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“We will never again seek economic growth at the cost of the environment” – Xi Jinping
The cost of development
Standing in Tiananmen Square on October 1 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 blazed a trail for the entire Global South.
Life expectancy now exceeds 76, more than double what it was in 1949. Adult literacy stands at 97 per cent (for 15-24 year olds it’s 100 per cent). China is on the cusp of having completely eradicated extreme poverty. One hundred per cent of the population has access to electricity.
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.
China now faces very serious environmental problems. It overtook the US as the biggest overall emitter of carbon dioxide in 2007; it suffers with air pollution, water pollution, flooding and desertification. Environmental issues have thus become a top priority for China. Over the last decade in particular, the Chinese political leadership has focused 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.
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.”
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. 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.
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. Over the last decade, China has been able to reduce coal’s share in the power mix from 80 per cent to 60 per cent. 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, and Beijing closed its last coal-fired plant in 2017.
While reducing its use of coal, China is rapidly becoming the first “renewable energy superpower,” responsible for 32 per cent of global renewable energy investment last year, creating millions of green energy jobs along the way. Out of 11 million jobs in the renewables industry worldwide, over four million are in China (compared to 118,000 in Britain). Non-fossil energy sources are set to supply 50 per cent of China’s electric power generation by 2030.
China has been the world’s largest producer of solar panels since 2009, and it now accounts for around 70 per cent of global solar panel production, with a generating capacity of 43 gigawatts. China’s investment in solar power research and development has been so extensive (approximately doubling year-on-year for the last few years) as to push down prices worldwide to a level where solar is increasingly competitive with fossil fuels. 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.
More controversially, 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. 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, nuclear power currently makes a significant contribution to the energy mix in many countries, and to quote Mike Berners-Lee, “anyone taking a firm anti-nuclear stance needs to have a coherent plan for the low carbon future without it.”
China is also 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 buses and taxis to electric. Shanghai and Beijing are not far behind. Around 99 per cent of the world’s 400,000 electric buses are in China. China is well out in front in terms of low-carbon rail transport, with more high-speed rail miles than the rest of the world combined.
In order to improve its natural carbon-sink, China is carrying out “the largest reforestation project in the world,” planting forests “the size of Ireland” last year and doubling forest coverage from 12 per cent in 1980 to 23 per cent in 2018.
Socialism is the key
Scientists have understood the issues surrounding climate change for a long time, yet precious little progress has been made at a global level. Emissions have increased by around 50 per cent since 1992. The country that is making genuine and sustained progress is China. Why?
In the capitalist countries, efforts at environmental preservation come up against the interests of private capital, in particular the fossil fuel giants. In China, 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 five-year plans direct state banks and state-owned enterprises towards policy goals which increasingly emphasise the importance of green development. In summary, China can direct investment and resources towards green development precisely because of the socialist basis of its economy.
China still faces an intimidating array of obstacles on its path to realising an ecological civilisation. However, China is more focused on this issue than any other country and its progress is already formidable.
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.” In recent years 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.
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