China’s efforts to save its wandering elephants are laudable, but let’s not forget its bloody conflicts with the giants


Bill Laurance, James Cook UniversityWild elephants are awe-inspiring — even if they’re trying to kill you, as I discovered in 2004.

At the time I was studying how poachers and loggers threaten native mammals in Africa’s Congo Basin. I was sneaking up on a herd of forest elephants when they suddenly charged, rushing at me like enraged, out-of-control bulldozers. With the angry animals hot on my heels, I barely escaped by diving into a tangle of vines, shuddering with fear but oddly enthralled by it all, too.

Many residents of southern China must be feeling similarly. A herd of 15 Asian elephants, led by adult females, departed last year from Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve, near China’s border with Myanmar and Laos. Since then they’ve travelled about 500 kilometres northward, and are now approaching the bustling city of Kunming and its seven million inhabitants.

No one knows exactly where the elephants are going, or why. But two things are clear: the elephants were probably struggling to survive in their native habitat, and Chinese efforts to save the elephants clash with the nation’s aggressive strategies of investment and global development.

Hope for the homeless

As I’ve seen elsewhere, in Africa and Southeast Asia, hungry wild elephants can severely damage human crops, flattening gardens and orchards in their quest for a free meal.

During their sojourn in China, the behemoths — which can weigh over five tonnes as adults (more than three cars) — have indeed been helping themselves to farmers’ crops and anything else they deem edible from local villages and townships. In fact, they’ve caused more than US$1 million in damage to crops so far.

This whole journey has captured the imagination of millions of Chinese citizens, with state broadcaster CCTV carrying a 24-hour live feed of the spectacle.

At first blush, this sounds like a scenario that could go very badly for the elephants. When pachyderms and people collide, elephants usually lose.

But hope remains for the wandering herd. Asian elephants are a legally protected species in China.

Hundreds of police officers assisted by drones have been monitoring the intrepid animals, while wildlife officials are trying to steer them away from populated areas with food baits and roadblocks involving hundreds of trucks. So far, some 3,500 people have been evacuated temporarily to clear a path for the elephants.

Missing the big picture

Such efforts are laudable but misplaced. They address only the symptoms of environmental stress (displaced elephants) but not the “diseases” afflicting elephants in China and beyond.

Firstly, the wandering elephants may well have been forced to move because their home in southern China has been devastated by human development.

Even 15 years ago, when I first visited the Xishuangbanna region, the native rainforests there were being devastated, especially by clearing for exotic rubber-tree plantations.

Rubber-tree plantation in the Xishuangbanna region.
In southern China, most native rainforests have been felled for crops such as rubber-tree plantations, as shown here in the Xishuangbanna region.
William Laurance

As a result, only about 300 wild elephants survive in all of China today.

Secondly, even with government efforts since 2018 to ban domestic ivory trading, illegal ivory is still being consumed at a terrifying rate.

This bloody trade is one of the main drivers of elephant poaching in Asia and Africa. Chinese citizens working overseas have been widely implicated in wildlife smuggling activities, including illegal ivory.




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Finally, as it promotes new roads, dams and other large developments, China’s Belt & Road Initiative, which now spans 139 nations worldwide, is rapidly increasing the effects of habitat destruction and human persecution on elephants and other native wildlife.

In Latin America, for example, entrepreneurs and workers from China are causing a dramatic increase in illegal poaching of jaguars, the teeth and body parts of which are being used to produce certain traditional Chinese “medicines”.

China-funded road-construction project in the Congo Basin.
William Laurance

Take-home lessons

What can we learn from China’s wandering elephants? At the outset, it’s clear many people, in China and beyond, are motivated far more easily by large, charismatic animals such as elephants than they are by rather nebulous concepts like ecosystem loss and degradation.

So, as we seek environmental sustainability in our densely populated world, we need to tell more evocative stories that inspire hope and capture the popular imagination.




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China’s wandering elephants also show us nature often needs large expanses of habitat to survive.

