Many observers of China’s escalating global program of foreign investment and infrastructure development are crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. In an ideal world, China’s unbridled ambitions will improve economic growth, food security and social development in many poor nations, as well as enriching itself.
Such hopes are certainly timely, given the isolationism of the US Trump
administration, which has created an international leadership vacuum that China is eager to fill.
But a close look reveals that China’s international agenda is far more exploitative than many realise, especially for the global environment. And the Chinese leadership’s claims to be embracing “green development” are in many cases more propaganda than fact.
To help steer through the maze, I provide here a snapshot of China’s present environmental impacts. Are China’s assertions reasoned and defensible, or something else altogether?
For a start, China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of illegally poached wildlife and wildlife products. From rhino horn, to pangolins, to shark fins, to a menagerie of wild bird species, Chinese consumption drives much of the global trade in wildlife exploitation and smuggling.
Over the past 15 years, China’s rapacious appetite for ivory has largely driven a global collapse of elephant populations. In response to growing international criticism, China promised to shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017.
But even before China’s ban has taken full force, a black market for ivory is developing in neighbouring Laos. There, Chinese entrepreneurs are churning out great quantities of carved ivory products, specifically designed for Chinese tastes and openly sold to Chinese visitors.
More damaging still are China’s plans for infrastructure expansion that will irreparably degrade much of the natural world.
China’s One Belt One Road initiative alone will carve massive arrays of new roads, railroads, ports, and extractive industries such as mining, logging, and oil and gas projects into at least 70 nations across Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Chinese President Xi Jinping promises that the Belt and Road initiative will be “green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable”, but such a claim is profoundly divorced from reality.
As my colleagues and I recently argued in Science and Current Biology, the modern infrastructure tsunami that is largely being driven by China will open a Pandora’s box of environmental crises, including large-scale deforestation, habitat fragmentation, wildlife poaching, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
China’s pursuit of natural resources is also escalating across Latin America. In the Amazon, for example, big mining projects – many of which are feeding Chinese industries – don’t just cause serious local degradation, but also promote widespread deforestation from the networks of roads bulldozed into remote areas to access the mines.
Overall, China is the most aggressive consumer of minerals on the planet, and the biggest driver of tropical deforestation.
Beyond this, China is pushing to build a 5,000km railroad across South America, to make it cheaper for China to import timber, minerals, soy and other natural resources from ports along South America’s Pacific coast. If it proceeds, the number of critical ecosystems that would be impacted by this project is staggering.
A World Bank study of more than 3,000 overseas projects funded or operated by China revealed how it often treats poor nations as “pollution havens” – transferring its own environmental degradation to developing nations that are desperate for foreign investment.
Finally, much has been made of the fact that China is beginning to temper its appetite for domestic fossil-fuelled energy. It is now a leading investor in solar and wind energy, and recently delayed construction of more than 150 coal-fired electricity plants in China.
These are unquestionably pluses, but they need to be seen in their broad context. In terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, China has exploded past every other nation. It now produces more than twice the carbon emissions of the United States, the second-biggest polluter, following the greatest building spree of coal, nuclear, and large-scale hydro projects in human history.
Despite its new post-Trump role as the world’s de facto climate leader, China’s overall agenda could scarcely be described as green.
Some would say it’s unfair to criticise China like this. They would argue that China is merely following a well-trodden path of exploitative development previously forged by other nations and colonial powers.
But China is not the same as any other nation. The astounding growth and size of its economy, its dangerously single-minded vision for exploiting natural resources and land internationally, its intolerance of internal and external criticism, and its increasingly closed media and official myopia all combine to make it unique.
President Xi admits that many Chinese corporations, investors and lenders operating overseas have often acted aggressively and even illegally overseas. But he says his government is powerless to do much about it. The most notable government response to date is a series of “green papers” containing guidelines that sound good in theory but are almost universally ignored by Chinese interests.
Are Xi’s assertions of powerlessness believable? He increasingly rules China with an iron hand. Is it really impossible for China to guide and control its overseas industries, or are they simply so profitable that the government doesn’t want to?
Of course, China’s huge international ambitions will have some positive effects, and could even be economically transformative for certain nations. But many other elements will benefit China while profoundly damaging our planet.
Science has always drawn people and nations to Antarctica. But territorial claims and political tensions are also part of the history of that continent.
