Why China will stick to decarbonization and sustainable development

In this article, originally published on CGTN and coinciding with the Boao Forum on Asia, Keith Lamb addresses humanity’s looming climate catastrophe and how it is exacerbated by such factors as imperialism’s profit from war. In contrast, through cooperation with the Global South and by promoting global development alongside the sustainable preservation of humanity and the biosphere, China is pointing the way towards an ecological civilization. “China’s people-centred approach means markets and capital must stay subservient to society as a whole,” the author notes.

The annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), which brings together Asia-Pacific businesses and governments to promote economic and social development, is upon us. One of the pressing matters for this year’s forum is the climate catastrophe.

Plenty of discussion and even more action is needed if we are to meet the Sustainable Development Goals to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, as set out by the Paris Climate Agreement, global carbon emissions need to be reduced by 45 percent by 2030, from 2010 levels, and net-zero emissions must be reached by 2050. The agreement also requests each country to outline and communicate their post-2020 climate actions, known as their nationally determined contributions.

Unfortunately, as reported in the UN’s The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021, despite a slight downtrend in carbon emissions, due to COVID-19, by December 2020, emissions fully rebounded. Indeed, carbon emissions were 2 percent higher than in December 2019, leading the report to say “the climate crisis continues largely unabated.”

Even worse is that the crisis in Ukraine risks greater carbon pollution. Despite the push by Europeans towards green energy, the blocking of Russian natural gas will slowdown the phasing out of coal power while pushing for fuels that will drive up carbon emissions.

Shipping liquefied gas from the U.S. and increasing fracking, to make up for Russia being blocked out of the “free market,” clearly isn’t healthy for the environmental economy. Indeed, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres fears that these actions further endanger the goal of meeting global warming limits.

If one was to conclude that because the developed West falls into arrears so should developing China then one would be mistaken. China has strong social, political and economic reasons for remaining committed to achieving carbon neutrality and sustainable development.

When it comes to politics China’s people-centered approach means markets and capital must stay subservient to society as a whole. Previously, profits came at the expense of environmental security which led to the determination to build an “ecological civilization” linking socioeconomic development and the Earth’s future to the well-being of the environment.

This is not a Utopian dream. The preservation of humanity and the biosphere, our inseparable global commons, along with the desire for development is the only way. Thus, constructing an “ecological civilization” is pragmatic to the core. For China, it isn’t empty rhetoric but a reality in construction. China’s afforestation is unprecedented; it leads the world in green energy and transportation, and it has not wavered from its commitment to carbon neutrality.

One may argue that Ukraine has made things tougher for the West. Some have described Europe’s actions as a “frenzied bid to kick its addiction to Russian gas.” However, Europe will now be even more addicted to U.S. interests and Middle Eastern energy which has been shored up by illegal wars.

At any rate, the Ukraine crisis could have been easily averted with rational diplomacy. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the U.S. knew that its interference in Ukraine would eventually lead to conflict. Coincidentally, with the end of Afghanistan, now a new opportunity for arms and fossil fuel profiteering arises while Eurasian cooperation is yet again disrupted, albeit from the Western flank. When one considers that the U.S. military, which has been essential in pushing NATO Eastwards, is the biggest single producer of greenhouse gas emissions, with greater annual emissions than numerous European states, then there is a greater tragedy at play.

With this in mind, what can Europeans learn from China? Firstly, if one wants to achieve carbon neutrality and sustainable development then transatlantic capital that profits from war, disrupts global resources and gains from preventing the rise of Eurasia can’t be in the driving seat of the state.

In contrast, China is in a process, through the Belt and Road Initiative, of cooperating with the entire Global South. Only through this cooperation can a green future be achieved. For example, China is already building green infrastructure such as rail and it has reduced its reliance on polluting coal due to importing Russian gas. Of course, this means China seeks friendly relations even with neighbors that don’t share identical values.

Europe especially could learn from this non-dogmatic attitude for it is they who will suffer the greatest while the U.S. far from Eurasia “sits it out.” However, ultimately, even if European states fall into arrears with their environmental pledges, there is a greater logic at play that demands China leads, not follows, and instead creates a green sustainable future based on global cooperation with all partners.

The Global South is still developing. If they develop based on the Western model of high carbon emissions then humanity is doomed to environmental catastrophe and then poverty again. A dark age could ensue and we would have lost the technological capacity to work our way out of it.

As such, the time to act is now. China has the political will and ideology to push against the polluting interests of capital. It has the socioeconomic motivation embedded within the China Dream to build a global ecological civilization and realize shared development based on infrastructure development rather than war profiteering. Importantly, China has a wealth of scientists and experts to create the methods and technology needed for this sustainable future where net-zero carbon emissions are a vital requisite.

2 thoughts on “Why China will stick to decarbonization and sustainable development”

  1. Supposedly, “cooperation with the Global South and by promoting global development alongside the sustainable preservation of humanity and the biosphere, China is pointing the way towards an ecological civilization.”

    The facts contradict the empty rhetoric. See, for example, “Corruption and Environmental Damage: Chinese Fossil Fuel Investments in Africa” at
    https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/11/09/corruption-and-environmental-damage-chinese-fossil-fuel-investments-africa

    It is not only Africa. Greek residents around the port of Piraeus sued COSCO, which bought the port, for environmental damage. Ecuador and other countries have seen massive Chinese fleets of industrial fishing ships empty and destroy previously sustainable fishing grounds.

