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.

The Who, What, and Why of Climate Refugees

By Rebeca Camacho, Tenzin Chomphel, and Jasmine Moheb

While the science of climate change remains a heated debate at the forefront of international policy agenda, the reality of people being displaced from their homes due to environmental conditions is a hardened fact. The World Bank has concluded that by 2050, 143 million people will be displaced directly due to climate change. Countries that are especially susceptible to environmental disasters are those coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as they will lack the technology and preparation necessary to overcome challenges that are brought forth by environmental changes, such as rising sea levels and water scarcity.

Continue reading “The Who, What, and Why of Climate Refugees”

CRISIS IN OUR CLOSETS: THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF FAST FASHION

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Veronika Michels
Staff Writer

It is hard to argue against the notion that the Western world largely revolves around consumerism. Every billboard and advertisement we see urges us to spend money. We  buy goods and throw them out a month later to make room for more, keeping the wheels of capitalism turning and the garbage industry alive. We live in a fast world, but we can’t do so forever. The planet simply cannot regenerate itself rapidly enough to keep pace with the exploitation of its natural resources. It is well known that the oil industry is currently the largest polluter in the world and is heart and scapegoat for our environmental issues. But as we argue over the need for renewable energy, we are ignorantly clothed in the product of the second greatest polluting industry in the world – fast fashion.

The term “fast fashion” refers to the speed at which clothes are consumed and disposed. On average, each American throws out 82 pounds of textiles each year. Large fashion companies such as Zara, H&M, Topshop and Forever21 release as many as 18 collections a year which results in consumers constantly renewing their wardrobes in accordance with the latest trends. Inefficient production practices and the exploitation of workers in developing countries with capital-friendly labor laws allow these companies to produce clothing on a mass scale and sell them at extremely low prices. Many consumers are ignorant to the transnational flow of goods, exploitative labor conditions and environmentally corruptive production practices that result in the cheap prices we see on our clothing tags. Mass supply and affordability, combined with the incessant craving for novelty bred by consumer culture, has created a mindset of expendability when it comes to clothing that the planet is unable to sustain.

The detrimental environmental impact of fast fashion begins with the production of raw material, which mainly consists of cotton and leather. Cotton is used in around 40 percent of clothes but it requires vast amounts of resources to even be created. The production of a single shirt can require up to 2700 litres of water. Uzbekistan, being the sixth leading producer of cotton in the world, has suffered great consequences as a result of the cotton industry. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world and the main source of water for 1.47 million hectares of agricultural land used for cotton production. Now it has all but dried up and releases toxins and carcinogens into the air which negatively affect the neighboring communities. As laid out by the English fashion designer Katharine Hamnett: “Conventional cotton (as opposed to organic cotton) has got to be one of the most unsustainable fibres in the world. Conventional cotton uses a huge amount of water and also huge amounts of pesticides which cause 350,000 farmer deaths a year [in Uzbekistan] and a million hospitalisations.”

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Satellite images of the Aral Sea in 1989 and 2014

Another main byproduct of the clothing industry is the chemical waste produced from dyeing practices. In Indonesia, chemicals from the textile industry are disposed of into the Citarum River and the water has been contaminated with toxins like mercury, lead, and arsenic. As a result, the aquatic life in the region has suffered greatly and the polluted water often remains untreated as its flows into the ocean. One chemical used in dyeing clothes that is especially dangerous is nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE). NPEs have been banned in the EU but can still be found in clothes imported to the USA, especially in brands like Victoria’s Secret, GAP, Nike, Calvin Klein and Zara. This chemical leads to the feminisation of male fish when it pollutes water and can lead to various complications in pregnant women such as the development of breast cancer cells and damage to the placenta.

Almost every fiber in the material used to make these garments damages the environment during its life cycle. The production of polyester and nylon release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute to global warming 300 times more so than carbon dioxide. These cheaply made fibers eventually end up in oceans and streams as microfibers that come loose during washing cycles. Microfibers and microplastics are then ingested by fish and other ocean life that make their way up the food chain and onto our own plates.

The negative repercussions from production practices aren’t the only harmful output courtesy of the fashion industry. Since most garments are produced in developing countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan, they have to be shipped to large urban centers of mass consumption. The shipping industry is widely unregulated and it is estimated that a single ship can emit as many cancer and asthma-causing pollutants in one year as 50 million cars. Moreover, according to EcoWatch, “The low-grade bunker fuel burned by ships is 1,000 times dirtier than highway diesel used in the trucking industry.” Yet, the practices still persist without significant accountability for the damages being done to the atmosphere and oceans.

Unfortunately, just as with climate change, pollution and wasteful lifestyles have the greatest impact on those who contribute to the problem the least. In the Tiruppur district in India, the textile industry has become such a large source of pollution that it has completely destroyed the agricultural industry in the region. Unregulated dyeing practices have resulted in the pollution of the Noyyal river. Crops are now dependent upon rainfall, produce a much smaller yield and threaten the livelihood of local farmers. The primary consumers of these products are spared the negative repercussions that workers in the Tiruppur district must live everyday.

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Workers decontaminate cotton before it is processed at an Indian spinning mill

Fortunately, there is a way to make a difference with our own habits that can oppose the current state of affairs and the way that the fashion industry operates. When it comes to fast fashion, countermovements exist in two forms: quantity and quality of purchased clothing. Central power lies in the hands of the consumer. Quantity is controlled by one’s mindset. As consumers, we need to shift our habits toward investing in quality attire. We should buy clothing with the intent of wearing it for years to come and eliminate the desire to constantly renew the items in our closets. Each purchase must be backed by the consciousness of personal responsibility.

The likelihood of people following through with this on a mass scale unfortunately is not very high. Subsequently, the next solution lies in changing the production processes and business models of fashion retailers. Though some large brands such as H&M and Forever21 have launched campaigns to take in old clothes from customers to reuse, the truth is that only 0.1% of these clothes are actually recycled to be used as fibers in new clothes. This practice is referred to as “greenwashing” and is in no means exclusive to the fashion industry. Pumping money into reshaping a company’s public image to make it appear more sustainable and eco-friendly as a business, but not reshaping its damaging and exploitative business practices at its core, is a common technique used to take advantage of consumer guilt. Successful businesses based on ethical and sustainable models do actually exist though and cater to a range of fashion tastes. Patagonia, Noah, Organic Threads, Symbology, and Krochet Kids Intl. are just a few brands that pride themselves in their ethical and sustainable business models. They provide fair wages to their workers and use organic cotton and recycled polyester in their products. Even H&M is making a move towards sustainability with their new Conscious Collection, made from all recycled materials. It is clear that educating oneself on which shops offer quality items and choosing to invest in their products instead of cheap, short-lived alternatives can really make a difference in reducing the harmful footprint of the fashion industry.

Thrift Store
A thrift store run by the Humane Society in Vero Beach, Florida

We stand at a critical point in time where every decision on how we affect the climate can change the course of humankind’s future on Earth. Each day we get closer to the point of no return and there are certain damages which have already occurred that simply cannot be undone. The climate warms in a system of “amplifying feedbacks” where seemingly small changes in temperature and CO₂ levels create amplified responses that turn into a positive feedback loop. The earth is riddled with these feedback loops and complex ecosystems that are crucial to the overall state of the climate. It is crucial to remain educated and aware of our involvement with the planet’s finite resources. Becoming a conscious consumer within the fashion industry is a meaningful way to claim personal responsibility and is a significant step in combating the climate crisis that we are facing currently.

Images Courtesy of:
Bart Everson
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Commonwealth Scientific And Industrial Research Organisation