China is investing heavily in infrastructure and capability in Antarctica with research stations, airfields, field camps and plans for more. Science must continue to play a pivotal role in easing territorial tensions, as interest in Antarctica increases.
A brutal scientific history
Some argue that Captain Robert Scott and his team perished on their infamous return journey from the South Pole because of their dogged determination to haul 15kg of geological specimens.
Science has always nestled alongside the dominant motivation of territorial claims. But in Antarctica, it has evolved as a tool of diplomacy between nations, as a means to suppress tensions about national claims to the land.
This tension is not new. It was during his 1929–31 expedition that Sir Douglas Mawson claimed what is now the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) as British sovereign territory, with sovereignty eventually being transferred to Australia in 1936.
Australia’s National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), formalised in 1947, were not established for scientific reasons. Rather, they were meant to support our territorial claims and enable investigation of valuable mineral and marine resources located within the AAT.
A recent event in Hobart held by the Australian Academy of Science, examining the future of antarctic science was underscored by such themes.
A time of increased tensions
In their 2016 book, The Scramble for the Poles, academics Klaus Dodds and Mark Nuttall suggest that the planting of a Russian flag beneath the North Pole in 2007 precipitated a new scramble for resources in the polar regions.
In their view, there is an ongoing and under-discussed unease among Antarctic players when it comes to territory. This is felt particularly keenly by countries that have publicly reserved their right to make a future Antarctic claim (such as the United States and Russia), and those that have made no such claim, nor reserved such a right (such as China).
Australia is one of the original seven Antarctic claimants; we claim 42% of the continent. Our actions in Antarctica are pivotal as we grapple with increasing interest in the continent from assertive states such as China.
In a Special Report to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2017, Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury outlined three stations, three airfields and two field camps that China has in the AAT. She also noted China’s intention to build a fourth station on King George Island, with plans for a fifth station for the Ross Sea region.
Only weeks ago, Brady released a book, China as a Polar Great Power that further examines the game changing nature of China’s growing strength at the poles.
This power has grown, she argues, thanks to the country “investing more in capacity than any other nation”. This includes investment in BeiDou, China’s own global GPS network, which will enhance capability for the Chinese military.
What is Australia doing about this?
Australia is emerging from a long period of under-investment in Antarctica to slowly address this geopolitical situation.
In 2012, the US released an examination of its need to renew its infrastructure and logistical capability in Antarctica. In 2016, the Australian Antarctic Division released its own Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan.
These documents explain Australia’s future role in Antarctica and outline the measures we need to implement to retain our role as an Antarctic leader. These measures include things such as the re-establishment of our overland traverse capability, an upgrade of our ageing Antarctic stations and the investigation of year-round aviation links.
Progress is being made. Australia’s newest icebreaker was recently named and the first steel was cut in June 2017. A Modernisation Taskforce has been established.
Without these vital infrastructure and operational assets, we lose the ability to conduct science across our territorial claim. If we lose this, we can no longer wield science as a valuable diplomatic tool.
Science as a bridge builder
Science has long served as a bridge builder in Antarctica, but how long can it sustain this role?
The importance of ongoing scientific collaboration between Australia and China in Antarctica has been discussed.
It is generally asserted that the capacity of science to serve as a form of “soft power” diplomacy is sound and that sovereignty can best be sustained by deploying a continuous and substantial scientific program.
But, although Antarctica is considered “a reserve for peace and science” under International governance, the robustness of the Antarctic Treaty too is often discussed. Contemporary media continues to illustrate concerns over our claim in Antarctica.
The Chief of the Australian Defence Force spoke recently on such matters in Washington and a colleague and I are currently examining the implications for Australian Defence policy of other states’ assertive actions in Antarctica.
Science must continue to play a pivotal role in sustaining peace in Antarctica so that alternative tools need not be called upon.
When China’s national carbon market is launched later this year it will be the world’s second-largest carbon market, after the European emissions trading scheme (ETS), which it will eventually overtake.
In sharp contrast, the absence of an explicit carbon price in Australia and persistent turbulence and confusion around domestic energy policy are hindering investment in renewable energy, leaving Australia lagging behind global trends in cutting emissions.
China will add to the cluster of national and sub-national emissions trading schemes that now exist in the European Union, Canada, the United States, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
As the World Bank Group’s 2016 report on the state and trends in carbon pricing indicated, up to a quarter of global emissions will then be covered by carbon pricing initiatives across some 40 national jurisdictions and 20 cities, states and regions. The evolution of regional carbon markets fostered by the Paris Agreement, in North Asia and elsewhere, will economically advantage those able to participate.
