China-Baiting, Greenwashed

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As the world marked another flopped climate conference last year — with precious chances for action racing past — many eyes drifted toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC). News sites decried Xi’s absence. Commentators suggest that if emerging East Asian economies don’t do their part, climate efforts cannot succeed. As he did in 2009 at Copenhagen, Obama pinned a catastrophe for which he himself bears great responsibility on China. Like all governments and peoples, the PRC must act on the climate and accompanying environmental crises, and critics are fair to point out many serious failures. It is not a stretch to call PRC climate policy a catastrophe, in addition to other human rights crises in China. But U.S. actors consistently misuse criticism of China as a tool of deflection and abdication of responsibility.

Even though it is true that the PRC and Xi Jinping should surely play a helpful role in climate agreements, it is ironic that U.S. Americans would accuse China of sabotaging climate talks. Clinton and Bush sabotaged early efforts with the Kyoto Protocol. Obama made Copenhagen a failure. Over the rest of his presidency, Obama almost doubled U.S. oil production, increased gas production by 35%, and locked in oil and gas lines for a generation. Against this backdrop of eager appeasement of fossil fuel interests, the Paris Agreement was on Obama’s part a successful attempt to shine a sad legacy on nine million barrels per day of oil extraction. Like Obama’s Clean Power Plan of October 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement of April 2016 was far too late. Partly buoyed by around $150 million in gifts from surging oil and gas industries and utilities, right-wing interests won in 2016 and promptly undid even these largely symbolic steps.

And Biden has already done much to discredit COP26. Immediately afterward, Biden voluntarily opened the Gulf of Mexico to expansive drilling. Prior to the event, Biden refused for a year to fight Enbridge Line 3, Enbridge Line 5, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and dozens of other oil and gas projects producing the equivalent of 1/5th of U.S. carbon emissions. The Build Back Better Act is a positive step, but more telling are actions in areas where the president’s hands are not tied. Those actions betray promises to climate voters who supported Biden.

Looking beyond climate meetings, U.S. Americans blaming China for the environmental crisis is hypocrisy. The U.S. has emitted 1/4 of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions since 1751, while only about 4% of the world’s citizens are U.S. Americans. Despite a vastly higher population — about 1/7 humans in the time period — China emitted half as much. Much of that was for factories producing goods for foreign consumption, not for the enjoyment of Chinese citizens. 

China’s consumption is more reasonable. Almost 40% of Chinese households are rural and low-income. Chinese people emit half as many greenhouse gases as U.S. Americans per capita, eat half as much pollution-intensive meat, and occupy half as much residential space. When China builds a coal plant, that plant is supplying power that assures a very basic quality of life improvement to economically vulnerable people. But new U.S. pipelines pad the profits of libertarian extremists in the oil and gas industry and fuel irresponsibly wasteful lifestyles built on subsidized hydrocarbons. 

A little-discussed factor in the debate around responsibility is how national choices shape technological development. Up until very recent years, the U.S. had a far larger energy industry than China. And the U.S. remains the country with the most investment in research overall globally. Countries like China, Germany, Sweden, Vietnam, and many others have made earnest efforts to begin energy transitions. But those efforts are limited by what technologies are available — what energy sources are cheap, what manufacturing processes have been optimized, and what levels of environmental degradation fossil fuel companies are allowed in large energy markets. Decisions shaping these underlying market conditions are largely made in Washington and New York, not Beijing.

In fact, China has made far more significant efforts to develop clean technology than the U.S. has. Powerful state initiatives in China have taken historic, industry-defining strides towards sustainability, propelling an energy transition in China and globally. During the Great Recession, China invested 4–5× more in green stimulus in relation to its economy than the U.S. That commitment led to astounding results. More than half of new wind installations last year were in China. China has built most of the world’s high-speed rail by miles of track — more than all other countries combined. EV intensity is about twice as high in China as in the U.S. and is growing almost 4× faster. While U.S. policies propel the natural gas industry, China drove the price of solar power down dramatically, with innovation in manufacturing and design making a previously prohibitively expensive industry viable.

Inshore project in Xiangshui, Jiangsu, China. Image Credit: Goldwind

China and every other country would have a cleaner energy matrix if history’s main technological powerhouse had not abdicated responsibility for the last four decades. Insofar as there is any hope at all of renewables overcoming fossil fuels in future years, it is because of China’s dramatic investments in solar and wind (with honorary nods to European nations, as well).

This does not absolve the PRC of responsibility for the environmental crisis. China should of course invest far more in sustainability, domestically and overseas. Profit-minded fossil fuel interests wield great power in China, and U.S.-level sky-high inequality fosters an environment in which the poor suffer obscene environmental conditions while the rich profit. Yes, consumers in rich countries bear partial responsibility for the volume of cheap but environmentally costly goods, but this is also a result of Chinese government policy. And sustainable and unsustainable projects alike are often implemented with little regard for those who are displaced or threatened in the PRC, as citizens have too little access to the tools of democracy or popular protest. This is of course in addition to other human rights concerns in China, including ongoing terrible crimes against Uyghur Muslims and Tibetans.

What role does bashing China’s climate record serve in U.S. media? Firstly, it deflects responsibility from the U.S. If China is portrayed as the main actor in the climate crisis, there is little we can do. For U.S. establishment politicians who don’t want to do anything meaningful, this is a useful narrative. The narrative also absolves Americans generally of our guilt; it’s not just us supercharging an extinction event, it’s the rest of the world, too!

Blaming the environmental crisis on China is also part of a much larger ecosystem of anti-Chinese sentiment. Forget Obama’s doubling oil production; Chinese coal plants are driving climate change. Never mind wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia and the economic sieges of Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba that could easily lead to conflagration; China’s 360 boat navy is the biggest threat to global security. Forget social media and right-wing media interests are on track to kill 100,000-200,000 U.S. Americans with coronavirus misinformation this winter; the pandemic is the fault of Chinese bioweapons and/or someone selling soup at a market. Young people in China view climate change as by far the most serious global issue. When young, world-open Chinese people see U.S. coverage of their country, they notice the racist scapegoating and hypocritical double-standards — this will only reduce global cooperation and empower nationalist actors.

Inciting hatred of East Asians has ended poorly in the past. The global community’s toxic relationship with Japan and colonial approach in East Asia ended in tens of millions dead and the only nuclear bombings in history. Hatred of Asians is on the rise, and unfortunately a responsible U.S. American engagement with the climate doesn’t seem to have much traction at all. Environmentalism should not be a tool for accomplishing the political encirclement of China. It’s time for an honest discourse on China’s climate record — one that situates it next to our own record in the U.S. and acknowledges how far we all have to go to protect this world that we share.

About the author: David Lapp Jost works for a peace organization. He is conscious of ways that fossil fuels exacerbate racial and economic inequality, war, and climate change. He devotes much of his spare time to promoting solar power and sustainability initiatives.

Other articles by David Jost:

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