The potential habitat for elephants in China has been severely reduced and fragmented, and now totals less than 250,000 hectares overall in the critical Xishuangbanna region.

Globally, scores of large-bodied species such as elephants and apex predators such as tigers are in big trouble because of the fatal one-two punch of habitat destruction and human persecution. To sustain these iconic species, we urgently need to conserve Earth’s remaining large ecosystems.

Further, China’s homeless elephants could give us a glimpse into the future. On a planet where most native ecosystems are being sliced and diced to meet humanity’s needs, and where the climate is changing apace, wild animals like the Chinese elephants may increasingly need to pull up roots and move to new territories.

Forest elephant killed by poachers in the Congo Basin.
A forest elephant killed by poachers in the Republic of Congo. The animal’s face was hacked off with machetes to remove its valuable ivory tusks.
William Laurance

At great expense and effort, China is attempting to save its beleaguered band of elephants as they search for a new home.

But as the nation responsible for more habitat destruction, wildlife poaching and greenhouse-gas emissions than any other, China bears a special responsibility to promote sustainable development — not just inside China but overseas as well.

Let’s applaud China’s efforts to save its wandering elephants while we bear in mind that, as a nation and economic superpower, it has far more left to do to ensure our planet remains liveable for vulnerable wildlife — and for us too.




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The Conversation


Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s Tiangong space station: what it is, what it’s for, and how to see it


China Manned Space Engineering Office

Paulo de Souza, Griffith UniversityChina’s space program is making impressive progress. The country only launched its first crewed flight in 2003, more than 40 years after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. China’s first Mars mission was in 2020, half a century after the US Mariner 9 probe flew past the red planet.

But the rising Asian superpower is catching up fast: flying missions to the Moon and Mars; launching heavy-lift rockets; building a new space telescope set to fly in 2024; and, most recently, putting the first piece of the Tiangong space station (the name means Heavenly Palace) into orbit.

What is the Tiangong space station?

Tiangong is the successor to China’s Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space laboratories, launched in 2011 and 2016, respectively. It will be built on a modular design, similar to the International Space Station operated by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. When complete, Tiangong will consist of a core module attached to two laboratories with a combined weight of nearly 70 tonnes.

The core capsule, named Tianhe (Harmony of Heavens), is about the size of a bus. Containing life support and control systems, this core will be the station’s living quarters. At 22.5 tonnes, the Tianhe capsule is the biggest and heaviest spacecraft China has ever constructed.

The Tianhe module will form the core of the space station, with other modules to be added later to increase the size of the station and make more experiments possible.
Saggitarius A / Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The capsule will be central to the space station’s future operations. In 2022, two slightly smaller modules are expected to join Tianhe to extend the space station and make it possible to carry out various scientific and technological experiments. Ultimately, the station will include 14 internal experiment racks and 50 external ports for studies of the space environment.

Tianhe will be just one-fifth the size of the International Space Station, and will host up to three crew members at a time. The first three “taikonauts” (as Chinese astronauts are often known) are expected to take up residence in June.




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A troubled launch

Tianhe was launched from China’s Hainan island on April 29 aboard a Long March 5B rocket.

These rockets have one core stage and four boosters, each of which is nearly 28 metres tall - the height of a nine-storey building - and more than 3 metres wide. The Long March 5B weighs about 850 tonnes when fully fuelled, and can lift a 25-tonne payload into low Earth orbit.

During the Tianhe launch, the gigantic core stage of the rocket – weighing around 20 tonnes – spun out of control, eventually splashing down more than a week later in the Indian Ocean. The absence of a control system for the return of the rocket to Earth has raised criticism from the international community.




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However, these rockets are a key element of China’s short-term ambitions in space. They are planned to be used to deliver modules and crew to Tiangong, as well as launching exploratory probes to the Moon and eventually Mars.

Despite leaving behind an enormous hunk of space junk, Tianhe made it safely to orbit. An hour and 13 minutes after launch, its solar panels started operating and the module powered up.