For a brief time Australia flirted with being a global leader in carbon pricing and emissions trading. The Keating Labor Government debated – and rejected – a national carbon price in 1995. In 2009 the Rudd Labor government proposed laws to establish a national emissions trading scheme, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which then failed in the Senate.
Read more: Obituary: Australia’s carbon price
Instead, Australia became the first country in the world to dismantle a national carbon price, when Tony Abbott axed Gillard Labor’s carbon tax. Now Australia is in danger of becoming an outlier globally – and this will have significant economic costs as well as environmental implications.
China’s climate leadership
When China became the world’s largest national greenhouse gas emitter in 2006, its involvement in any effective global emissions reduction agreement became an unavoidable responsibility.
China first acknowledged this internationally in 2009 when, at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, it announced voluntary measures to improve national energy efficiency, pledging to cut its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020.
In 2014, China and the United States jointly announced their national targets and goals as a means of providing momentum for the following year’s Paris summit. China committed to an energy intensity target for 2030, lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65% below 2005 levels, and also to peak its emissions before 2030.
Read more: China and the US step up on climate
Indeed it appears already to have achieved this goal as a result of industrial modernisation and slowing economic growth, along with a push to reduce its reliance on coal and its global leadership in building renewable energy capacity (specifically, solar and wind).
Then, a decade after the launch of the European ETS, during a second joint announcement with the United States in September 2015, President Xi Jinping declared that China would establish a national carbon market by 2017.
China’s national ETS
Seven pilot emissions trading schemes have operated in China since 2013. These subnational projects – in five cities and two provinces, including Beijing, Chonqing, Guandong, Hubei, Shanghai, Shenzen and Tianjin – together already cover some 26.7% of China’s GDP in 2014.
They have employed slightly different market designs, varying the range of greenhouse gases and industry sectors covered, slightly different approaches to permit allocation, verification and compliance, and produced seven different carbon prices, at times ranging from some A$2.50 to up to A$22 per tonne.
The new national market represents a further step in the process of policy learning and systematic development, based on these experimental steps as well as the experience of the European ETS, which has evolved in several phases since 2005.
During its trial phase, from 2017 to 2019, policy makers will work to help new participants become familiar with the new national market and to improve its design. The market initially will be restricted in scope and size. It first will only include carbon dioxide and, like its pilots, its initial carbon price likely will be modest.
Guidelines from the National Development and Reform Commission indicate it will cover eight major industry sectors, such as power generation, petrochemicals, construction materials, pulp and paper, aviation, and iron, steel and aluminium production.
Nevertheless it is expected to cover some 40-50% of total Chinese emissions and eventually become a significant contributor to the suite of measures now being used to tackle Chinese emissions. Full implementation is expected to occur from 2020 onwards – with greater industry coverage, an increased percentage of allowances allocated by auction, and improved benchmarking.
A new measure among many
The new national carbon market is an additional response to the pressures that have driven Chinese climate and energy policy reforms over the past decade.
Domestically, a complex basket of tools are already in use to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions. Coal-fired power generation has faced increasingly stringent regulation and new investment to counter dangerously high levels of air pollution in major cities, growing health problems and associated social unrest.
China’s heavy industries – economically sluggish, energy-inefficient and emissions-intensive – are under intensifying regulatory and now market pressure to modernise rapidly. While the carbon prices under the sub-national pilots have remained modest, they have added to this pressure for technological and economic reform.
National energy security is a strategic concern given China’s economic reliance on energy imports. The threats from global warming to China’s food and water security are recognised as concerns at the highest levels of government, including through the 13th Five-Year Plan.
China’s climate and energy policies also offer China an opportunity to demonstrate global leadership in climate policy, with the election of US President Donald Trump creating new diplomatic possibilities, a point emphasised in President Xi Jinping’s opening speech to the 19th Communist Party Congress, where he noted that China had taken a “driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change”.
Implications for Australia
A successful Chinese national emissions scheme has a range of impacts for Australia.
About a quarter of Australia’s coal exports (by volume) currently go to China, which in 2016 was Australia’s second biggest market for thermal coal and third biggest market for metallurgical coal.
If a national carbon market accelerates improvements in energy efficiency in China’s metals and power generation sectors, its demand for Australian coal exports – already beginning to contract – is likely to fall faster.
