In a recent review of Carlos Martinez’s book The East is Still Red – Chinese socialism in the 21st century, Stefania Fusero provides a detailed summary of the chapter on China’s environmental record (China is building an ecological civilisation), including a discussion of China’s trajectory on ecological issues, its commitment in the last two decades to renewable energy development, its record on afforestation, and its leadership in eco-friendly transport. Stefania also sums up the book’s position as to why China, of all countries, has emerged as the uncontested world leader in renewable energy and biodiversity protection.
Stefania’s review was first published in Italian in La Città Futura and has been translated into English by the author.
The Review: L’Oriente è rosso – ancora!
China is Building an Ecological Civilisation
Carlos Martinez’s book provides us with a wide-ranging overview of 21st century China, but in this article, I am going to focus exclusively on the chapter entitled “China is Building an Ecological Civilisation.” Although ecology is rightfully one of the most debated topics both among policymakers and at a grassroots level, we know hardly anything about the environmental policies pursued by and in the People’s Republic of China. Through Martinez’s book we get an exhaustive and detailed picture of them.
With the proclamation of the PRC on October 1, 1949, China began the long journey of emancipation of its people from poverty and underdevelopment, which would lead it to pull hundreds of millions of people out of absolute poverty a few years ago.
The economic development of the PRC, just like previously that of Europe, the US and Japan, was mainly based on coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, which until two decades ago made up around 80 percent of China’s energy mix. Faced with the choice between economic development resulting in environmental degradation or underdevelopment with environmental conservation, the Chinese leadership chose development.
“The abundance of cheap fossil fuel energy enabled China to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, whilst simultaneously establishing itself as a global leader in science and technology, thereby building a foundation for the construction of a modern and sustainable socialist society.”
It is thanks to that choice that China, although still a developing country, is no longer poor. At the same time, however, the effects of the industrialisation process have amplified and aggravated China’s natural vulnerability to climate change – it is one of the countries most prone to ecological disasters, with 200 million people exposed to the effects of droughts and floods; with nearly a quarter of the world’s population, China has only 5% of the planet’s water resources and 7% of the arable land.
Environmental issues have therefore become a top priority and the CPC has focused, especially in the last decade, on the transition to a green development model. If in the 1980s they made GDP growth one of their top priorities, at the 19th Congress of the CPC in 2017 Xi Jinping announced that the main contradiction that Chinese society now faces is that between unbalanced and inadequate development and the needs of people for an ever-better life.
Already in 2014 Xi Jinping wrote in The Governance of China: “We must strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. We will be more conscientious in promoting green, circular, and low-carbon development. We will never again seek economic growth at the expense of the environment.”
If the concepts of growth and development remain a priority on the Chinese leadership’s agenda, “innovative, coordinated, green, open and inclusive” growth and development opportunities that preserve nature are now being pursued. Such a view shifts the development goal “from maximising growth to maximising net welfare”, in the words of influential Chinese economist Hu Angang.
The commitment announced in 2014 by Xi Jinping – “China will also develop a resource-efficient and environmentally friendly geographical layout, industrial structure, mode of production and lifestyle, and leave to our future generations a working and living environment made up of blue skies, green fields and clean water” – has translated into concrete actions that caused Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, to remark: “The world has never before seen a climate programme on this scale.”
This programme covers various areas: decarbonisation, renewable sources, nuclear energy, energy efficiency, transport, reforestation, green GDP.
The Chinese government plans to peak CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.
In the 15 years from 2007 to 2022, coal’s share of the power mix was reduced from 81 percent to 56 percent, plans to build more than 100 coal-fired power plants were cancelled in 2017, and in 2021 Xi Jinping announced that China will not build new coal-fired power plants overseas and will increase its support for developing countries to pursue green development.
Total emissions from coal-fired power industries have been cut by nearly 90 percent over the last decade, with a dramatic impact in major cities – in 2019 Beijing dropped out of the list of the 200 most polluted cities and whereas in 2012 sixteen out of the world’s twenty worst-polluted cities were located in China, a decade later only two Chinese cities appear on the list.
Investing in renewables
International energy analyst Tim Buckley notes that China is the world leader in “wind and solar installation, in wind and solar manufacturing, in electric vehicle production, in batteries, in hydro, in nuclear, in ground heat pumps, in grid transmission and distribution, and in green hydrogen.” In summary, “they literally lead the world in every zero-emissions technology today.”
Over 80 percent of the solar panels built in the world are made in China. A report from the International Energy Agency notes that China’s PV-focused industrial policies have contributed to more than 80 percent cost reductions, helping the sector become the most cost-effective electricity generation technology in many parts of the world – an important contribution to global decarbonisation.
Hybrid wind and solar bases are being built in the northwestern part of the country, which by 2030 will contain about as much renewable capacity as can currently be found in all of Europe, and Chinese scientists have recently developed the world’s first prototype of a superconducting hybrid power line, whose full-scale version will transmit energy without resistance from one side of the country to the other.
China is also spearheading nuclear energy research, including fourth-generation reactors, the first of which was connected to the grid in December 2021. Fourth-generation reactors promise to be significantly safer and produce far less radioactive waste compared to previous nuclear technology.
According to the International Energy Efficiency Scorecard, China ranks 9th in energy efficiency – one place ahead of the United States, and the highest ranking of all developing countries.
Globally, transport is responsible for about a fifth of carbon dioxide emissions, and China is so far the only country to have made truly meaningful progress in terms of decarbonising transport.
