China’s Paradox: Economic Stimulation vs. Climate Catastrophe Aversion

Environmental inspectors in northern China have found that seventy percent of the businesses they examined failed to meet environmental standards for controlling air pollution. (Photo by Ella Ivanescu)

by Rachel Chiang
Staff Writer

This is a familiar story: China is to blame for climate change, with twenty-seven percent of global greenhouse gases emanating from within its borders. Operating under the desire to generate capital, the “authoritarian” Chinese state condones crippling levels of pollution, to the point at which face masks are daily necessities embraced by residents of Beijing. Any efforts to be environmentally conscious in the United States are futile since China will continue the reckless expansion of its carbon footprint.

China faces a daunting challenge: shifting away from their status as the second largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions towards more climate-friendly policies. Having undergone rigorous reforms over the last thirty years, China has become, and is still advancing as, one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world. In face of this rapid growth, however, China must now consider policies to align its trajectory of economic growth with efforts to be environmentally sustainable, and placate inflaming concerns about climate change. 

It is no secret that citizens of some Chinese provinces reside under black skies, hazy horizons, and breathe in sooty air. Air pollution has become so problematic that some operations of solar panels have been hindered. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong have discovered that premature deaths and lost food production as a result of air pollution is costing China 267 billion yuan (US$38 billion) each year. Fortunately running counter to the “airpocalypse,” the Chinese government, despite not being held by any international treaty, has initiated measures to alleviate environmental crises. Contrary to popular belief, China leads the globe in clean energy investment which, when taken as a percentage of GDP, is ten times that of the United States. Waging a “War on Pollution” in 2013 , the CCP has henceforth given environmental sustainability the attention it deserves, carrying almost equal importance as other traditional Chinese policies, such as alleviating poverty. China also took the lead in green financing– according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China is accountable for 40 per cent of global growth in renewable resources and has already exceeded its 2020 photovoltaic energy goal (the CCP’s 2020 photovoltaic goal is 105GW, which was surpassed in 2017). It is currently the world’s largest solar market with solar finance last year equaling that of the whole of Europe at $23.5 billion. Jonas Nahm, an energy expert at Johns Hopkins University, states that China’s clean energy supply chain is indispensable in the world’s efforts to meet the climate targets by 2030, and to curb the acceleration of the climate catastrophe. 

Masks are the norm for Chinese residents. (Photo by Arran Smith)

Amid all this, however, China faces two dilemmas. For Chinese political elites, economic growth is the only viable route towards amerioliating the quality of lives, increasing employment rate, and ending poverty. Unfortunately, pursuing economic growth is often at odds with the flourishing climate action movement. On one hand, China, the largest global consumer of energy and greenhouse gas emitter, staunchly refuses to commit to any binding international treaty for emission reduction. On the other hand, the country invests heavily in alternative energy and has made great strides in energy transition. While environmental depredations pose a serious threat to China’s economic growth, costing the country roughly three to ten percent of its gross national income ($227 billion), according to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, the polluting coal industry in China stimulates the most economic growth. The principle challenge for the future development of the coal industry is how to deal with carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Options such as a carbon tax, clean coal power plants, and increasing the price of fossil-fuel energy are considered to allow greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies to become economically viable and reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. 

The second paradox in China’s climate diplomacy and politics is the struggle to balance state interest and international role. As anthropogenic activities continue to accelerate the occurrence of extreme climatic events, whether or not China can continue adhering to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is a gray area. On one hand, if China remains unwavering in its reluctance to commit to international treaties and obligations to tackle climate change, it will be recognized as the “culprit of global warming,” thus risking the ruination of China’s reputation as a “responsible power,” and threatening China’s stance as an indispensable leading authority in international affairs. On the other hand, if China caves in to international pressure and prioritizes the environment over the economy, its rise to power may be thwarted as a result of economic stagnation that they believe would follow. International pressures may thus be imposed on China in the form of sanctions. It will be interesting to observe how China maneuvers this growth dilemma. 

China must decide whether to prioritize economic growth or developing more comprehensive environmental policies in the coming years (Photo by Markus Spiske).

Combating climate change must be a global effort and China’s engagement in climate diplomacy in this battle is critical. An EU delegate at the COP twenty-five meetings in Madrid observes, “If we get China, the rest of Asia will follow.” If nations do not cohesively advance towards  a climate change mitigation trajectory, the 2030 climate target will likely not be met in time. China’s direction of development will be crucial for global climate change in the next two decades. The strategies and role in international negotiations will be shaping the global response to climate change ever more profoundly. With its vast size, economic output and capacity to develop new models and technologies, China’s efforts will, by far, have the most profound impact on the global initiative to prevent a climate catastrophe.

One thought on “China’s Paradox: Economic Stimulation vs. Climate Catastrophe Aversion

  1. What “Paradox”?:

    Over the last decade, wind energy prices have fallen 70% and solar photovoltaics have fallen 89% on average … Utility-scale renewable energy prices are now significantly below those for coal and gas generation, and they’re less than half the cost of nuclear … building new clean energy generation is cheaper than running existing coal plants.

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/energyinnovation/2020/01/21/renewable-energy-prices-hit-record-lows-how-can-utilities-benefit-from-unstoppable-solar-and-wind/#47c52ef72c84

    A recent report from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories concludes that California can achieve NEGATIVE emissions by 2045 (MINUS 125 million tons CO2 annually), at modest cost (only 0.34% of GDP) with technologies that are already demonstrated or mature.

    https://www-gs.llnl.gov/content/assets/docs/energy/Getting_to_Neutral.pdf

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