitable Earth, “Already, more than 10,000 people die from air pollution daily. That is considerably more each day than the total number of people who have ever been affected by the meltdowns of nuclear reactors.”56 Nuclear power currently makes a significant contribution to the energy mix in many countries, and “anyone taking a firm anti-nuclear stance needs to have a coherent plan for the low carbon future without it.”57 Neil Hirst writes that “nuclear power is the main source of electricity in France and, as a result, France has about half the carbon emissions per head of the OECD as a whole.”58

Nuclear power will likely continue to be one of the important non-fossil fuel energy sources for the medium-term future, and China’s investment to make it safer and less contaminating is therefore a valuable contribution. China is also one of the world leaders in the effort to generate energy through nuclear fusion,59 which is one of the most promising areas of research and which could potentially generate unlimited and completely safe emissions-free power.60

Energy efficiency

Most environmental experts agree that the single most important step towards preventing climate breakdown at this point in time is to improve energy efficiency. Neil Hirst opines that “the biggest part [of a transition to a zero-carbon economy] is to improve the energy efficiency of all the main areas of energy use, power generation, heating of buildings, transport, and industry.” For developing countries in particular, ‘carbon intensity’ – carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product – is a useful metric, since it encapsulates two indispensable and sometimes contradictory goals: improvement of living standards, and reduced impact on the natural environment. China pledged at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen that it would reduce its carbon intensity by two-thirds by 2030, and is on track to achieve this goal ahead of time.61

Finamore writes that China now ranks sixth in the world in terms of energy efficiency, “thanks to strong government commitment, ambitious targets, and effective policies for energy conservation and emission reduction.”

Low-carbon transport

Globally, transport is responsible for around 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.62 Along with the emissions from industry (around 20 percent) and agriculture (around 10 percent), these are among the most difficult emissions to get rid of, because most modes of transport remain reliant on the internal combustion engine.

China is the only country so far to have made meaningful progress in terms of decarbonising transport. Shenzhen is the first city in the world to switch all its buses63 and taxis64 to electric. Shanghai65 and Beijing66 are not far behind. Around 99 percent of the world’s 400,000 electric buses are in China.67 Investment regulations are being introduced that will effectively phase out fossil fuel-based cars in the next few years.68 More electric cars are sold per year in China than in the rest of the world put together. “The Chinese government has spent nearly $60 billion in the last decade to create an industry that builds electric cars, while also reducing the number of licenses available for gasoline-powered cars to increase demand for electric cars. And Beijing plans to spend just as much over the next decade.”69 To go with all the electric cars, there is also a network of a million charging stations,70 which compares quite favourably with Britain’s 13,000.71 Alongside electric vehicles, there is significant development in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (hydrogen fuel is emissions-free and its only byproduct is water vapour). Beijing is developing hydrogenation stations in preparation for the 2020 Alpine Skiing World Cup and the 2022 Winter Olympic Games – all transportation of athletes, workers and spectators will be powered by hydrogen fuel.72

According to Martin Jacques, electric bikes are “rapidly becoming ubiquitous on the streets of China’s cities and almost overnight China has become the global leader in the industry.”73

High-speed rail (HSR) is another important tool for decarbonising transport. Here again, China is well out in front, with more high-speed rail miles than the rest of the world combined.74 HSR has reduced the journey time between Beijing and Xi’an (similar to the distance between London and Berlin) to 4.5 hours, down from 11 hours on a regular train.75 The impact of HSR is such that domestic air transport is in decline – this is positive since rail is much more energy-efficient than air travel, and since HSR has the potential to be emissions-free far sooner than air travel.

Reforestation

Left to their own devices, trees absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, thereby mitigating the greenhouse effect. One of the biggest reasons for the climate crisis we now face is that we’ve cut down so many trees in order to make way for us to live and to grow our food. It’s well known that reforestation could have a profoundly positive impact in our fight against climate catastrophe. Scientists recently estimated that a vast reforestation programme “has the potential to cut the atmospheric carbon pool by about 25%”.76

Xi Jinping often talks about the importance of afforestation: “China is still an ecologically vulnerable country with a scarcity of forest resources, and faces a long-term and arduous mission of afforestation and ecological improvement. Forests are the mainstay and an important resource for the land ecosystem. They are also an important ecological safeguard for the survival and development of mankind. It is hard to imagine what would happen to the earth and human beings without forests.”77

