JASMINE GAN contextualizes China’s environmental progress.

On October 10, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urged governments to recognize the drastic trajectory of the climate in a special report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C”. To contain global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to cut down carbon emissions at unprecedented levels: essentially halving emissions by 2030 and eliminating them entirely by 2050. International response to the report has been mixed. European countries have taken up the call for new policies aligned with the 1.5°C goal. U.S. President Donald Trump has yet to release a statement and has not strayed from his 2017 plans to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. Under the current presidency, the decline of U.S. emission levels slowed in 2017, and the emissions level is projected to actually increase in the following years.

In Beijing, blue skies have appeared again as observers proclaim signs of success for Xi Jinping’s vision of China’s future as an “ecological civilization”. It has been four years since China first declared its War on Pollution, with very visible results: after years of topping the WHO’s list for deadly outdoor pollution, major Chinese cities have welcomed sporadically increasing numbers of days without smog, with a 53 percent drop in overall pollution. Life expectancy of residents has shot up by months. In 2017, there were 160,000 fewer premature deaths from pollution.

But not everything is sunny in Beijing. Criticism has been leveled at China’s aggressive policies for the reckless haste of officials in implementing edicts from the top. A sudden mandate in Hebei to switch from coal resulted in shortages of alternative sources of fuel for heating, and lack of adequate research meant that provincial goal-setting was sometimes arbitrary. Outside of China, the leviathan Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been slowly easing forward at a resolute pace since Xi announced his road map to achieving the “Chinese Dream” in 2013. Chinese investment in infrastructure projects under the initiative crown at $4 trillion this year, with a vision of covering the globe in shipping and trade routes centered on China as the node of the network. Such a grand design no doubt has its costs. So far, the environment has borne the brunt of these costs, as China puts aside environmental scruples to roll out infrastructure building projects. International concern for sustainability and environmental degradation have already prompted Xi to adopt the Green Silk Road Initiative in 2016, but visible correction beyond oft-repeated rhetoric has yet to be seen. Are these troubles merely hiccups in China’s strides on the path towards its status as an ecological civilization or has the Party’s recent performance been just for show?

Crossing the Kuznets peak

In 2012, China watchers identified a distinct “discursive shift” in the upper echelons of the Communist Party of China (CCP). The concept of “ecological civilization” was officially included in the Communist Party Constitution, five years after it was first introduced by Hu Jintao. From that point forward, China ostensibly started the shift from an “industrial civilization” to one that no longer prioritizes economic growth at the cost of environmental degradation.

In 2016, China ratified the Paris Agreement and Copenhagen Accord. In 2017, it met its 2020 pledge to cut its 2005 carbon intensity levels an astounding three years ahead of schedule. In March of this year, the CCP established the new Ministry of Ecology and the Environment, with the specific mandate of preventing pollution and contamination of China’s air, water and land. So far, this ministry has been occupied with cracking down on polluters and contamination at home, yielding clear results. China’s War on Pollution has made visible changes and improvements to air quality. Last year, China announced its controversial waste ban: it would no longer accept imports of waste from foreign countries, which previously constituted half of the world’s paper, metal, and used plastic waste.

Despite this, China has still retained its title as the world’s biggest gross emitter of carbon emissions, producing a little less than a third of the world’s carbon emissions from fossil fuels. China’s environmental troubles over its course of economic development provides a test for economist Simon Kuznets’ theory. This theory, represented by the Kuznets curve, posits that as a nation’s economic development proceeds from a rural agriculture society to an industrialized urban society, social inequality will increase, peak, and finally decrease, deriving the shape of an inverted U curve. Kuznets theorized that as economic growth boosts society to a tipping point, the rest of society will be able benefit from a trickle-down effect as the state is able to enact welfare and social safety net policies. The concept of the environmental Kuznets curve co-opts this logic by replacing social inequality with environmental degradation on the horizontal axis, which some say is exactly what is happening in China today: China’s massive economic growth has finally given it the capability to invest money in protecting the environment.




