Only China Can Save the Planet
The United States is lost in the delusions of climate change deniers. Fortunately, Beijing could be up for leading the fight.
Under its new administration, the United States has abandoned any claim to climate leadership. Whether or not Donald Trump reneges on his now-infamous 2012 tweet claiming climate change was a hoax, the presidency is in the hands of a man who puts ego and profit far before science. The House of Representatives, Senate, and judiciary are all controlled by Republicans who see continuing to tap into new fossil fuels as vital and desirable, and the incoming secretary of state is the former CEO of ExxonMobil, a company whose founding family, the Rockefellers, has described it as “morally reprehensible” for its efforts to conceal information about climate change.
Even if Trump choked to death tomorrow, little short of a coup could cause the Republican-led government to heed its own military’s view that climate change poses “significant risk to U.S. national security and international security.” At my offices in Shanghai, which I share with the publishers of a prominent international scientific journal, the mood wavers between gloominess and a hope that, somehow, something will save us. But the threat feels personal now, to our families and futures. Scientists talk about “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” the difficulty of seeing a tragedy that is still preventable accelerating in slow motion.
With the United States out, who’s left to take up the reins of global leadership and push forward measures like last year’s breakthrough Paris climate agreement? There’s only one possible answer: China.
Bullshit, as a senior corporate consultant based in Beijing, and Trump voter, told me. China is the biggest carbon dioxide emitter, with nearly 30 percent of the global total, and that is only set to increase. True, China’s per capita contribution is still far lower than the West’s. But who cares? There are lots of Chinese people, and they are only going to want more cars, meat, and electricity as time goes on. Beijing has been experiencing an unprecedented air crisis for a decade, but the government barely has been able to shift the needle on the air quality index. And will the government be able to tackle vested interests in the coal and iron industries, ones with profound ties to the Communist Party and its leaders?
Well, in fact, it might. It would be a superhuman feat, but there’s clear interest among some of China’s most powerful to entirely transform the country within a generation on environmental policy, just as its economy was previously transformed from communism to a dynamic free market.
There are plenty of indications that China is already thinking big on climate change. The government is plowing its reserves into renewable energy investments and showing the political will to push back against the country’s powerful coal industry. There’s also an insistence on building transportation and electricity infrastructures that can kick-start China’s economy into another era of growth — and hold emissions where they are in time for new solutions to be developed.
Recently, the government announced the immediate cancellation of some 100 coal-related power plants across 13 provinces and metropolises; some had been under construction when the work stoppage orders came. Polluting industries from steel to cement are closing down, as the economic base of the country transforms from manufacturing to the service economy: In Shenzhen, the former manufacturing head, the China Merchants Group, and the local city government have teamed up to transform the economy into a design-driven one, rather than a landscape of factories; and in Shanghai, one of the last big factories, run by Baosteel, is shutting its doors, headed into new (and more fuel-efficient) digs in Wuhan, even as city officials struggle to make the Huangpu River, notoriously full of dead pigs a few years ago, drinkable again. All across the country, dramatic remedial action is taking place to transform the nation’s industrial base.
And a “Green Leap Forward” might be just what China needs. China has been facing an economic slowdown, a lack of soft power, an increasingly hollow national ideology, and a growing chorus of intellectuals and members of civil society asking what the point of the system is — in private. A holy war for the environment, one that catalyzes ancient Chinese ideas about harmony with nature, with the engineering so beloved by Chinese leaders, could be the magic bullet to let China not only survive the 21st century but also redeem its political model in the process. China could offer a new sort of harmonious hegemony and a model that mixes stability, growth, and ecological responsibility to countries and cities on the front lines of climate change, from Ethiopia to Bangladesh, from Singapore to Miami. As Yihui Shi of the Carbon Trust told me: “I believe China is in a unique position to lead climate change efforts and the transition into low-carbon economy, because of its political system, where governments and [state-owned enterprises] drive the mass deployment of cleaner technologies and development by default,” while also facing multiple problems on the ground, however.
The “One Belt, One Road” investment scheme, which seeks to tie together the regions on China’s peripheries, from the South China Sea to Central Asia, could be a starting place. In the empty expanses of Central Asia and Siberia, carbon-cap forests could be planted; any given factory in Guangdong or Jiangsu could rent hundreds of acres and repopulate them with trees.
