Can China Be a Global Climate Leader?

Can China Be a Global Climate Leader?

Following President Trump’s announcement early this month that he would be withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change—a non-binding pledge to limit carbon emissions that the Xi and Obama administrations played key, if reluctant, roles in creating—many were quick to point to China as a possible incoming global leader on climate action. Immediately after Trump’s announcement, The New York Times’ David E. Sanger and Jane Perlez summarized the withdrawal as “perhaps the greatest strategic gift to the Chinese, who are eager to fill the void that Washington is leaving around the world[.]” (Other analysts offered similar evaluations.) At Politico, China policy scholar Elizabeth C. Economy asks if handing China a leadership role truly is a strategic gift; if Beijing even wants the handout; and if so, whether or not they deserve it:

[…] The quick answer is no, no and no.

True global leadership is costly: It requires vision, creativity, perseverance, deft diplomacy and often cold, hard cash. It also demands a willingness on the part of political leaders to align, and in some cases subordinate, their own narrow interests to those of the larger international community. The Chinese, including President Xi Jinping, understand this. That is why any number of Chinese analysts have been quick to reject the idea that Chinese leadership on climate change is realistic, arguing as one did, “Taking on global leadership is too much, too soon for China.” Xi Jinping, himself, is somewhat less willing to reject the idea out of hand. China as a global power shaping norms and institutions is a central element of his rejuvenation narrative. He therefore flirts with the prospect, proclaiming China ready to defend globalization and to protect the Paris climate agreement. But nowhere does Xi say that China will actually lead; that is left to others.

[…] [Economy outlines the good, including China’s diversification of its energy reliance and investment into green technology, its current pace at curbing emissions which show it to be ahead of track to meet the Paris pledge, and its plan to launch a CO2 cap and trade program in 2017…] Now the bad. China is still the largest emitter of CO2 on the planet by a substantial margin, contributing 29 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions in 2015. The United States comes in a distant second at 14 percent. In addition, while Beijing is cutting back on coal-fired power plants—particularly in its wealthy and pollution-conscious coastal provinces—it is upping its count of CO2 emitting coal-to-chemical (including coal-to-gas) plants. There are 46 coal-to-chemical plants in operation and another 22 under construction that will add another 193 million tons of carbon emissions annually. A conservative estimate suggests that by 2020, such plants will contribute as much CO2 as all of Poland’s contribution to global carbon emissions, while the extreme scenario—if China builds all the coal-to-chemical plants outlined in its 13th Five Year Plan—will lead to a contribution of almost 800 million tons per year, more than German’s total carbon emissions in 2015, and equal to roughly 10 percent of China’s current CO2 contribution.

[Economy continues to outline “the ugly”: China’s decidedly un-green policies abroad] […F]illing the void left by the United States must be earned, not simply granted by overeager officials and pundits. China may one day earn that right, but not today. [Source]

Following a host of clean energy and green tech agreements resulting from California governor, high-profile Trump resistor, and climate change crusader Jerry Brown’s recent climate-focused diplomatic mission to China, many commentators across the globe continue to hail China as a likely successor to the mantle of global climate leadership. At the Huffington Post, Rachael Willis also disputes Beijing’s credentials to be a climate leader, and warns that Governor Brown’s climate diplomacy likely won’t be enough to shield the world from climate catastrophe:

Brown is clearly willing to go to significant lengths to demonstrate that Trump’s irrational views on climate change do not reflect all American politicians. On the same day that President Trump announced his intention to exit the Paris Climate Accord, Brown was joined by the governors of New York and Washington in unveiling the United States Climate Alliance, a collection of states, cities, businesses and universities that have pledged to work with the United Nations (UN) and redouble their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Countless others will soon follow.

But, no matter how many such coalitions emerge and how many international meetings are dedicated to climate change, local and state-level action is not nearly enough to offset the void left by the lack of federal support. Why? Because China is not the climate leader some hope it to be, and because local initiatives rarely form coherent global responses. In an act of unprecedented political immolation, Washington has chosen to turn its back on progress and be left by the wayside.

If one thinks that China can simply pick up the mantle and shepherd the world to the Elysian ideal of a 2°C future, they can think again. As a coal-addicted developing nation, China is in no better shape to lead than the climate change-denying administration of Donald Trump. China’s banks have funded energy investment projects around the world; spending $160 billion on foreign energy infrastructure, with 53% of this investment being used to finance the construction of coal-fired power plants, outsourcing the majority of China’s pollution. Despite significant domestic progress on clean energy technologies and environmental regulatory reform, the country’s ability to establish itself as an international climate change leader is hampered by provincial and corporate interests. [Source]

On the ground, China’s central leaders have been waging an official “war on pollution” for more than three years, amid which local officials have been held responsible for ecologically unfriendly policiesonce secretive air quality data has become required and made public, an environmental protection law has been passed, and coal use has dropped contributing to a cut in emissions. Just as not all local authorities can be counted on to follow policies aimed at cutting pollution with full authenticity, not all Chinese companies have been operating in full accordance with pollution rules. At The New York Times, Edward Wong reports:

Environmental inspectors in northern China have found that nearly 14,000 companies, or 70 percent of the businesses they examined, failed to meet environmental standards for controlling air pollution, according to a state news agency report.

The inspectors working for the Ministry of Environmental Protection came up with those results after two months of work across 28 cities in northern China, said Xinhua, the state news agency. The companies and industries varied widely, including businesses such as wool processing and furniture production.

More than 4,700 companies were in unauthorized locations, lacked the proper certificates and failed to meet emissions standards, said the report, which was published on Sunday.

Even though Chinese leaders have vowed to crack down on polluters, the factories continue to contribute to severe levels of air, water and soil pollution. Chinese citizens cite the country’s widespread pollution as one of the issues of greatest concern to them. [Source]

Elsewhere in the pages of the New York Times, Javier C. Hernández focuses on a chemical pollution scandal in Dapu, Hunan that has left 300 children with lead poisoning—another example of a massive failure to enforce central environmental policies at the local level, especially when they clash with powerful industry:

After a decade in which companies in wealthier nations exported to poorer ones much of the dirty business of making hazardous substances, China is now the world’s largest manufacturer of industrial chemicals, claiming a third of global production by some estimates.

But as the Chinese government has promoted the sector’s rapid growth, it has struggled with its impact on the environment. The chemical industry has quashed calls to strengthen oversight and force companies to publicly disclose what substances they produce. Local environmental bureaus are often politically feeble and understaffed. Even when companies acknowledge some responsibility for harming public health, as Meilun did, the remedies given to communities often fall far short of the victims’ needs.

[…] Under President Xi Jinping, the government promised a chance for people to fight back, declaring a “war on pollution” and enacting a law in 2015 to make it easier to sue companies and force them to cover the cost of cleaning up neighborhoods. The law was supposed to level the playing field by enabling nonprofit groups to file public interest lawsuits against polluters. Environmentalists heralded it as a breakthrough.

But progress has been limited. In the Chinese courts, the Communist Party controls the decisions of judges, and they routinely rule on cases in consultation with officials who have a political and financial interest in the outcome. The police, at the behest of the local authorities, often harass lawyers and activists, hoping to deter them from bringing cases, advocates say. And the government decides which nonprofit groups can file public interest lawsuits.

As a result, those who stand up to the chemical industry in China rarely prevail. […] [Source]


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