Blue sky promises

By international standards, China is doing an outstanding job in combating climate change. In the same year that “ecological civilization” became part of the CCP constitution, Donald Trump claimed that climate change was an elaborate Chinese hoax, as an instrument for economic dominance. The U.S. president’s consistent denial of climate change has led to promised American withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, essentially creating a leadership vacuum and the perfect opportunity for China to become the new international standard-bearer for environmental reform. Xi has solemnly taken up the mantle, declaring his intent for China to take a “driving seat” in the global fight against climate change as part of his long-term vision to make China a leading global power by 2050. In August, the China-Africa Cooperation Center took the first steps towards launching a China-Africa Environmental Cooperation Center. It certainly appears as though China is not just talking the talk but also walking the walk.

But is China adhering to the spirit or the letter of climate change mitigation? Although Beijing has met its goals, the initial commitments it made were been ranked as insufficient by independent research agencies: if all governments had goals within this range, net warming on Earth would be between 3-4°C, well over the Paris Agreement’s limit of 1.5°C. Further, the environmental impact of BRI infrastructure projects cannot be ignored: while Chinese officials scramble to eliminate coal as a source of fuel at home, BRI investments include the construction of over 240 coal-fired power plants in 25 developing countries, many of which do not have sufficient capability to limit damage to air quality and environmental pollution in their own home countries.

In 2016, a tribunal under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea ruled that China had caused “severe harm” to the coral reef environment in the South China. The reclamation of land, dredging of coral reefs, and construction of artificial islands to house military hangars resulted in the endangerment of the 6000 fish species and 600 coral species inhabiting the reefs. Chinese fishermen have also harvested endangered species of sea turtles, coral and giant clams at a “substantial scale”. Since China has scraped the reef surface in order to pile sand for building islands in the contested waters, reef cover has dropped by 70 percent in a short three years, on par with the destruction of coral reef through bleaching caused by global warming.

Just for show?

It may be that China is using the logic of the Kuznets curve: BRI projects aim to support infrastructure, to get more countries over the “peak” of economic development. However, undercurrents of exploitation under the BRI abound as accusations of debt diplomacy are being made, seeing as BRI partner nations, such as Sri Lanka and Djibouti, are racking up huge public debts to China. China’s Arctic trade route brings up a whole host of environmental concerns: the proposed Polar Silk Road makes use of receding polar ice caps to open a new trade route. China’s announcement of the ban on waste imports had a righteous air but in practice caused huge bottlenecks of trash in UK and Europe. The suddenness of the ban caused nations to resort to incineration of landfill, creating extremely toxic emissions. Head of the European Recycling Commission Emmanuel Katrakis criticized China for its focus on more “visible” signs of environmental destruction, instead of fighting the “big battles”.

Are China’s environmental policies just for show? As China rises, Beijing is in great need of positive press. China’s environmental policies are clearly part of a two-pronged strategy, with increasing its domestic and international legitimacy as the key goal. Environmental degradation remains the biggest source of domestic discontent in China. In the past few years, viral documentaries such as Under the Dome (2015) and Plastic China (2016) were quickly blocked by the state censorship machine. Currently, state censorship on environmental reports are still in operation as part of the clampdown on popular protests about air quality. Local meteorological bureaus must align with central government warnings with regard to air quality, which are known to be rosy-tinted. The haste with which China has implemented environmental policies was most likely incentivized by the need to head off the discontent of the Chinese people.

The ostensible contradictions in China’s environmental policies can be summed up as a “pollute first, clean up later” strategy. This attitude applies equally to its exploits both domestically and abroad through the BRI, as Beijing remains convinced that development and environmental degradation are merely the two sides of a very lucrative coin. While the passing clouds have left London and now Beijing, it looks like there will be New Delhi and Islamabad to follow.

Jasmine Gan can be contacted at jasmine.gan@yale.edu.