China’s Environmental Dilemmas: National Development Verses Global Leadership?

China has an enormous impact on global affairs, whether acting as a huge industrial powerhouse, maintaining foreign exchange reserves of over $1.8 trillion, or simply feeding a functional society of over 1.3 billion people. The People’s Republic of China also comes in for regular criticism, whether based on rapid military modernisation, assertive claims in the South China Sea, ongoing tensions with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku Islands to Japan), problematic social relations within Tibet and Xinjiang, or a wider lack of political freedoms. Indeed, the relative weight of China is so great that any major national decision has the potential to seriously impact on its neighbours, trading partners, and on global institutions. It is no wonder, then, that China is always under intense international scrutiny. More recently, however, its image has often been filtered through the rubric of the ‘China threat thesis’. Viewed as a non-status quo power, many commentators assume that Beijing wishes to change the rules of international politics in order to gain superpower status (a claim denied by Chinese political doctrine). Though often labelled as an ‘emerging economy’ (as part of the BRICS group, along with Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa), ‘rising power’, or ‘regional hegemon’, China in fact is constrained by urgent internal needs that limit its freedom in foreign affairs.

This is equally true of China’s environmental policies and its participation in the debate on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. Here, the PRC seems to present a mixed track record. One the one hand, China has prioritised green development, has invested heavily in low emission energy sources (especially hydro and solar power, but also new wind power ventures), and from 2010 (after the Copenhagen Climate Conference) announced voluntary cuts in emissions intensity (reductions in relation to GDP) of 40-45% by 2020. On the other hand, China has now emerged as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases of circa 22% of global totals (partly based on reliance on old coal power stations and massive building programs), has sixteen of the twenty most polluted cities in the world, and remains highly reluctant to enter into binding agreements in any future climate treaty that might follow on from the Kyoto Protocol. This is crucial, since PRC, as the largest developing state, is now just as important as the United States in making or breaking any new climate deal that has a chance of seriously reducing carbon emissions through 2020-2050, thereby mitigating the negative impacts of climate change.

The PRC has often been cast as the ‘spoiler’ in the UN effort to forge new binding agreements on emissions that would include developing countries. The view from Beijing, however, is not based on the simple desire to maximise economic growth at the expense of developed countries which have committed early on to environmental targets. Until recently, annual growth in the order of 7-10% may have been necessary for regime stability, but this growth will slowly reduce towards 5% as the economy matures through 2030. Rather, China’s policy seems to hedge between avoiding intrusive foreign verification of emission reductions in a compulsory framework, and the recognition that climate change and environmental damage are serious impediments to China’s future development.

For this reason, China’s latest Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) emphasized ‘low-carbon growth’ with an emphasis on green projects, an increase of non-fossil fuels up to 11.4% of energy consumption, carbon-dioxide emissions to be cut by 17%, an increase of forest coverage up to almost 22%, and injection of RMB 1.5 trillion into numerous green project areas. This type of government activism has been seen over the last decade, with recognition from 2004 onwards that environmental losses could trim up to 3% of real growth each year. Stimulus packages in 2009 included $221.3 billion targeted towards environmental and clean tech areas, while the green technology sector saw sales of 57 billion euros in 2011, well ahead of both the EU and US (see the World Wildlife Fund’s Clean Economy, Living Planet Report for 2012). The need to live in balance with nature (via a sustainable ecological footprint, part of a wider ‘harmonious society’ agenda) was also emphasized in the forward looking report China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious and Creative High-Income Society, jointly developed by the World Bank and PRC’s Development Center of the State Council in 2012.

These trends will reduce the worsening of environmental problems, but China still relies on coal powered plants for about 70% of its production, with only modest plans to reduce this to around 62% by 2035. Peggy Liu (writing in the Guardian), also noted that as China’s middle class grows, so will its internal consumerism, suggesting that there will still be strong pressure for a large industrial base producing goods at low prices. Internally, the country has also had to face sustained public protests over poor enforcement of environmental standards, plus corporate breaches and local corruption that has reduced the quality of life of many Chinese even as national GDP appears strong. In reality, switching to a new, high-tech, low-carbon economy may be a way for China to leap-frog its development as well as reducing environmental, health, and social costs that are now almost as destabilizing as the emerging wealth-gap between rich and poor within the county.

Internationally then, the PRC has viewed environmental policy as linked to, perhaps even subordinate to, developmental policies. It is this linkage which has brought it together with like-minded countries in the so-called ‘BASIC’ group, comprising Brazil, China, South Africa and India. They have been engaged in proactive diplomacy on environmental issues since 2007, often preparing joint position statements, with strong influence on developing and African states. The group, due to combined emissions of almost 30% of the global total, is viewed as having a virtual de facto veto power on any future agreements. India, in particular, has linked reduction of its emissions to not going below commitments of developed countries, and has indicated that climate policies are made in the context of sustainable development and reducing poverty (see India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change). South Africa, too, has recognised that unmitigated climate changed damage could range from 5-20% of GDP by 2100, and has therefore planned to reduce emissions by 42% from ‘business as usual’ through 2025. However, it is only willing to meet these targets as part of a global response in which ‘developed countries meet their commitment to provide financial, capacity-building, technology development and technology transfer support to developing countries’ (National Climate Change Response White Paper, October 2011). It is not surprising, therefore, that the BASIC group was viewed as a major obstruction to reaching binding agreements in the Copenhagen meeting of December 2009, and will be a ‘make-or-break’ lobby in negotiations through 2015 for a possible agreement to be implemented in 2020. The Durban conference of 2011 managed to engage both developed and developing nations, but established no clear track towards restraining temperature rises to below 2 degrees centigrade, as needed to avoid serious environmental crisis in coming decades. The outcomes of the Rio+ 20 United Nations Conference of 2012 included a strong emphasis on poverty eradication, sustainable development, and ‘inclusive’ economic growth but little progress towards binding emissions targets. In September 2012 at a BASIC meeting in Brasilia, these trends resulted in Xie Zhenhua, (vice president of China’s National Development and Reform Commission) suggesting that developed countries need to make stronger cuts ahead of future UN negotiations towards any new agreement. At present, there seems to be a hedging between two strategies, either differentiated binding targets (with developed countries making stronger cuts), or a lower, voluntary system of reductions in line with national development and sustained GDP growth.

What is clear is that as the nation with the largest population, largest carbon emissions, and soon the largest economy, China is a crucial player in managing the global environment. Since developing world emissions may rise to around 64% of global totals by 2030, its influence via the BASIC group is also a crucial factor in future climate diplomacy. The current leadership of the PRC has made a good start by strong voluntary cuts and heavy investment in clean technologies. Future governments, however, will need to do more to ensure effective global strategies in dealing with climate change that go beyond ‘developmentalism’ and moderate diplomatic successes.


Dr R. James Ferguson, Director of the Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies, Assistant Professor, International Relations, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Bond University.

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