China has been the world’s largest energy consumer since 2009, accounting for 25% of the world’s energy consumption. This is hugely significant for the collective effort toward achieving the Paris Agreement and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. China is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse emissions. 85% of its total energy comes from fossil fuels. 60% of its total energy comes from coal. Moreover, through China’s Belt and Road policy, the county has ‘positioned itself as a major provider, in some cases the major provider, of the infrastructure of industry, energy, and transportation in much of the rest of the developing world’ therefore, China’s policy towards building the Belt and Road Initiative have great consequences for the carbon neutrality targets of all 131 countries involved in the scheme. As emphasised by David Wallace Wells ‘on the matter of Climate Change China does hold nearly all the cards’.
Only recently, China argued ‘that it was entitled to burn fossil fuels just like developed countries that have benefited most from such practices’, thankfully, the world’s largest polluter has committed towards changing course, and in 2020 Xi Jinping pledged to stop carbon emissions before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
Two recent books on the energy industry evaluate China’s effectiveness in enacting climate change reform. First, David Yengin’s book The New Map emphasises the global context of energy crises. Secondly, the book Green China introduces empirical evidence for and against climate change mitigation efforts. Just as Christianity was the moral rhetoric supporting the British Empire and Democracy for the Americans, Shapiro and Yi suggest Environmentalism is the civilising mission created to justify CCP authoritarian imperialism.
China has the greatest technological capacity to build renewable energy infrastructures around the planet. Yergin explains how China produces 70% of the world’s solar panels, surpassing Germany as the world’s largest producer of solar panels in 2013. Cost reduction has made solar panels increasingly affordable with prices decreasing 85% between 2010 and 2019. Moreover, 2020 has seen the Chinese wind generated power market produce ‘above the combined total for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America’. Therefore, while the architecture of achieving carbon neutrality lies with national governments, ultimately the technology that will gets us there will be made in China.
Chinese authoritarianism provides the state with powers to enact measures that would be considered unthinkable in the West. In theory this could lead towards the eco-authoritarian efficiency that many climate activists have dreamt of in the most stressful of times. For instance, when the state tried to bring China’s coal energy mix down to 65% by 2017 from the 2012 level of 68.5% the chief administrator in Beijing decided to implement a total ban on coal. The 110 million people in the Beijing Tianjin Hebei presumably lost immediate access to coal. Fear of losing jobs led towards the enactment of drastic measures in Beijing. The Beijing Gas Company invested a total of 1.3 billion US dollars, five times the normal expenditures to retrofit residential energy infrastructure. Eventually this resulted in meeting the energy target sooner than expected, with levels of national coal use dropping to 60.4% because of ‘over enforcement’. Shapiro and Li comment, ‘in the face of horrendous pressure from multiple central level ministerial authorities, local officials were frightened into becoming environmental warriors’.
Forestation seems to be an area of celebration and success for the Chinese environmental movement. Li and Shapiro highlight how ‘even nowadays tree planting remains the safest form of activism under authoritarianism’. They explain how 70.5 billion trees have been planted in the last 4 decades, with China even having a national day for tree planting – March 12th – and a 1984 law which obliged every male aged 11 to 60 and every female from 11 to 55 to plant three to five trees per year. Nonetheless, Shapiro and Li emphasise the low survival rates for many of these trees: 5% in Gansu and 34% in Beijing.
Chinese use of coal provides the greatest evidence that they are failing to meet the Paris Agreement goals. It is argued that in order to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees, 80% of coal needs to remain in the ground, however, while the UK is banning coal mines in Bradley and possibly in Cumbria, China is ‘adding three new highly efficient coal fired plants each month’. As cited earlier 60% of China’s energy comes from coal, moreover, the dirtiest of carbon emitting habits is being exported throughout the Silk Road. A 2019 study by Greenpeace East Asia indicates that China has put over five times more coal power into the Belt and Road Initiative than into Wind and Solar, moreover, ‘China’s commercial banks face few restrictions on funding coal fired plants’ suggesting that China is ignoring what David Wallace Wells describes as ‘carbon outsourcing’ and with coal sites being built throughout the 131 Belt and Road countries, including in European sites like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Li and Shapiro accept ‘the Chinese economy is unlikely to lose its coal addiction anytime soon’.
The Coronavirus pandemic has emphasised China’s unwillingness to co-operate with established international discourse and protocol. The Financial Times emphasises that China has been ‘desperate to convince the world that it is not to blame for the pandemic’ and thus deflect blame for the consequential damage towards the economy. The most popular Chinese explanation for the Coronavirus origins stem from the frozen food theory which states that Coronavirus was delivered to Wuhan through frozen food. This differs from the global narration that the Coronavirus was started through a live meat market containing ‘live wolf pups, golden cicadas, scorpions, bamboo rats, squirrels, foxes, civets, salamanders, turtles and crocodiles’. WHO program manager and mission leader Peter Ben Embarek told the journal Science that frozen food was not a “possible route of introduction” given “there were no widespread outbreaks of Covid around the world”. China’s attempts to propose this lie have been armed by successful attempts to block World Health Organization investigations in July – when the WHO’s two man team failed to visit Wuhan – and then provided a two week time limit for investigation and banned journalists from cooperating.
The grossest and most dangerous form of disregard to diplomatic arrangements can be found on the subject of the genocide on the Uighurs in Xianjang. The Washington DC think tank Newline Institute charges the Chinese with violating all 5 conventions of the 1948 UN convention on Genocide. The 5 acts defined by the convention are:
I) Killing members of the group.
II) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
III) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part.
IV) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
V) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The UN convention on Genocide has been signed by 152 countries including China. Just as with the Coronavirus, China has denied all accusations of Genocide.
The attempts at obfuscation and disinformation emphasise the Chinese government as fundamentally dishonest and actively damaging to efforts of international diplomacy. The failure to hold China accountable on Coronavirus origins and the Uighur Genocide should be applied towards Chinese commitments towards climate change. In the event China were to continue coal investments and climate outsourcing in violation of the Paris treaty, it is likely China would deny it in public discourse and deflect all attempts of international diplomacy.
In the context of Chinese behaviour over Covid 19 and the Uighur genocide it is worth completing the passage on ‘carbon outsourcing’ with David Wallace Wells answering the question ‘whose responsibility are those gigatons of carbon?’
‘it may not much longer be merely a rhetorical question, if the Paris accords yield to a more rigorous global carbon governance structure, as they were intended to, and add, along the way, a proper enforcement mechanism military or otherwise’.
I would like to ask Wallace Wells if it is plausible that countries within the Paris accord, whose efforts at decarbonisation rely greatly on Chinese technology, could afford threatening military action against China?