Completion and future

Tianhe is now sitting in low-Earth orbit (about 400km above the ground), waiting for the first of the ten scheduled supply flights over the next 18 months that it will take to complete the Tiangong station.

A pair of experiment modules named Wentian (Quest for Heavens) and Mengtian (Dreaming of Heavens) are planned for launch in 2022. Although the station is being built by China alone, nine other nations have already signed on to fly experiments aboard Tiangong.

How to see the Tiangong space station

Tianhe is already visible with the naked eye, if you know where and when to look.

A video shot from New Zealand shows the tumbling chunk of rocket from Tianhe’s launch, followed by the bright dot of the space station module itself.

To find out when the space station might be visible from where you are, you can check websites such as n2yo.com, which show you the station’s current location and its predicted path for the next 10 days. Note that these predictions are based on models that can change quite quickly, because the space station is slowly falling in its orbit and periodically boosts itself back up to higher altitudes.

The station orbits Earth every 91 minutes. Once you find the time of the station’s next pass over your location (at night – you won’t be able to see it in the daytime), check the direction it will be coming from, find yourself a dark spot away from bright lights, and look out for a tiny, fast-moving spark of light trailing across the heavens.The Conversation

Paulo de Souza, Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China’s Belt and Road mega-plan may devastate the world’s oceans, or help save them



Shutterstock

Mischa Turschwell, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Griffith University

China’s signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road initiative, has garnered much attention and controversy. Many have voiced fears about how the huge infrastructure project might expand China’s military and political influence across the world. But the environmental damage potentially wrought by the project has received scant attention.

The policy aims to connect China with Europe, East Africa and the rest of Asia, via a massive network of land and maritime routes. It includes building a series of deepwater ports, dubbed a “string of pearls”, to create secure and efficient sea transport.

All up, the cost of investments associated with the project have been estimated at as much as US$8 trillion. But what about the environmental cost?

Coastal development typically damages habitats and species on land and in the sea. So the Belt and Road plan may irreversibly damage the world’s oceans – but it also offers a chance to better protect them.

A map showing sea and land routes planned under the Belt and Road initiative.
A map showing sea and land routes planned under the Belt and Road initiative.
Shutterstock

Controversial deals

China’s President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road initiative in 2013. Since then, China has already helped build and operate at least 42 ports in 34 countries, including in Greece, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. As of October this year, 138 countries had signed onto the plan.

The Victorian government joined in 2018, in a move that stirred political controversy. Those tensions have heightened in recent weeks, as the federal government’s relationship with China deteriorates.




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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews recently reiterated his commitment to the deal, saying: “I think a strong relationship and a strong partnership with China is very, very important.”

However, political leaders signing up to the Belt and Road plan must also consider the potential environmental consequences of the project.

Dan Andrews in Beijing
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is committed to the Belt and Road initiative.
Twitter

Bigger ports and more ships

As well as ports, the Belt and Road plan involves roads, rail lines, dams, airfields, pipelines, cargo centres and telecommunications systems. Our research has focused specifically on the planned port development and expansion, and increased shipping traffic. We examined how it would affect coastal habitats (such as seagrass, mangroves, and saltmarsh), coral reefs and threatened marine species.

Port construction can impact species and habitats in several ways. For example, developing a site often requires clearing mangroves and other coastal habitats. This can harm animals and release carbon stored by these productive ecosystems, accelerating climate change. Clearing coastal vegetation can also increase run-off of pollution from land into coastal waters.




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Ongoing dredging to maintain shipping channels stirs up sediment from the seafloor. This sediment smothers sensitive habitats such as seagrass and coral and damages wildlife, including fishery species on which many coastal communities depend.

A rise in shipping traffic associated with trade expansion increases the risk to animals being directly struck by vessels. More ships also means a greater risk of shipping accidents, such as the oil spill in Mauritius in July this year.

Seagrass in the Pacific Ocean
Dredging can cause sediment to smother seagrass.
iStock

Ocean habitat destroyed

Our spatial analysis found construction of new ports, and expansion of existing ports, could lead to a loss of coastal marine habitat equivalent in size to 69,500 football fields.

