Xi’s Green Thumb: China’s Modern Environmental Leadership

At the 19th Party Congress, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) unveiled its latest plans for China. Central to the CCP’s vision of modernization and harmonious coexistence is the role which China will play in climate change and pollution mitigation, both domestically and globally, perhaps in response to the controversial withdrawal of the United States from The Paris Agreement in June 2017. President Xi Jinping’s stance seems clear, proclaiming during his nearly four hour monologue that China would take a “driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change”. In the same speech, “Xi used the word ‘environment’ and other related terms 89 times… while reference[s] to the ’economy,’ dropped to 70 from a hefty 104 five years ago,” reports a Bloomberg Intelligence analysis. This trend is in line with China’s policy stance ever since Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war on pollution” in 2014 just after the “2013 Beijing Airpocalypse” when the air quality index (AQI) in China’s capital soared to hazardous levels. During the Airpocalypse, Beijing’s AQI reached as high as 993 while on the same day, the AQI in New York City was 19.

Since the Airpocalypse, China has cemented itself as an enthusiastic and willing global leader in pioneering mitigation strategies. However, this is not just a simple response to the swaths of smog that choke the country or just a social movement to placate Chinese civilians. Rather, the CCP has much to reap politically, affirming its legitimate status as the sole governing party, and bolstering its international reputation.

Climate change and air pollution have been at the forefront of domestic grievances. Especially as more and more of China’s civilians start to enter the middle class, a burgeoning group of people are beginning to care more about environmental wellbeing. For the Chinese people, pollution is a common cause they can all unite under regardless of income or education level— 93% of Chinese respondents in a 2012 survey think climate change in actually happening. It is something that affects everybody and is an issue that even protests over democracy or real estate values cannot rival in scope. This tremendous action potential which can easily precipitate mass protests is something the CCP should be scared of, so they actively try to co-opt citizens with real action—responding to grievances with aggressive, specific goals such as promising to cut PM 2.5 levels by 15% and to reduce the number of coal-burning households in the northeast by 4 million.

China also has a lot to gain in the international arena. Leading international cooperation to respond to climate change allows China to assume a powerful position in the international order, particularly as the US has withdrawn from such a momentous agreement. Most security experts such as Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior Asia-Pacific security fellow at The Center for a New American Security, are certain that an “increasingly powerful China will not simply reject a monolithic international order but actively reinforce and shape elements of it where doing so advances Chinese interests.” That is, China would not benefit in overturning the already established order. Usually, those elements that see support are broader, international issues, such as climate change. When China does oppose existing rules, it is often when those issues are closer to home, such as its numerous territorial disputes. Internationally, China will only benefit from being a leader in mitigating climate change. By leading through soft power, China will encourage other countries to look to and follow it while the US is in political turmoil under the Trump administration—effectively reducing US strength in future global exchanges. This might even decrease US involvement in East Asia and lead to Xi Jinping’s goal of an “Asia for Asians”.

Politics and foreign policy aside, it is also important to remember that renewable energy and sustainability strategies have become vibrant and lucrative markets in China. A trailblazer in renewable energy sectors, China accounts for 42% of total global wind turbine installation and about 20% of the world’s total solar capacity. Further, it intends to spend more than $360 billion through 2020 on renewable power. Even if not for politics sake, there is certainly money to be made in investing in clean energy and production methods. There is a  dynamic market for mitigation strategies technology and China may well dominate it if the US backs out. To draw China-based producers to these lucrative opportunities, the government has created many new financial programs including credit policies and subsidies. China announced this past December that it will be rolling out a carbon market to trade credits for the rights to emit greenhouse gases. Although this will start only for government-controlled power generation sectors and then, hopefully, slowly branch out, this commitment shows promise in expanding to other industries and even other countries who have tried but failed to create a solid carbon market.

Additionally, the 2016 G20 Summit held in Hangzhou saw a China-led discussion on green finance, or setting up market and policy tools to finance sustainable investments, as one of the major topics of discussion. With the emerging emphasis on green finance, Chinese companies have become incentivized to invest in creating cleaner and more sustainable production techniques. For example, Shuang Liang Group, an air conditioning manufacturer, received a green credit line of $1.5 billion from Industrial Bank Co. to support its energy conservation and emissions reduction programs. China’s emerging green bonds market, which has already overtaken the US’s as the world’s largest green bonds market, has also contributed greatly to establishing a stable financial base to develop environmental protection projects. The Chinese government is heavily involved in the success of these financial projects and has set many incentives in place to attract companies.

On a macro level, the economy is certainly not closed and so China’s investments will also affect its economic dynamic with other foreign powers. China has spent record-breaking amounts of money investing on renewable projects abroad. Investment flowing abroad both increases the soft power of China and the ties which the Chinese economy has with the greater global economy. With Xi Jinping’s announcement of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, China has committed itself especially to investment in renewable energy projects in developing nations. Strategizing to expand international investments and gain access to foreign markets, state-owned Chinese companies have invested substantially in Africa. According to one study by the International Energy Agency, Chinese companies “accounted for 30% of new capacity additions in the region [sub-Saharan Africa] over the last five years.” Between 2010 and 2015 alone, these projects—from hydropower to biomass to wind energy– have totaled about $13 billion, changing the lives of over 635 million people who live without electricity in the region. These projects are largely positive, having supported energy access and economic development as well as expediting Africa’s transition to lower emissions electricity systems. Renewable energy also plays a large role closer to home including the building of various power plants and hydro dams on the fringes of China’s borders. However, with the assertion and success of Chinese hydropower comes the revival of old territorial disputes. The most notable includes the dispute between China and India over the Brahmaputra River and Arunachal Pradesh. While China attempts to build a dam to harness the river’s energy to sustainably power cities, India sees this move as a threat on its claims over disputed land and disregard for the water flowing into India. With so many political tensions coming into play, it is always hard to predict the future of renewables overseas and how it will ultimately impact China’s relations with foreign countries.

The anxiety, then, isn’t really about whether China is willing to be a leader but whether or not it feasibly can be a leader in providing not only advanced mitigation strategies but also reducing and transparently controlling its own emissions. From recent statistics, it seems that China can provide strategies and reduce its own emissions. Data suggests China may reach its 2030 Paris targets by 2020. China’s coal consumption has leveled off since the 2000s even though the 2000s were when China saw its spectacular economic boom, showing that limiting coal consumption without hurting economic development is something China is actually capable of. Predictably, there is still some lingering uncertainty about just how transparent China can be in monitoring and reporting environmental statistics. Significant institutional change would need to take place in CCP practices, especially as high-ranking cadres still manage many heavy-polluting but extremely profitable industries such as steel and oil refineries. However, such institutional change does seem to be occurring in the CCP. For example, the CCP also announced at the 19th Party Congress that it would not be setting specific goals of doubling GDP, instead focusing more on “higher-quality, long-term growth”, suggesting that the CCP is willing to forgo some increase in GDP for other improvements in society. Likewise, Xi Jinping’s corruption crackdown on state-owned enterprise managers who are simultaneously high-ranking party officials, such as Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member, is also indicative of CCP’s commitment to battling climate change. The CCP, and by extension, China, has much to gain and little to lose in choosing to become an international leader in responding to climate change. With this in mind, we should be hopeful in watching the CCP carry out Xi’s proclamation from the 19th Party Congress. The trajectory of China’s greening is an optimistic one.

Isabella Cheng is a student at Yale University. Contact her at isabella.cheng@yale.edu.

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