The high-speed rail network in China has been so successful that Indonesia is building one, the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte has called for one, and India’s New Delhi to Mumbai line seems to be inspired by … well, um, Japan’s Shinkansen, of course. The hydraulic technologies seen in megaprojects like the South-to-North water diversion project could be exported alongside China’s increasingly successful and ecologically friendly high-speed rail programs (even if the kinks haven’t been totally worked out yet). The infrastructural boom in China has been a conscious attempt to create a country networked by mass transit and affordable alternatives to car ownership.
China’s private sector is ready to bring its expertise to the developing nations around the world that have received so much Chinese outbound capital in recent years; the savings in energy and materials in planned infrastructure and real estate developments will be good for the environment, as well as the bottom line. The construction companies and engineers responsible for building some of China’s tightly packed and dense cities could bring their inexpensive, rapidly constructed style of apartments to China’s neighbors.
Shenzhen and Shanghai are among the world’s densest megacities yet are far more livable than cities such as Kolkata or Lagos’s littered shantytowns. They won’t be winning any design awards but could provide a model for livable and modern spaces to populations across the global south who might be living in favelas otherwise. Whether it is China’s State Grid investing $4.5 billion in Brazil, a Chinese state-owned railway company engaging in projects in Indonesia and Ethiopia, or government-funded research in the Arctic, there is real and significant investment and exploration being made by Chinese-owned entities around the world, not just in China proper.
From electricity to water to housing and transportation, China’s post-1989 modernization wasn’t only economic but also urban and technological, making China the go-to reference for anyone trying to understand how vast populations can rapidly, inexpensively, and efficiently be entered into global networks of supply and demand without built-in wastage of the kind engendered by America’s highways. For Chinese companies, faced with shrinking domestic demand but vast research and development capital provided by the state, and for developing nations from Brazil to Iran in search of the technologies needed to sustainably house swelling populations, China’s rise can be, as officials so love to say, “win-win.” If we also count the health of the earth, that’s win-win-win.
To be sure, all this is more than a little idealistic. China has seen its carbon dioxide emissions grow every year and has deeply entrenched incentives for ongoing use of coal and other fossil fuels. Even as China suspends 104 coal plants per day, carbon dioxide levels still rise inexorably — even optimists in the government see 2025 as the peak, with the years to come witnessing more, more, and more.
Easy as it might be to dream of top-down leadership directing environmental change on a big scale, China’s politics and its political economy are far more complicated than either its boosters or its critics seem to know. Shut down the factories around Beijing and the air gets cleaner, but what are the workers in those factories supposed to do? Found internet start-ups? Build a new green and sustainable housing compound, and you’ve eaten away at arable farmland, which already makes up just over 10 percent of China’s territory, compared with 17 percent in the United States (and with a population four times larger). The recent debates about corruption in China conceal factional warfare between groups based in different regions and different industries — and there are definitely vested interests in protecting powerful, polluting state-owned industries.
Still, China faces existential realities in a way that the United States does not: Of the top three cities set to be damaged by rising tides, two — Shanghai and Guangzhou — are among China’s three largest cities. Beijing’s ongoing air crisis threatens the middle class, which is the bedrock of the regime. And China’s high population density is both the source of high emissions and the reason why the government needs to slow them down. As global leaders discussed in the World Economic Forum, not just China but specifically the Chinese government stands to lose tremendously; since China’s infrastructure is state-owned, derailing trains, flooded cities, or abandoned ports hit the government in its own bottom line.
From my office on the 42nd floor in a LEED-certified building in downtown Shanghai, I morbidly look down through “fog” at the streets below; British novelist and native Shanghailander J.G. Ballard’s 1962 apocalyptic novel about climate change, The Drowned World, was written with precisely these streets in mind — and by 2050, unless we do something, 76 percent of downtown Shanghai is predicted to be submerged. (Unlike Manhattan or Amsterdam, we can’t build a wall; Shanghai is built on mud and sandstone, and our skyscrapers sink inches every year under their own weight.)
For the good of our world, we can only hope that China’s policymakers will be able to create a heroic second act to the story of China’s growth and, in the process, just maybe save the world.
Photo Credit: VCG / Stringer
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