China is thus carrying out “the largest reforestation project in the world,”78 planting forests “the size of Ireland” last year79 and doubling forest coverage from 12 percent in 1980 to 23 percent in 2018.80 Last year, 60,000 People’s Liberation Army soldiers were reassigned to tree-planting duties.81 The government’s target is to continue increasing coverage until it reaches at least 26 percent, by 2035. Meanwhile, hundreds of national parks have been developed and 18 percent of the country’s land has been set aside for protection.82 The world’s first ‘forest city’ is under construction in Guangxi, and is expected to be completed next year.83

Towards a Green GDP

Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures the market value of all goods and services produced in a specific time period, is the most widely used metric for economic success. Chinese economic policy has for the last four decades of accelerated development been very GDP-centric, but is now transitioning towards a more rounded metric, changing the development goal “from maximising growth to maximising net welfare,” in the words of the influential economist Hu Angang.84 In his keynote address to the Belt and Road Forum in 2017, Xi Jinping spoke of the urgent need to develop a “new vision of green development and a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable.”85

Hu Angang proposes a ‘Green GDP’ that comprises nominal GDP, green investment measures (environmental protection, renewable energy usage, energy saving measures), investment in human capital (education, health, research), alongside a subtractive component for greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, forest depletion, mineral depletion and losses from natural disasters. Such a model encourages moderate consumption, low emissions, and the preservation of ecological capital as a fundamental economic goal. Its basic aim is nothing less than “the accumulation of green wealth and improved human welfare to achieve harmony between humanity and nature.”86

China is moving towards incorporating Green GDP measures at every level of economic accounting, with the Ministry of Environmental Protection leading efforts to accelerate its adoption.87 Barbara Finamore highlights the 2013 decision of the Chinese government to de-prioritise GDP growth as a measure for evaluating the performance of regional officials. “The evaluation criteria would also focus on the quality and sustainability of economic development, including progress in reducing emissions.”88

Global leadership

“China will make a green contribution to the 21st century, and this will be China’s greatest contribution to human development.” (Hu Angang)89

The 2015 Paris Agreement was a landmark in international multilateral efforts to combat climate breakdown and work towards a sustainable low carbon future, made possible largely because of the cooperation of the two largest economies and biggest greenhouse gas emitters: the US and China.

Even before a climate change edenier took up residence in the White House,90 China was being recognised by the UN’s leading climate expert for its “undisputed leadership.”91 As China continues pulling ahead, the US has taken some dangerous steps backward. In July 2017, Donald Trump formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement, claiming (falsely) that it imposed unfair restrictions on the US economy.92 The current US administration has promoted coal production, cut back on green energy investment and dismantled many of the environmental protection strategies established by previous administrations.93 Xi Jinping on the other hand, has “taken the opposite approach, making international cooperation on climate change an important element of his foreign policy.”94

The fruits of Chinese investment in green energy are being reaped beyond the borders of the People’s Republic, with Chinese companies supplying renewable energy infrastructure around the world. Charlie Campbell writes in Time that “China is better placed than the US to instil green energy practices in the developing world” and that the Belt and Road Initiative “provides an opportunity to export green technology across Central Asia and Africa.”95 The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis tracked 32 billion dollars’ worth of Chinese overseas investments in green technology – an increase of 60 percent over the previous year.96 Chinese policy banks such as Eximbank and the China Development Bank are leading the finance of significant projects throughout the developing world, including Latin America’s largest solar plant (in Argentina)97 and the enormous Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park in Pakistan.98 China is actively supporting Cuba’s bid to generate the bulk of its electricity from renewable sources, for example gifting two solar parks last year.99 The investment guidelines for projects in the Belt and Road Initiative contain a clear focus on green development.100

Martin Jacques predicted in 2009 that, owing to the scale of the Chinese market, “whatever technologies China develops in clean and renewable energy are likely in practice to become the new global standard.”101 This prediction has proved to be accurate, as the cost of solar panels, wind turbines and EV batteries has tumbled over the past few years, primarily the result of China pursuing “green policies so hard-hitting and extensive they can be felt across the world, transforming everything from electric vehicle demand to commodities markets.”102 Barbara Finamore notes that the cost of wind and solar energy has dropped by around 70 percent in the last decade, meaning that renewable energy is “now the lowest-cost option for new electricity generation in several markets.”103 Very significantly, the reduced cost is making renewable energy a smart option for the least-developed countries, which have an increasingly viable option to ‘leapfrog’ from low energy consumption to abundant green energy.

Absurdly, Donald Trump launched his trade war with China in no small part because Chinese solar panels and batteries were too cheap.104 Barbara Finamore highlights the obvious: “The damage this policy will cause vastly outweighs any potential benefits. Higher-priced panels will significantly reduce the pace of new solar energy installations, increase climate change emissions, and lead to significant job losses nationwide.” The solar industry employs hundreds of thousands of people in the US, but the Trump administration has clearly calculated that the important thing is to keep the fossil fuel lobby happy.