These impacts were proportionally highest in small countries with relatively small coastal areas – places such as Singapore, Togo, Djibouti and Malta – where a considerable share of coastal marine habitat could be degraded or destroyed.

Habitat loss is particularly concerning for small nations where local livelihoods depend on coastal habitats. For example, mangroves, coral reefs, and seagrass protect coasts from storm surges and sea-level rise, and provide nursery habitat for fish and other marine species.

Our analysis also found more than 400 threatened species, including mammals, could be affected by port infrastructure. More than 200 of these are at risk from an increase in shipping traffic and noise pollution from ships. This sound can travel many kilometres and affect the mating, nursing and feeding of species such as dolphins, manatees and whales.

A manatee
Noise pollution from ships can affect threatened species such as manatees.
Shutterstock

But there are opportunities, too

Despite these environmental concerns, the Belt and Road initiative also offers an opportunity to improve biodiversity conservation, and progress towards environmental targets such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, China could implement a broad, consistent environmental framework that ensures individual infrastructure projects are held to the same high standards.

In Australia, legislation helps prevent damage to wildlife from port activities. For example, go-slow zones minimise the likelihood of vessels striking iconic wildlife such as turtles and dugongs. Similarly, protocols for the transport, handling, and export of mineral concentrates and other potentially hazardous materials minimise the risk of pollutants entering waterways.




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The Belt and Road initiative should require similar environmental protections across all its partner countries, and provide funding to ensure they are enacted.

China has recently sought to boost its environment credentials on the world stage – such as by adopting a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2060. The global nature of the Belt and Road initiative means China is in a unique position: it can cause widespread damage, or become an international leader on environmental protection.The Conversation

Mischa Turschwell, Research Fellow, Griffith University; Christopher Brown, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, and Ryan M. Pearson, Research Fellow, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NSW has joined China, South Korea and Japan as climate leaders. Now it’s time for the rest of Australia to follow



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Tim Nelson, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Griffith University

It’s been a busy couple of months in global energy and climate policy. Australia’s largest trading partners – China, South Korea and Japan – have all announced they will reach net-zero emissions by about mid-century. In the United States, the incoming Biden administration has committed to decarbonising its electricity system by 2035.

These pledges have big implications for Australia. With some of the best renewable resources in the world, we have much to gain from the transition. And this week, the New South Wales government embraced the opportunity.

Its new A$32 billion Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap will, among other things, support the construction of 12 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity by 2030. This is six times the capacity of the state’s Liddell coal-fired power station, set to close in 2023.

The roadmap was developed by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean through extensive consultation with industry and others, including ourselves. While we believe a national carbon price is the best way to reduce emissions, the NSW approach nonetheless sets an example for other states looking to increase renewable energy capacity. So let’s take a closer look at the plan.

NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean
The authors worked with NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean, pictured, to help devise the policy.
Dean Lewins/AAP

What’s the roadmap all about?

The roadmap acknowledges that within 15 years, three-quarters of NSW’s coal-fired electricity supply is expected to reach the end of its technical life. It says action is needed now to ensure cheap, clean and reliable electricity, and to set up NSW as a global energy superpower.

The plan involves a coordinated approach to transmission, generation and storage. By 2030, the government aims to:

  • deliver about 12 gigawatts of new transmission capacity through so-called “renewable energy zones” in three regional areas by 2030. It would most likely be generated by wind and solar

  • support about 3 gigawatts of energy storage to help back up variable renewable energy supplies. This would involve batteries, pumped hydro, and “hydrogen ready” gas peaking power stations

  • attract up to A$32 billion in private investment in regional energy infrastructure investment by 2030

  • support more than 6,300 construction and 2,800 ongoing jobs in 2030, mostly in regional NSW

  • reduce NSW’s carbon emissions by 90 million tonnes.

The plan also aims to see the average NSW household save about A$130 a year in electricity costs, although this might be hard to achieve in practice. And regional landholders hosting renewable projects on their properties are expected to earn A$1.5 billion in revenue over the next 20 years.