  2. Hi Charles,

    Thanks for your feedback you raise some interesting points. As this is the first reply, I’ve seen, to one of my articles I think it deserves a thorough reply.

    As you raise the China-Africa relationship I’m intensely aware that there has been a campaign in academia and the Western media to paint China out as a colonizer essentially accusing China of the worst the West has done. Much of the reporting about China-Africa has been at best decontextualized. As a case in point, the whole narrative of Chinese companies using Chinese labor and “stealing local jobs” depended on a number of points such as:

    1) The individual company (as opposed to China)
    2) What were the rules set by each African state.
    3) Did the country have the relevant skilled labor (often due to neglect no but China is the prime location now for African students studying the prerequisite skills).
    4) Ability to communicate with the local workforce.

    In fact, research showed that due to lower costs Chinese companies preferred to hire local African labor as flying people out is not cheap. A good book that covers a lot of these points and also is critical of some of China’s actions is “The Dragon’s Gift”(1) by Deborah Brautigam.

    Today, the empty “colonial rhetoric” we were hearing even recently is now being reported, even in the mainstream media. For example, I was surprised to find Bloomberg recently did a piece on “The Myth of the Chinese Debt Trap in Africa(2)”.

    Coming onto the piece you specifically referenced from the media site “Common Dreams”, considering the past reporting I was obviously skeptical of it. However, it claims to be an independent “reader-supported independent news outlet(3)”. It looks professional and it ticks boxes for me as various news monitor sites says it’s on the left. However, the writer of your linked(4) article is John Feffer who Wikipedia describe as a fellow at George Soros’s Open Society Foundation(5).

    This obviously raises questions as to the funding of the Common Dreams media site and Feffer’s bias. Of course, one my argue being published in “Friends of Socialist China” may highlights my own world outlook. However, this is evident in the title. Nevertheless, I humbly admit that noting bias doesn’t necessarily disqualify facts and information. One thing I must mention about my own writing is that in an op-ed short formula my often copious footnotes are not published and nor are my links which would allow the reader to understand my train of though.

    With this in mind, it is important to note that China-Africa does have organs for environmental cooperation such as the UN China-Africa Environmental Cooperation Centre(6). In practice, of course it’s not always plain sailing, however, a recent report of China’s engagement, in 50 African countries, in the journal Science (7)of the Total Environment, shows that Co2 emissions in African countries rise with resource extraction on the other hand Chinese FDI in China improves the environment in non-resource African countries. Interestingly, the report says:

    “Given that most exports from Africa are natural resources, our results imply that African non-resources-rich countries are likely to benefit from China’s large investment in cleaner energy in the long-run, especially after the construction of the infrastructures.”

    China of course is investing heavily in green technology and this could eventually prove the difference eventually between China’s engagement in Africa compared to Western states moving their pollution to China.

    I think one important thing to note is that we can’t be utopian we live in the real world. I believe in China coal burning power plants will still be constructed for a number of decades. However, to say their environmental dream is “empty rhetoric” is pure gas lighting. On one hand, in the real world in lieu of the requisite advanced green tech fossil fuels will need to be burnt. On the other hand, visiting a Chinese city in 2004 and today then the material evidence suggests that China is extremely serious about correcting its course.

    Now coming to the specific arguments in the link you sent. I think it’s interesting that it notes that 10,000 Chinese companies are operating in Africa. Here lies the first problem which is the noun “China”. Too often it is blindly assumed that the CPC has complete control over every company. They don’t and often these companies operate in the market-political conditions of each African state where their intention is to maximize profits.

    With this in mind it is important to have greater unity between China, individual African states, and businesses to ensure environmental regulation. I’m actually optimistic because China developed certain capacities through initially polluting production and later stricter environmental laws have been enforced.

    We must of course realise though that as Africa develops it will, just like China and the West, leave a bigger carbon footprint which is precisely why I am encouraged that China is taking important environmental measures and developing green technology. African states will be in a position to take advantage of China’s green leaps forward which China didn’t have the advantage of when Western manufacturing moved to China.

    I agree, with the article you sent, that resource extraction will have some negative impact on the environment but with good African governance there should be plenty of development too which will raise Africa’s ability to engage with government and non-government actors outside the continent.

    The problem is that everyone expects there to be an objective snapshot of what is going on when we should be looking at the overall trajectory. I think China (the state) certainly has the will for a green ecological future one only needs to look at their declarations(8) Such declarations existed about China when I first visited nearly twenty years ago.

    I personally thought they were hogwash the country was in the midst of environmental calamity. Today, I’ve changed my mind. Ultimately, whatever you or I may think though it will be the process of the next twenty/thirty years that will determine the truth of the matter.

    (1) https://www.amazon.com/Dragons-Gift-Story-China-Africa/dp/0199606293
    (2) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2022-03-17/the-myth-of-the-chinese-debt-trap-in-africa-video
    (3) https://www.commondreams.org/about-us
    (4) https://www.commondreams.org/views/2021/11/09/corruption-and-environmental-damage-chinese-fossil-fuel-investments-africa
    (5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Feffer
    (6) https://www.unep.org/regions/africa/regional-initiatives/china-africa-environmental-cooperation-centre
    (7) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969720371345
    (8) https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/202112/t20211203_10461772.html

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