Aside from direct investment, China also offers an example for others to follow. Having fuelled its own development by relying on fossil fuel combustion, it is now leading the way in defining an alternative path. Neil Hirst writes that “if China’s strategy is successful it will provide an important example for other developing nations seeking to reconcile economic growth with protection of the environment.”105 This is exactly what China is seeking to do; in Hu Angang’s words, “to provide southern countries with a new path leading to ecological civilisation and development – the green development path.”106

Socialism is the key

“More than in most countries, if a policy idea is seen as a good thing, the Chinese can bring it about.” (Mike Berners-Lee)107

Scientists have understood the issues surrounding climate change for a long time. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, with its objective of “stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, was adopted in 1992 and was ratified by 154 countries. And yet precious little progress has been made at a global level. Emissions have increased by around 50 percent since 1992.108 The country that is making genuine and sustained progress is China. Why?

Mariana Mazzucato writes: “What is separating China from its international peers is its courage to commit to renewable energy and innovation in the short and long run.”109 But it’s not just about courage. As Hu Angang points out, “the capitalist development model has a fundamental and irreconcilable contradiction between infinite capital expansion and limited natural resources”. Even in the US – the world’s richest country, with enormous economic resources and scientific strength – slow progress is made “due to the lobbying power of interest groups sponsored by the oil and coal giants.”110

This simply isn’t a problem that China suffers. As Eric Li puts it, “in China you have a vibrant market economy but capital doesn’t rise above political authority.”111 China’s economic development proceeds according to state plans, not market anarchy. As a result, the interests of private profit are subordinate to the needs of society. “China’s economic planners have the power to make decisions that cost a lot of money, but will benefit the people — and the world — over the long run. They’re not driven by profits and each quarter’s bottom line. In countries where the super-rich run and control everything, you get a well-financed campaign of lies by the polluting corporations to turn public opinion against science and the environmental movement. But not in China.”112

The private sector has shown itself to be incapable of leading meaningful solutions to the threat of climate breakdown (which statement is not meant to deny the private sector a role within a broader strategy). China’s enormous investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, afforestation and ‘circular’ waste management have largely been made by state banks, and its projects carried out largely by state-owned enterprises. Mazzucato describes China’s five-year plans as “visionary and ambitious”, but she misses their most important feature: the fact that they exist, and that they define legally binding targets. The balance of power in capitalist countries is such that even relatively progressive governments find it very difficult to prioritise long-term needs of the population over short-term interests of capital. For example, the Green New Deal adopted by Labour at its recent conference,113 is an excellent and important step forward, but it will certainly meet with the resistance of big business, and that will likely cause a tough protracted struggle. China can direct investment and resources towards green development precisely because of the socialist basis of its economy.

One example is how the Chinese government manages unemployment resulting from coal power plants being shut down. Barbara Finamore notes that the state “set aside a $15 billion fund to relocate and retrain laid-off workers, and has encouraged firms and local governments to help find new jobs for them, including in the services sector, which is growing rapidly.” Hundreds of thousands of workers in polluting industries have been able to re-skill and get jobs working in the clean energy sector. It’s a planned economy that makes this possible.

Conclusion

China still faces an intimidating array of obstacles on its path to realising an ecological civilisation. Judith Shapiro notes that there’s a growing middle income group – currently estimated to be nearing half a billion people – which aspires to “own automobiles, live in spacious homes and apartments with comfortable and fashionable furnishings, eat higher up the food chain by switching from grain to meat-centred diets, and increase household energy use by using more appliances, heat, and air conditioning.”114 Local officials struggle with conflicting goals of economic growth and environmental protection, tending through habit to privilege the former over the latter. Furthermore, China is still a developing country and millions of its people still live in relative poverty. Their immediate needs include using a lot more energy than they currently do, and meanwhile China is still “sitting on a mountain of cheap coal.” Some difficult decisions still come down to whether to alleviate poverty or to reduce emissions.

However, China is more focused on this issue than any other country and its progress is already formidable. Hu Angang outlines China’s vision and determination:

“China will launch the green industrial revolution; it will be the leader of green development; it will be the developer of green civilisation. China’s development in the 21st century will be green development; China’s rise will be a green rise; Chinese modernisation is green modernisation; rejuvenating the Chinese nation will produce a green renaissance; China’s contribution to humanity will be a green contribution.”115

Mao Zedong said in 1956 that, by the beginning of the 21st century, China would have become “a powerful socialist industrial country” and that “she ought to have made a greater contribution to humanity.”116 Over the last decade in particular, China has emerged as the undisputed leader in the fight against climate breakdown, and the results of this leadership are reverberating globally. It’s very difficult to overstate the profound significance of this for our species and planet.