Second, for a quarter of a century, a succession of conservative Australian Prime Ministers justified the absence of a meaningful Australian climate policy by claiming there was no point in reducing emissions here because China wasn’t doing enough to tackle the problem.
Based on misrepresentations of what was happening in China, the Howard government delayed and then the Abbott government destroyed an Australian carbon pricing mechanism. Both leaders consistently stalled Australian climate policy, and continued to spruik the mirage of a national energy future based on exporting coal to ever larger overseas markets, including in China.
In all, the turbulent unpredictability of Australia’s climate politics and policies stands in contrast to China’s steady institutional commitment to accelerating decarbonisation. Given its present weak climate policy settings and institutions, and without a clear target for renewables, Australia will struggle to meet its current emission reduction commitments and will face increased future costs for failing to act sooner.
One of China’s foremost environmental analysts recently explained to me that while for many years climate change was characterized as a western conspiracy to hold China back, it all changed around 2012. Overcoming China’s testiness about western imperialist designs and bringing China into the international climate tent may in future be seen as one of President Obama’s lasting legacies.
When President Xi Jinping took charge in late 2012 he soon launched an ‘energy revolution’. He took up the call for an ‘ecological civilization’ and sent a message that coal would no longer be favoured.
Provincial governments, which had resisted Beijing’s dictats to reduce coal use, began to be brought into line. As Xi accumulated more power, by marginalizing his enemies or having them arrested for corruption, it became increasingly risky to mess with Beijing. But the provinces too are shifting away from their GDP obsession to a greater emphasis on quality of life.
The first phase of China’s national carbon market is expected to get under way this year. The Paris agreement and Xi’s constructive role in it greatly enhanced the influence of China’s environment ministry in bureaucratic tussles. Paris is now a powerful card to play, and incorporating environmental governance into policy has become the ‘new normal’.
Coal use has now topped out in China, and total emissions are expected to peak around 2022-23, well ahead of the committed date of 2030 under the Paris Agreement. Unlike the United States, China takes its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris accord very seriously.
China’s carbon cuts
Beijing has a number of motives for taking an aggressive approach to carbon emissions. The headline one is social discontent due to appalling air pollution in the cities. Instead of closing coal-fired power stations, pollution levels could have been cut sharply by fitting scrubbers to them (as is done in the west), leaving carbon emissions untouched. But there are other reasons for cutting coal consumption.
One is to undermine the power base of some of the most corrupt officials in the country, the bosses of the coal and electricity sectors. Unlike most of China’s leaders, Xi is no a technocrat, which helps.
Beyond these domestic goals, the Party’s leadership can see a larger global dimension. Hastening China’s transition to low-carbon energy promises to give China ascendancy in the emerging renewable energy industries, industries set for massive expansion over the next decades as coal and oil combustion declines. Vast opportunities are available for the nation that manages to take the lead, and China is well on the way to doing so.
This is why Trump’s decision is not just a serious set-back to global efforts to limit emissions but also damages US economic prospects. When US companies find they must go to China to buy their energy generation equipment they will understand that ‘America first’ means America loses. Some of them can see it already.
A new world leader
At the highest level of strategy, Trump’s decision to ditch the Paris agreement presents Beijing with a golden opportunity to take on the mantle of global leadership. China has been slowly and systematically pursuing that role over some years by, for example, expanding its role in UN peace-keeping efforts.
And it has been presenting itself as the new champion of global economic integration. President Xi’s speech at Davos in January, where he condemned protectionism and lauded the benefits of free trade and investment flows, was timed to contrast with the Trumpian retreat.
The United States abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which through more trade and investment would have strengthened US ties to East and Southeast Asia, left a hole for China to step into. The grand One Belt, One Road initiative is a pitch for global economic leadership that will grow as the United States shrinks into itself.
Climate change presents China with the opportunity to acquire new legitimacy and respect as a world leader, offsetting the damage from its aggression in the South China Sea and escalating repression at home.
Some analysts say that China is not yet ready to become the global leader, and displays a certain reluctance to seize the mantle. But faced with indecision and disorder in the west the Party leadership has often had to decide to grab a chance while it is there, or bide its time and take the risk that it will be much harder later.
US withdrawal from global climate change leadership may be too good an opportunity to let pass. And there could be no better way for Beijing to demonstrate its claimed commitment to a peaceful and prosperous world than by directing the billions of dollars promised under the One Belt, One Road Initiative into low-carbon energy systems in developing countries. Developed countries too may find the lure of Chinese lucre too strong to resist and end up with energy infrastructures stamped ‘Made in China’.