About 98 percent of the world’s electric buses are in China, and several major cities have already achieved 100 percent electrification of their bus fleet. More electric cars are sold in China each year than in the rest of the world combined.
As for high-speed rail (HSR), another important tool for decarbonising transport, China also leads the way, with more high-speed rail miles than the rest of the world combined. As of 2022, China had 37,900 km of HSR – the US only 80 km!
China is carrying out the largest forestation project in the world, planting forests “the size of Ireland” in just one year and doubling forest coverage from 12 percent in 1980 to 23 percent in 2020. The goal is to increase forest coverage until it reaches at least 26 percent by 2035. Meanwhile, hundreds of national parks have been developed and a third of the country’s land has been placed behind an “ecological protection red line”.
Towards a green GDP
Hu Angang proposes a ‘green GDP’ that comprises nominal GDP, green investment measures, investment in human capital, alongside a subtractive component for greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, mineral and forest depletion, and losses from natural disasters. Such a model encourages moderate consumption, low emissions and the preservation of ecological capital as a key economic goal.
Some major Chinese cities are experimenting with implementations of green GDP. Shenzhen is the first city in the world to have adopted an accounting system based on gross ecosystem product (GEP) – “the total value of final ecosystem goods and services supplied to human well-being in a region annually… measured in terms of biophysical value and monetary value.”
All China’s fault?
If China’s progress in the field of renewable energy has been publicly acknowledged by various agencies, the dominant narrative in Western mass media remains the one that we have been so generously fed with by the US and its allies: “it’s all China’s fault”.
Two key themes are repeated incessantly: 1) China has been the world’s largest emitter (in absolute terms) of greenhouse gases in recent years; 2) China has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, whereas the USA and UK have pledged to reach this goal by 2050.
It is a dishonest narrative, which does not consider such fundamental factors as:
1) the per capita emissions figure for the US and Australia is nearly twice as high that of China;
2) in terms of cumulative emissions (the amount of greenhouse gases in excess in the atmosphere right now – let’s remember that CO2 remains there for hundreds of years), the United States with 4 percent of the world’s population is responsible for 25 percent; China on the other hand, with 18 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 13 percent;
3) China’s emissions have increased in recent decades while Western emissions have decreased because advanced capitalist countries have exported their emissions to developing countries;
4) the main capitalist countries of Europe, North America and Japan reached their peak in greenhouse gas emissions in the 1980s, after almost two centuries of industrialisation. If indeed they can achieve net zero emissions by 2050, their journey from peak carbon to net zero will have taken six or seven decades. If China achieves its goals of reaching peak emissions by 2030 and zero carbon emissions by 2060, it will have taken less than half the time of the leading capitalist countries.
Wars are harmful to the environment
Meanwhile, while China makes world-leading progress in transitioning away from fossil fuels, the major capitalist countries are failing dismally.
The most striking example is given by the fallout from the NATO proxy war against Russia, which is disastrous also in environmental terms. The sanctions against the Russian economy have led, among other things, to a significant increase in US exports of fracked shale gas to Europe; the reactivation of coal-fired plants in Germany and elsewhere; the acceleration of oil and gas extraction in the North Sea. To Martinez’s list, we must add the devastating effects that the terrorist attack on the Nord Stream pipeline has had on the environment.
The hybrid war launched by the United States against China is making it clear that the entire US political establishment deems that waging a new cold war against China is more important than boosting their national economy or saving the planet. Just look at the sanctions on solar power materials made in China, based on the shameful slander about “slave labour” in Xinjiang. These sanctions will drive up the prices of solar panels, thus leading to a significant reduction in new solar energy installations, with a consequent increase in harmful emissions and significant job losses.
Rich countries, poor countries
At the 2009 UN climate summit, rich nations pledged to channel $100 billion a year to less wealthy nations in order to help them adapt to climate change and the green transition. A laughably small commitment – the United States alone spends more than 800 billion dollars annually on its military – which, however, the rich nations have not fulfilled.
Chinese financing for renewable power generation overseas increased more than fourfold between 2015 and today, and Chinese political banks such as Eximbank and China Development Bank are leading the financing of major projects in developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America.
The words, the facts
“While China has made moves to implement its radical conception of ecological civilisation, which is built into state planning and regulation, the notion of a Green New Deal has taken concrete form nowhere in the West.” (John Bellamy Foster)
What is the reason for this striking contrast? Martinez has no doubts: China’s economic development proceeds according to state plans, not market anarchy. As a result, the interests of private profit are subordinate to the needs of society.
As Deirdre Griswold writes in Workers World: “China’s economic planners have the power to make decisions that cost a lot of money, but will benefit the people – and the world – over the long run. They’re not driven by profits and each quarter’s bottom line.’’
China is leading the battle against the climate breakdown – something the West is extremely reluctant to admit both for cultural reasons – fuelled by the “pervasive (albeit largely unconscious) assumption that the predominantly white nations of Western Europe and the North America are fundamentally more civilised and enlightened than the rest of the world” – and political – China’s successes in this and other areas risk demonstrating the fundamental validity of socialism as a means of promoting human progress.
Source: la Citta Futura, 08/07/2023. https://www.lacittafutura.it/recensioni/l’oriente-è-rosso-–-ancora
English version: Friends of Socialist China, . https://socialistchina.org/2023/10/20/the-east-is-still-red-and-green/