  1. Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, Foreign Languages Press, 2014 
  2. World Bank: World Bank Group President Says China Offers Lessons in Helping the World Overcome Poverty, 2010 
  3. World Bank Data: Life expectancy at birth (China) 
  4. Xinhua: Chinese life expectancy more than doubled in past 70 years, 2019 
  5. Unesco: Sustainable development goals data 
  6. World Food Programme: China 
  7. China Daily: China’s last lap in eradicating poverty by 2020, 2019 
  8. World Bank: Trading Economics: China – Access to electricity 
  9. Cited in Neil Hirst, The Energy Conundrum: Climate Change, Global Prosperity, and the Tough Decisions We Have to Make, World Scientific Publishing, 2018 
  10. Barbara Finamore, Will China Save the Planet?, Polity, 2018 
  11. Martin Jacques, When China Rules The World, Penguin, 2009 
  12. People’s World: China builds an ‘Ecological Civilization’ while the world burns, 2018 
  13. UN: Declaration on the Right to Development 
  14. World Resources Institute: 6 Graphs Explain the World’s Top 10 Emitters, 2014 
  15. The Guardian: China overtakes US as world’s biggest CO2 emitter, 2007 
  16. World Resources Institute: 6 Graphs Explain the World’s Top 10 Emitters, 2014 
  17. Martin Jacques, op cit 
  18. World Food Programme: China 
  19. For example, China Daily: China activates emergency response to support flood-hit Guangdong, 2018 
  20. Judith Shapiro, China’s Environmental Challenges, Polity Press, 2016 
  21. Finamore, op cit 
  22. Hirst, op cit 
  23. Monthly Review: The Ecological Civilization Debate in China, 2014 
  24. Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, Anthem Press, 2013 
  25. The Governance of China, op cit 
  26. Zhang Yunfei and Li Na, Usher in a New Era of Socialist Ecological Progress, Renmin University of China Press, 2017 
  27. Business Standard: Top polluter China unveils nationwide carbon market, 2017 
  28. Carbon Brief: China’s emissions ‘could peak 10 years earlier than Paris climate pledge’, 2019 
  29. Finamore, op cit 
  30. 7 News: Coal use declines in Australian energy mix, 2019 
  31. New York Times: China Cancels 103 Coal Plants, Mindful of Smog and Wasted Capacity, 2017 
  32. SCMP: Beijing shuts down its last coal-fired power plant as part of bid to clear air, 2017 
  33. Business Insider: China’s latest energy megaproject shows that coal really is on the way out, 2018 
  34. China Daily: China’s coal capital transforming into hydrogen hub, 2019 
  35. New York Times: Four Years After Declaring War on Pollution, China Is Winning, 2018 
  36. Reuters: Beijing set to exit list of world’s top 200 most-polluted cities: data, 2019 
  37. Forbes: China Is Set To Become The World’s Renewable Energy Superpower, According To New Report, 2019 
  38. Vox: The global transition to clean energy, explained in 12 charts, 2019 
  39. Irish Independent: Green jobs boost: China leads way as renewable energy employment set to top 28 million by 2050, 2018 
  40. ThinkProgress: Renewable industry employed 11 million people in 2018, 2019 
  41. FT: China breezes past EU as top wind power, 2016 
  42. Brookings: Utility of renewable energy in China’s low-carbon transition, 2018 
  43. Key Trends in Globalisation: Solar power illustrates China’s manufacturing future, 2016 
  44. Reuters: China’s solar power capacity more than doubles in 2016, 2017 
  45. Bloomberg: China’s Solar Prices Can Fall 38%, Become Competitive With Coal, 2016 
  46. Greenpeace: China has already surpassed its 2020 solar target, 2017 
  47. PV Magazine: An overview of the world’s largest solar power plants, 2019 
  48. Finamore, op cit 
  49. FT: China breezes past EU as top wind power, 2016 
  50. Cited in Finamore, op cit 
  51. IEEE Spectrum: Solar Power Is Now as Inexpensive as Grid Electricity in China, 2019 
  52. Mike Berners-Lee, There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years, Cambridge University Press, 2019 
  53. SCMP: China develops superconducting hybrid power line that could span the country, 2019 
  54. SCMP: How China hopes to play a leading role in developing next-generation nuclear reactors, 2019 
  55. Wikipedia: Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster 
  56. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, Penguin, 2019 
  57. Berners-Lee, op cit 
  58. Hirst, op cit 
