In the winter of 1993, the soot-filled skies over Beijing magically turned blue: an Olympics inspection team had flown in, and the government ordered factories, offices and residential blocks to switch off coal-fired boilers. We all shivered for a day or two, but the team left impressed.

In 2008, when Beijing hosted the summer games, the pollution lifted once again as cars were banned from boulevards. This wasn’t real progress, of course; it was a show, and to this day Beijing residents use the term “Olympic blue” to describe all kinds of official sleight of hand.

Unfortunately, the environmental respite triggered by the coronavirus has proved just as fleeting. After dropping precipitously as the country locked down, China’s carbon emissions are back to where they were before the crisis as commerce and industry roar back to life. And they may be about to get worse.

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To reboot their economies, local Chinese governments are going on a construction binge, adding coal power plants at an accelerated pace. The same impulse will likely result in new fleets of fossil fuel-powered generators along pristine stretches of China’s “Belt & Road Initiative” in Central Asia, Africa and elsewhere. China is the biggest financier of mines and power facilities in the developing world.

This could turn out to be a destructive legacy of Covid-19. For all its massive investment in renewable energy since the 2008 Olympics, China still burns half the world’s coal. And its search for post-Covid growth is likely to supersede considerations about the environment, given the risks posed by high unemployment and social discontent.

China’s seeming retreat on climate change sets up a new source of tension with the West, much of which is headed in the opposite direction. Britain hasn’t burnt a lump of coal for weeks—the longest uninterrupted period since the Industrial Revolution. Sweden and Austria have shuttered their last coal-fired power plants, and France is about to follow.

It’s a similar story in the U.S., where gas and renewables are now cheaper; many of the coal-burning power plants that closed down as the economy collapsed this spring will never reopen. Indeed, the U.S. is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable power than from coal for the first time on record.

In many countries, investors are retreating from coal amid a social backlash, pushing up the cost of financing coal projects. A push toward teleworking in the post-Covid economy, the advance of electric cars, and consumer misgivings about air travel are all likely to accelerate these trends.

Joint action on climate change has long been considered one of the best hopes for cooperation between China and the West, along with pandemic control, urban planning and sustainable development. The Obama administration was so anxious to persuade China to sign up to the Paris climate accord that it overlooked deep differences over trade, intellectual property and human rights.

Getting Beijing on board with that agreement was one of President Barack Obama’s signal foreign policy accomplishments.

China is not alone in going backwards on coal, however. India is travelling the same path, as are the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. Demand from Asia will swamp gains in the West over the next decade or so.

But with China, the stakes are higher. On top of a Cold War with the U.S. over trade, finance and technology, we’re about to plunge into one tied to global warming.

The East-West Divide

As one of its principal missions, the Bloomberg New Economy is committed to ensuring East-West dialogue on all these issues. How wide is the divide? Very wide, according to a new study.

A new survey by Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change stated that a majority of people in Britain, the U.S. and France, and a plurality in Germany, see the Chinese government as a negative force in the world and their opinion has worsened through the Pandemic.

Author: Andrew Browne