The Liddell coal-fired power station
12 gigawatts of new renewables capacity is about six times the capacity of NSW’s Liddell coal-fired power station.
Shutterstock

Giving generators options

One of the most innovative aspects of the NSW proposal is that generators will have two options when it comes to selling their electricity.

First, the government will appoint an independent “consumer trustee” to purchase electricity from generators at an agreed price – giving the generators the long-term certainty they need to invest. The trustee would then sell this electricity either directly to the market, or through contracts to retailers.

But the trustee will encourage generators to first seek a better price by finding their own customers, such as energy consumers and other electricity retailers.




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This system is different to the approach adopted in Victoria and the ACT, where government contracts remove any incentive for generators to participate in the energy market. Over time, this limits market competition and innovation.

The NSW plan improves on existing state policies in another way – by aligning financial incentives to the physical needs of the system. The Consumer Trustee will enter into contracts with projects that produce electricity at times of the day when consumers need it, and not when the system is already oversupplied.

While this won’t be easy for the trustee to model, this approach is likely to benefit consumers more than in other jurisdictions where lowest-cost projects seem to be preferred, irrespective of whether the energy they produced is needed by consumers.

One shortcoming of the roadmap is it does not financially reward existing low-emissions electricity generators in NSW, nor does it charge carbon-heavy electricity producers for the emissions they produce. This could be corrected in the future by integrating the policy into a nationally consistent carbon price, which transfers the cost of carbon pollution onto heavy emitters.

A $50 note sticking out of a power socket
Electricity generators will be guaranteed a floor price for their electricity.
Julian Smith/AAP

Why is all this so important?

NSW’s ageing coal-fired power stations are chugging along – albeit with ever-declining reliability. But it’s only a matter of time before something expensive needs fixing. This was the case with Hazelwood in Victoria: the old walls of the boilers had thinned to less than 2 millimetres. The repair cost was prohibitive and the station closed with just five months’ notice. Electricity prices shot up in response to unexpectedly reduced supply.

In NSW, the consumer trustee will be tasked with helping ensuring replacement generation is delivered in a timely way. This means developing new generation capacity well ahead of announced coal plant closures.

This is a helpful development. But ultimately a stronger measure will be needed to ensure coal plants give early notice of their intention to exit the market. The Grattan Institute has previously suggested coal generators put up bonds that are forfeited if they close early. We think this model is worth considering again.

Seize the opportunity

As the world’s largest exporter of coal and LNG, Australia has much to lose as global economies shift to zero emissions. But our renewable energy potential means we also have much to gain.

Australia needs a durable, nationally consistent policy framework if we’re to seize the opportunities of the global transition to clean energy. The NSW roadmap is a significant step in the right direction.




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The Conversation


Tim Nelson, Associate Professor of Economics, Griffith University and Joel Gilmore, Associate Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China just stunned the world with its step-up on climate action – and the implications for Australia may be huge



Lukas Coch/AAP

Hao Tan, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, UNSW; John Mathews, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Macquarie University

China’s President Xi Jinping surprised the global community recently by committing his country to net-zero emissions by 2060. Prior to this announcement, the prospect of becoming “carbon neutral” barely rated a mention in China’s national policies.

China currently accounts for about 28% of global carbon emissions – double the US contribution and three times the European Union’s. Meeting the pledge will demand a deep transition of not just China’s energy system, but its entire economy.

Importantly, China’s use of coal, oil and gas must be slashed, and its industrial production stripped of emissions. This will affect demand for Australia’s exports in coming decades.

It remains to be seen whether China’s climate promise is genuine, or simply a ploy to win international favour. But it puts pressure on many other nations – not least Australia – to follow.

A man walking against an industrial skyline
It remains to be seen whether China will deliver on its climate pledge.
Da qing/AP

Goodbye, fossil fuels

Coal is currently used to generate about 60% of China’s electricity. Coal must be phased out for China to meet its climate target, unless technologies such as carbon-capture and storage become commercially viable.

