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”

WHAT’S AT STAKE FOR THE CHINA-SOUTH ASIA EXPO?

PROSPECT Journal is collaborating with East by Southeast, a new blog focusing on China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. As part of this collaboration, PROSPECT will be intermittently publishing articles by the East by Southeast bloggers, who all live and work in the region. Our journal is excited to bring a wider range of expert analysis of Southeast Asian affairs to our readers.

By Brian Eyler
Contributing Writer

The China-South Asia Expo opened without a hitch yesterday in Kunming despite online calls for a continuation of environmental protests outside of the Expo’s opening ceremony site. It seems protesters decided to stay home due to a combination of sticks and carrots offered by local authorities. On June 3, Kunming’s mayor announced the release of key environmental impact assessment data concerning the construction of a PetroChina oil refinery and PX chemical plant side project scheduled for construction 40 km from the city’s downtown area. Also, the excessive presence of armed and unarmed public security officers lining the city’s streets and manning the Expo site also likely turned protesters away.

What is the rationale behind the excessive security measures? What’s really at stake at the 1st China-South Asia Expo?

The Expo, a combination trade fair and high level forum for investment and trade promotion discussions between China, Southeast Asia and now South Asia, is part of China’s “Bridgehead Construction” strategy to establish Kunming and Yunnan province as a gateway between China and its neighbors to the south and west. A smoothly running Expo not only will seal multilateral agreements and high-value business deals that will streamline regional trade and investment, but it will also guarantee the continuation of soft-budget infrastructure development projects sponsored by Beijing to Kunming and Yunnan province that are part and parcel of the “Bridgehead” strategy.

The event is critically central to China’s plans for regional economic integration, so much so that Premier Li Keqiang, coming off a series of trade promotion visits to South Asian countries, was purportedly scheduled to attend yesterday’s opening ceremonies. But to many a Kunminger’s disappointment, Li Keqiang didn’t show up, and Vice Premier Ma Kai was sent in his stead.

The Expo is the continuation and augmentation of the long-running Kunming Import and Export Fair with a twist due to an ongoing provincial rivalry in China. The Kunming Fair focused on trade promotion and relations with mainland Southeast Asian nations, but in 2005, Yunnan’s neighbor, Guangxi became jealously vocal toward the volume of central level funding pipelined to Yunnan for improving relations with China’s Southeast Asian neighbors as part of the bridgehead construction strategy.

The antagonism makes sense to a degree given Guangxi’s border with Vietnam and its maritime orientation toward Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As a result, the Guangxi provincial government gained responsibility for trade and investment relations with ASEAN states and Yunnan’s responsibilities were curbed to its mainland Southeast Asian neighbors. After years of lobbying to the central government in Beijing, Yunnan’s provincial officials gained a one-up over Guangxi: a new designation as China’s gateway province to not only South Asia, but the entire Indian Ocean region including the east African coastline. Thus the China-South Asia Expo was born and designated for launch in Kunming.

The Expo grounds are open for the public to browse through mazes of booths promoting a variety of tradable goods mainly from Nepal, Pakistan, India, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam as well as China (which has the greatest representation at the Expo), but the real action is happening far from the Expo site.

Top level ministers, business leaders, and heads of industrial organizations from around the region are meeting at locations undisclosed to the public to negotiate multilateral trade agreements, sign business deals, and iron out the obstacles that currently block the flow of goods and people through the region at logistical chokepoints like China’s border nodes with Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.

On the agenda is a renewed discussion of highway and rail linkages between Yunnan and India via Myanmar and Bangladesh. This link will cut through and over the Himalayan foothills on some of Earth’s most rugged terrain. The route also will pass through Myanmar’s militarized Kachin state. India tabled the discussion of this strategic pathway in 2009, and construction is unlikely to begin any time soon.

Also on the agenda are talks to establish cross-border economic zones (CBEZs) between China (Yunnan) and Myanmar at Ruili and China (Yunnan) and Laos at Mohan/Boten. However, China’s success in establishing robust and productive CBEZs with its neighbors is extremely limited. Since 2007, both funding and political capital in both China and Vietnam has been earmarked for a CBEZ at the Hekou/Lao Cai border area in southeastern Yunnan and Vietnam’s northernmost province. Despite years of negotiations, the two sides have yet to settle on the structure and purpose of the CBEZ – they have wavered between ideas such as an export processing zone, a high technology industrial park, and Guangxi’s Commerce department chief declared at a 2011 negotiation that his vision for the zone would emulate the Eurozone. Clearly, while decision makers lack technical knowledge to solve this problem (and consistently crowd out the private sector in the process) the negotiations lose steam due to a failure to identify or fabricate a true economic purpose for the CBEZ. Tenuous diplomatic relations between Vietnam and China also contribute to the stalemate.

Will the discussions with Laos and Myanmar meet similar fates?

Conspicuously absent from the slate of Expo related meetings and discussions is participation from the civil society groups, academics, and the private sector outside of the region. Issues such as global warming, environmental degradation, food security, urbanization, and energy and water resource management are beginning to drive political agendas in both China and the region. Sustainable economic development in China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia cannot proceed forward without including discussion of these key issues and without reaching out to a broader base of stakeholders who are already deeply rooted in the region.

The ExSE blog team will continue analysis of the China-South Asia Expo throughout the weekend. The Expo concludes on Monday, June 10.

See the original post here.

Photo courtesy of southbysoutheast.com