China’s ambitious carbon pledge may be the world’s last best hope and has great potential for renewed US cooperation. But it also risks justifying greater authoritarianism at home, more controversial dams and exports of carbon liabilities to Belt & Road Countries.
President Xi Jinping has pledged to speed up China’s decarbonisation trajectory to reach peak emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. This is no small commitment. The world’s second-largest economy accounts for more than a quarter of the planet’s carbon emissions.
The Middle Kingdom is eager to assume environmental leadership when the US-led world order is on shaky ground. Carbon neutrality is a bold and commendable goal.
The carbon neutrality pledge must be understood within the broader context of China’s strategic goal of achieving an “ecological civilisation”. While it is tempting to dismiss the formula as propaganda, it has significant ideological underpinnings.
Ecological civilisation marks a new frontier for Chinese Marxism. The concept is an attempt to extend Karl Marx’s “stages of development” theory, which stipulates the evolution of societies from feudalism to capitalism, towards socialism, and eventually communism.
Chinese state-sponsored intellectuals have sought to refine the classic Marxist formulation by adding ecological civilisation as a transitional phase after socialism, which China has supposedly achieved.
China, therefore, sees ecological civilisation as a unique theoretical contribution to Marxism as such, it represents the party-state’s official intellectual linchpin.
Ecological civilisation is China’s unique approach to achieving renewed civilisational leadership. The Chinese state seeks to “rejuvenate” its ancient civilisation, overcoming its “century of humiliation” when China was subjugated by foreign powers.
In reasserting and restoring China’s glory, the state seeks to build not just any kind of civilisation, but a uniquely ecological type of civilisational vision and leadership.
With all this in mind, it’s possible to appreciate the high stakes of environmental protection for the Chinese state, especially at a time of great public frustration about the effects of pollution on people’s health.
The stakes are also high for the world. If China can achieve its promised carbon neutrality, it may be the last best hope for the planet’s human-life-sustaining infrastructure.
Yet, there are also risks with China’s authoritarian approach to environmental management. Beijing seems determined to elevate the centrality of its carbon cap-and-trade mechanism in its quest for economy-wide carbon neutrality.
In some parts of China, this means organisations, companies & even sporting events are assigned a quota of carbon credits
When their activities exceed the allotment, they must make up the shortfall in the carbon marketplace. If this approach spreads to the entire economy, it grants the state sweeping powers to determine which actors are worthy of more credit, intensifying state control over public life.
Moreover, the quest for carbon neutrality could serve as additional justification for the spate of dam-building already ravaging communities and threatening relocations and water supplies in downstream riparian countries in Southeast and South Asia.
Another risk is increased environmental harm beyond China’s borders. No country’s carbon neutrality should come at the cost of another’s carbon liability. But China has already been exporting some of its most carbon-intensive facilities, such as coal-fired power plants, to its partners on the Belt & Road Initiative.
Chinese state-owned enterprises have been aggressively pursuing infrastructure projects such as high-speed railways, highways, hydropower dams and deepwater ports, all of which involve a significant carbon footprint and long-term ecological consequences in habitat and biodiversity loss.
Climate change mitigation is not a competition; it is a global “good” that every nation must strive to achieve, according to its responsibilities and level of development.
The United States, one of the greatest beneficiaries of the carbon-based industrial revolution and one of the world’s richest nations, has the greatest obligation to repair the long-term damage to the planet’s infrastructure by shifting as quickly as possible to a carbon-neutral economy.
There is tremendous potential for a renewed partnership between the US and China on this. A meeting of minds, as seen at the Barack Obama-Xi Jinping summit in 2014, should be a priority if Joe Biden is elected president.
While China has assumed the mantle of global leadership on climate change in the vacuum left by the US, “environmental peacemaking” on carbon reductions can restart cooperation and should be welcomed by a Chinese leadership eager to see President Donald Trump’s missteps on US-China relations put right.
However, attention must also be paid to the risks of technocratic, top-down policymaking in an era where authoritarianism wrapped in a cloak of green may come with its own set of problems.