by DeLaine Mayer
While taking the high-speed rail from Shanghai to Beijing in June, I looked out at the view that millions of Chinese people experience nearly everyday: visible air pollution. The sky was so laden with pollutants that the outlines of buildings lost clarity within several hundred yards from the railroad. The Chinese maxim of “Grow first, clean up later” has underlined the price of development that the people and environment have paid in recent years. Rapid development succeeded in elevating over 800 million people from poverty since economic reforms began in 1978; China achieved the “fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history” with average GDP growth around 10 percent per year. This is no small feat. However, these same policies and development trajectories that lifted millions out of poverty are now making them sick. Rising cancer rates and other health issues related to pollution, including “maternal exposure to heavy air pollution” associated with low birth weight (which increases the chance of future health risks), have become huge issues across the country, especially in cities. Rapid development and mega-urbanization has come at an incredible cost to many.
Only in the last decade has the majority of the Chinese population moved into cities and begun to engage in work beyond agriculture and manufacturing. The economy is shifting to service and knowledge sectors with powerful government support. The Communist Party of China is able to think about development and growth not in terms of election cycles but in visible signs of long-term stability and cues of modernity, generally expressed as huge infrastructure projects and urban development. Climate change, the man-made overstepping of planetary boundaries, caused by the nexus of many human industries and traditional development mechanisms of the last 150 years, poses a new threat to this kind of long-term political planning. So how is China addressing climate change? Opportunistically.
In the last few decades, most governments have fundamentally misunderstood the danger and security to development posed by climate change. Environmental action has been pushed to the end of development agendas, as seen in China, because countries’ goals have been to alleviate poverty and stimulate economic growth as quickly as possible. Climate change externalities however, including increased flooding and drought, more serious storms, and lower agricultural productivity, while damaging to economies and people, lack an immediacy to which traditional security mechanisms know how to respond. China’s strength in longer-term strategizing may pay off now that it’s paying attention to pollution and climate change, however.
In China, highly visible air pollution, public health issues, and land and water productivity have already inspired a number of policy changes geared towards cleaner development, specifically in China’s 13th Five Year Plan. State capitalism has provided the mechanism for the government to coordinate private sector activity alongside national development agendas. Now, the Party is tackling environmental issues alongside social and health issues, including the problem of too many cars on Beijing’s streets, which increases traffic, safety issues, and pollution. In Beijing, consumer incentives (government subsidies) for car-buyers push electric vehicles’ sales while consumer restrictions (needing to win a ‘car lottery’) disincentivize the acquisition of traditional automobiles with internal-combustible engines. Foreign and domestic auto manufacturers see these regulations and adjust production and R&D accordingly. As a result, China is now the world leader in electric vehicle production and consumption. The outcome of this policy-market nexus is inter-sector coordination and innovation, with positive outcomes in terms of public health, the environment, and new economic growth in cleaner auto and tech industries.
China has a long way to go before it can surpass American leadership and innovation in green and clean technologies, particularly in innovation, but the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement creates a new space for the world’s second largest economy to fill, if it continues with pro-environmental policies. That includes pushing renewables to take a larger share of China’s energy portfolio, and ensuring coal production declines despite greater migration to (and increasing energy pressure on) existing cities. Additionally, as emerging markets turn to China for new technologies, so too do those new governments turn to China for new political, economic, and regulatory standards. The model of development exported along with Chinese solar panels and electric vehicles will be wrought with questions about autocratic rule, suppression of information and rights, and economic growth at the cost of sustainability. It’s entirely possible that China can rise to the challenge and adjust internal domestic politics to address labor, environmental, and human rights standards, taking its place as a global leader by Western standards. An optimistic view is that the economic reforms that have contributed to China’s “peaceful rise” will turn into political reforms as China “steps out.” But China deals with high-risk markets: countries racked by war, terrorism, inflation, political unpredictability, and government turnover. Exporting values not deeply-rooted in the current Chinese political system is likely not as politically or economically advantageous as finding markets that can absorb Chinese overproduction. This is the balancing act the world should watch as the U.S., at least at the federal level, moves away from initiatives that build sustainable institutions. China has an opportunity to showcase non-Western, alternative development strategies. The world will be lucky if that means more efficient, cleaner development.
DeLaine Mayer is a student in the MSGA Program with a concentration in Energy & Environment Policy.