ISABELLA CHENG introduces the October 2018 Domestic Theme.
China’s environmental challenges have consistently been at the forefront of both domestic and international discussion since the country’s spectacular economic takeoff in the early 21st century. Combining its status as the “world’s factory”, engaged in profitable yet high-emissions, heavy-industry manufacturing, and lax, ineffective environmental policies and regulations in the past, it is not hard to see what drove China’s environmental degradation to this extreme. The facts are sobering: human-caused CO2 emissions in China now account for almost 30% of global emissions. China is both the world’s top energy consumer and CO2 emitter. On a more global scale, China’s vested business interests in other developing countries, especially those making up the Belt and Road Initiative, is concerning in terms of the environmental footprint rapid economic expansion will bring. There is mounting global pressure for China to do its part in curtailing its massive emissions and help mitigate urgent climate change effects. This global pressure is both good and necessary—environmental degradation always will be a collective action problem. It can only be solved when everyone takes a step forward. While there is global pressure, there is perhaps even more pressure being put on the government to take action by domestic voices. A brief exposure to recent environmental disasters such as the Beijing Airpocalypse or China’s “cancer villages” will elucidate to any reader why the Chinese people are so ready for change. For many people, environmental degradation does obvious harm in their everyday lives, and as the ordinary Chinese citizen reaches middle-income status, these demands for fresher air and cleaner water will only escalate.
Since its launch into the global eye as host of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, themed a “Green Olympics”, China has been in a period of transition. In recent years, the government has not been deaf to the people’s demands, vocally pledging on the global stage that emissions will peak by 2030 and achieve a 60-65% reduction in intensity by then, as compared to its 2005 level. Premier Li Keqiang has openly declared a “war on pollution” at the opening session of the National People’s Congress in 2014. The government has written specific yet ambitious emissions and energy consumption targets into the official 13th Five-Year Plan. While China’s commitment is commendable, China still has a long way to go with challenges looming on the horizon. For example, China’s meat consumption over the next decades will drastically increase alongside incomes. For a country that already consumes 28% of the world’s meat—twice as much as the U.S.—the environmental repercussions will be enormous.
Here, it is imperative to understand that while environmental degradation makes up a hefty part of citizens’ everyday lives, environmental policy and the CCP’s attitude toward mitigation are tied to much more than just having a livable country. From bolstering economic sustainability to affecting political stability to playing a crucial role in China’s international relationships, the future of China’s environmental state is enormously complex. China will be fighting complicated battles as the country’s environmental issues entangle so many aspects of China’s society, economy, and polity.
This month, we will introduce and unpack China’s environmental issues from unique perspectives, engaging not just the scientific side of China’s environmental issues but the social, economic, and political sides as well. First, we’ll investigate an often overlooked aspect of China’s environmental degradation—water scarcity and quality. How are China’s water supplies? As a country that has historically faced geographic water imbalance issues, what will China do to address these concerns? What are the political and social ramifications that discontent over potable water could spark? Next, we’ll consider what the Chinese government has actually accomplished—and has not accomplished—in line with their official promises. While the CCP’s rhetoric is sincere and committed, is that the reality of the matter? Finally, we will zoom out into the global view and use the concept of shadow ecology to evaluate China’s environmental impact overseas, specifically its future impact on developing countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative. What are the environmental implications that China-led economic growth brings to those countries? Will China be able to find a balance between environmental sustainability and economic development overseas? What are the challenges and opportunities associated with this development? Does China face possible political and international push-back? This will leave us with a more nuanced framework to evaluate what China can set goals for in the future.
China faces enormous challenges and equally as enormous opportunities in the environmental arena. Throughout the course of this month, we hope to illuminate these challenges and opportunities, sparking important questions to be asked: Are environmental problems really being fixed in China? How is the government accomplishing this? What do the people think? What does this mean for China and its international counterparts? What will—and should— China do moving forward?
Isabella Cheng is a student at Yale University. Contact her at email@example.com.