In the early 15th century the Ming Dynasty in China undertook a series of expensive oceangoing expeditions called the Treasure Voyages. Despite the voyages’ success, elements of the elite opposed them. “These voyages are bad, very bad,” we can imagine them tweeting. “They are a bad deal for China.” Eventually these inward-looking, isolationist leaders gained enough power to prevent future voyages.
But this was an own goal. The parochial elites who killed off the Treasure Voyages could stop Chinese maritime innovation, but they could do nothing to prevent it elsewhere. Decades later, European sailors mastered the art of sailing vast distances across the ocean, and created fortunes and empires on the back of that technology (for better or worse). It is hard to see how China’s strategic interests were served by abandoning a field in which they led.
There are some striking parallels in the Trump administration’s decision to renege on the Paris climate agreement. It has been cast as a move to protect America, but in the long run it won’t derail the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy, and instead the US will find itself lagging, not leading.
Trump’s repudiation of the Paris deal is regrettable for at least three reasons. First, because the US is a technological leader whose entrepreneurs are extremely well placed to lead the global low-carbon transition; second, because America’s abdication of climate leadership weakens the global order and sends a wink and a nod to other fossil-fuelled recalcitrants like Saudi Arabia and Russia; and finally because having the world’s second-highest emitter outside the agreement is a clear negative.
That said, US flip-flopping on climate is nothing new. The nation played a strong role in shaping the Kyoto Protocol, only to fail to ratify it. And while that did not help matters, it did not derail international efforts to combat climate change. In fact, the momentum behind climate-friendly initiatives has grown several-fold since the early 2000s.
Viewed in the long run, the latest US defection changes little. Any conceivable future Democrat administration will rejoin the Paris Agreement. But more importantly, the transition to a low-carbon future is not dependent on the actions of a single player.
The criteria for successful climate change policy are hard to achieve but easy to describe: success will come when non-emitting technologies economically outcompete fossil fuels, pretty much everywhere in the world, in the main half-dozen or so sectors that matter.
Beating the ‘free-rider’ issue
A stable climate is what we call a “public good”, similar to fresh air or clean water. The US political scientist Scott Barrett has pointed out that climate change is an “aggregate efforts public good”, in the sense that everybody has to chip in to solve the problem of safeguarding the climate for everyone.
“Aggregate efforts” public goods are especially hard to preserve, because there is a strong incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others, as the US now seeks to do.
But technology can transform this situation, turning an aggregate efforts public good into a “best-shot public good”. This is a situation in which one player playing well can determine the whole outcome, and as such is a much easier problem to solve.
We have seen technology play this role before, in other global environmental issues. The ozone hole looked like a hard problem, but became an easy one once an inexpensive, effective technological fix became available in the form of other gases to use in place of ozone-harming CFCs (ironically, however, the solution exacerbated global warming).
Something similar happened with acid rain, caused by a handful of industrial pollutants. Dealing with carbon dioxide emissions is harder in view of the number of sources, but breakthroughs in five or six sectors could make a massive dent in emissions.
Technology trumps politics
This suggests that solving climate change relies far more heavily on technological innovation and successful entrepreneurship than it does on any single government. Policies in specific jurisdictions can speed climate policy up or slow it down, but as long as no single government can kill the spirit of entrepreneurship, then no country’s actions can alter the long-run outcome.
This is why German climatologist John Schellnhuber is right to say that “if the US really chooses to leave the Paris agreement, the world will move on with building a clean and secure future”.
The low-carbon race is still on, and the main effect of Trump’s decision is to put US innovators at a disadvantage relative to their international competitors.
We have seen these technological races before, and we have seen what recalcitrance and isolationism can do. Just ask the Ming Dynasty, who ceded their maritime leadership and in doing so let Europe reap the spoils of colonialism for half a millennium.
Similarly, the Trump administration can ignore basic physics if it likes, although this is electorally unsustainable – young Americans can see that it is in their own interest to support climate policy. Democracies are imperfect, but over time they have the ability to self-correct.
Developing polices that regulate the release of environmentally damaging gases is important. Pricing carbon is important. But government policy is not everything. Ultimately, this problem will be solved mainly by technology, because the way out of the jam is by finding new, inexpensive ways for humans to flourish without harming the planet.