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Climate change

Can China be the new global hero in environmental protection?

Wenyuan Wu says while it is commendable that Beijing has been moved to act to stem rampant pollution, it still has to grow into its new role by improving on transparency and implementation at the local level

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2016, 5:41pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2016, 6:49pm

With the US veering towards global warming denial under Donald Trump, President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) China is now being cast as leading not just the region but the world in at least one field: protecting the environment.

Has China earned this sudden elevation in status to climate protector? The reality is complicated.

The shift began when Xi spoke to Trump on November 14, pledging China’s commitment to fighting climate change “whatever the circumstances”. While Trump has portrayed climate change as a Chinese fabrication, China’s leadership swiftly reminded the president-elect that climate negotiations were initiated by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Beijing lecturing Washington on climate change is a major role reversal, but it does not change the fact that China’s own environmental safeguards are still works in progress. Four decades of reckless industrialisation and urbanisation have degraded China’s air and water so much that environmental problems now threaten state legitimacy. China’s dependence on fossil fuels has resulted in unprecedented air pollution, with carbon emissions rising from 5.46 million tonnes in 1950 to a colossal 8.5 gigatonnes in 2012. Pollution from coal was linked to 366,000 premature deaths in 2013 alone.

Why I’m optimistic China can avert an environmental catastrophe

Concerns over public order go hand in hand with environmental problems. Years before the Chinese government’s environmental activism started getting global attention, rampant pollution had prompted protests that made headlines. In July 2010, for example, over 1,000 villagers took part in violent protests against the environmental misdeeds of the Shandong Xinfa aluminum plant in Guangxi ( 廣西 ).

Beijing lecturing Washington on climate change is a major role reversal, but ... China’s own environmental safeguards are still works in progress

Even with increased attention, however, environmental safety remains a concern: this October, an industrial explosion killed at least 14 people and injured almost 150 in Shaanxi (陝西) province, allegedly caused by the unlawful storage of hazardous chemicals by local coal mine owners. According to the Pew Research Centre, Chinese people see air and water pollution as their second- and third-largest concerns (after corruption) and fewer than 40 per cent foresee improvements in the near future.

International pressure has also mounted: China is the world’s largest producer of primary energy, its largest energy consumer and, critically, its largest carbon emitter. Acid rain in Japan, South Korea and even the western US stems from industrial pollution from China.

These forces compelled China to recast itself as a responsible climate actor. Beijing’s war against environmental degradation combines laws, initiatives and national plans to reduce pollution and rebalance the energy mix. A national plan was devised to achieve a 40-45 per cent reduction of carbon intensity by 2020.

The strategy entails hamstringing pollution-prone sectors while promoting renewable energy. Environmental protection bureaus have tightened licensing requirements, while Beijing plans to close 1,000 coal-fired power plants to curb overcapacity and alleviate pollution. The aluminium industry has become a major target: in October, China Hongqiao, the world’s largest aluminium smelter, was mandated by a local regulator in Binzhou city to cease production in the area after failing to obtain environmental approvals in advance.

To tackle chemical-related accidents, Beijing has embraced a strategy of punishing top personnel, including local officials and company executives. Former deputy environment minister Zhang Lijun has been jailed for taking 2.4 million yuan (HK$2.6 million) in bribes. At the same time, the 2005 Renewable Energy Law provides the legal basis for a green revolution: China’s water, wind and solar energy output surpassed the total output of France and Germany combined in 2015. China also became the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, spending 36 per cent of the world’s 2015 total.

Unfortunately, these much-heralded advances have yet to translate into tangible improvements outside Beijing. Loopholes and collusion between local officials and businesses allow polluters to skirt permit requirements. In coastal China, provincial administrators have to juggle environmental mandates with the risks of layoffs and possible unrest. This helps explain why China’s provinces have made little progress in addressing overcapacity issues.

China’s bid to cut production overcapacity in heavy industries ‘losing steam’

The financial sector also lags far behind its European and North American peers in imposing environmental standards. China’s Industrial Bank is the only Chinese bank to adopt the Equator Principles, a set of investment guidelines that monitor environmental and social risks in project financing. Those principles commit institutions to considering factors like a project’s estimated carbon dioxide emissions, waste management, and respect for labour and human rights issues as well as biodiversity and community health. Hardly any other banks have made the effort to adapt to these norms, despite relentless pressure from environmental groups.

How many more people have to die before China gets to grips with the root causes of man-made disasters?

The absence of these considerations from financing decisions helps explain how China’s overcapacity glut arose in the first place. Alongside central government mandates, Chinese financiers need to adhere to these standards for environmental reforms to have a real impact in planning decisions.

While China’s reinvention is a long-term process, recent developments could certainly help it along. Trump entering the White House means Beijing (for all its remaining shortcomings) is replacing Washington as the loudest voice on emission reduction. Of course, that outspokenness has ulterior motives.

Will China take the lead if Trump pulls out of climate change treaty?

A China-dominated regional trade bloc, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, now has a real chance to replace the stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in rewriting regional trade rules. The China-led pact proposes liberalising trade among 16 Asia-Pacific countries, including several TPP signatories. It has a more limited scope, but countries like Australia are still hesitant to sign on. Chinese negotiators need to go beyond economics to win them over, and environmental leadership serves that purpose; after all, the TPP has an environment-focused chapter with specific protection provisions.

Trans-Pacific Partnership failure may be China’s gain, Asia’s loss

The climate narrative has momentarily changed in China’s favour, but there is still a great deal to do in convincing the world that Beijing is truly an environmental leader. The state’s policies are still being undermined by poor implementation at the local level and poor transparency. Reforms and public consciousness are both positive developments. Chinese officials need to encourage them – and stop seeing public awareness as a security threat – to be considered responsible global citizens.

Wenyuan Wu is a doctoral candidate in international studies at the University of Miami. Her research covers governance and energy reform issues in China and Latin America