  59. Reuters: China targets nuclear fusion power generation by 2040, 2019 
  60. The Guardian: Fusion power: is it getting any closer?, 2011 
  61. FT: Waste-to-energy: panacea for Asia’s pollution problem or a load of rubbish?, 2019 
  62. EPA: Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions 
  63. The Guardian: Shenzhen’s silent revolution: world’s first fully electric bus fleet quietens Chinese megacity, 2018 
  64. Phys.org: Giving up gas: China’s Shenzhen switches to electric taxis, 2019 
  65. SCMP: Powered by the state, China takes charge of electric buses, with Shenzhen taking the lead, 2019 
  66. TechNode: Beijing will replace all taxis with electric cars in two years – BAIC, 2019 
  67. SingularityHub: China’s Electric Buses Save More Diesel Than All Electric Cars Combined, 2019 
  68. Quartz: China’s making it super hard to build car factories that don’t make electric vehicles, 2018 
  69. Quartz: Five things to know about China’s electric-car boom 
  70. Telesur: China Builds World’s Largest Network of Electric Car Chargers, 2019 
  71. Car Magazine: EV charging points in the UK: what you need to know, 2019 
  72. China Daily: Hydrogen-energy transportation for Beijing 2022, 2019 
  73. Jacques, op cit 
  74. China Dialogue: How green is China’s high-speed rail?, 2019 
  75. Business Insider: After riding China’s superfast bullet train that could go from New York to Chicago in 4.5 hours, it’s clear how far behind the US really is, 2019 
  76. Science Magazine: The global tree restoration potential, 2019 
  77. The Governance of China, op cit 
  78. CPUSA: The long march to socialism with Chinese characteristics, 2018 
  79. Telegraph: China to plant forest the size of Ireland in bid to become world leader in conservation, 2018 
  80. Xinhua: China sees improved ecological environment as natural forests rehabilitate, 2019 
  81. Independent: China reassigns 60,000 soldiers to plant trees in bid to fight pollution, 2018 
  82. Los Angeles Times: America’s best idea may now be China’s, too, as it expands national park system, 2016 
  83. Independent: China is building first ‘forest city’ of 40,000 trees to fight air pollution, 2017 
  84. Hu Angang, China: Innovative Green Development, Springer, 2014 
  85. Xinhua: Full text of President Xi’s speech at opening of Belt and Road forum, 2017 
  86. Hu Angang, op cit 
  87. Environmental Protection Online: China Renews ‘Green GDP’ Initiative, 2015 
  88. Finamore, op cit 
  89. Hu Angang, op cit 
  90. Sky News: Trump’s climate change denial is a threat to every one of us and our children, 2019 
  91. The Guardian: US ‘playing catch-up to China’ in clean energy efforts, UN climate chief says, 2015 
  92. Advances in Climate Change Research: The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement and its impact on global climate change governance, 2017 
  93. The Guardian: Trump ditches sole climate rule that aimed to reduce coal plant pollution, 2019 
  94. Finamore, op cit 
  95. Time: Why an Unlikely Hero Like China Could End Up Leading the World in the Fight Against Climate Change, 2017 
  96. The Guardian: China cementing global dominance of renewable energy and technology, 2017 
  97. China Dialogue: China builds Latin America’s largest solar plant, 2019 
  98. China Dialogue: China helps Pakistan build world’s largest solar farm, 2015 
  99. Xinhua: China delivers two solar panel parks to Cuba, 2018 
  100. Belt and Road Portal: Guidance on Promoting Green Belt and Road, 2017 
  101. Jacques, op cit 
  102. Bloomberg: China’s War on Pollution Will Change the World, 2018 
  103. Finamore, op cit 
  104. Bloomberg: Trump Solar Duties Strike At $161 Billion China-Led Industry, 2018 
  105. Hirst, op cit 
  106. Hu Angang, op cit 
  107. Berners-Lee, op cit 
  108. The Guardian: Global carbon emissions rise is far bigger than previous estimates, 2012 
  109. Mazzucato, op cit 
  110. Hu Angang, op cit 
  111. Eric Li interviewed by John Pilger, The Coming War on China (documentary film), 2016 
  112. Workers World: China takes another big step away from CO2, 2017 
  113. Morning Star: Ocasio-Cortez thanks Labour for ‘leading the world’ by adopting a Green New Deal, 2019 
  114. Shapiro, op cit 
  115. Hu Angang, op cit 
  116. Mao Zedong: In Commemoration of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, 1956 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.