Natural gas is increasingly used in China for heating and transport, as an alternative to coal and petrol. To achieve carbon neutrality, China must dramatically reduce its gas use.

Electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles must also come to dominate road transport – currently they account for less than 2% of the total fleet.




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China must also slash the production of carbon-intensive steel, cement and chemicals, unless they can be powered by renewable electricity or zero-emissions hydrogen. One report suggests meeting the target will mean most of China’s steel is produced using recycled steel, in a process powered by renewable electricity.

Modelling in that report suggests China’s use of iron ore – and the coking coal required to process it into steel – will decrease by 75%. The implications for Australia’s mining industry would be huge; around 80% of our iron ore is exported to China.

It is critically important for Australian industries and policymakers to assess the seriousness of China’s pledge and the likelihood it will be delivered. Investment plans for large mining projects should then be reconsidered accordingly.

Conversely, China’s path towards a carbon neutral economy may open up new export opportunities for Australia, such as “green” hydrogen.

A bust road in China
To meet its pledge, China must decarbonise its transport system.
DIEGO AZUBEL/EPA

A renewables revolution

Solar and wind currently account for 10% of China’s total power generation. For China to meet the net-zero goal, renewable energy generation would have to ramp up dramatically. This is needed for two reasons: to replace the lost coal-fired power capacity, and to provide the larger electricity needs of transport and heavy industry.

Two factors are likely to reduce energy demand in China in coming years. First, energy efficiency in the building, transport and manufacturing sectors is likely to improve. Second, the economy is moving away from energy- and pollution-intensive production, towards an economy based on services and digital technologies.

It’s in China’s interests to take greater action on climate change. Developing renewable energy helps China build new “green” export industries, secure its energy supplies and improve air and water quality.

A solar array in China
A transition to renewable energy would improve air pollution in China.
Sam McNeil/AP

The global picture

It’s worth considering what factors may have motivated China’s announcement, beyond the desire to do good for the climate.

In recent years, China has been viewed with increasing hostility on the world stage, especially by Western nations. Some commentators have suggested China’s climate pledge is a bid to improve its global image.

The pledge also gives China the high ground over a major antagonist, the US, which under President Donald Trump has walked away from its international obligations on climate action. China’s pledge follows similar ones by the European Union, New Zealand, California and others. It sets an example for other developing nations to follow, and puts pressure on Australia to do the same.




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The European Union has also been urging China to take stronger climate action. The fact Xi made the net-zero pledge at a United Nations meeting suggests it was largely targeted at an international, rather than Chinese, audience.

However, the international community will judge China’s pledge on how quickly it can implement specific, measurable short- and mid-term targets for net-zero emissions, and whether it has the policies in place to ensure the goal is delivered by 2060.

Much is resting on China’s next Five Year Plan – a policy blueprint created every five years to steer the economy towards various priorities. The latest plan, covering 2021–25, is being developed. It will be examined closely for measures such as phasing out coal and more ambitious targets for renewables.

Also key is whether the recent rebound of China’s carbon emissions – following a fall from 2013 to 2016 – can be reversed.

President Xi and President Trump
President Xi, left, has taken the high ground over the Trump-led US with its bold climate plan.
AP

Wriggle room

The 2060 commitment is bold, but China may look to leave itself wriggle room in several ways.

First, Xi declared in his speech that China will “aim to” achieve carbon neutrality, leaving open the option his nation may not meet the target.

Second, the Paris Agreement states that developed nations should provide financial resources and technological support to help developing countries reduce their emissions. China may make its delivery of the pledge conditional on this support.

Third, China may seek to game the way carbon neutrality is measured – for example, by insisting it excludes carbon emissions “embodied” in imports and exports. This move is quite likely, given exports account for a significant share of China’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

So for the time being, the world is holding its applause for China’s commitment to carbon neutrality. Like every nation, China will be judged not on its climate promises, but on its delivery.




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The Conversation


Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; John Mathews, Professor Emeritus, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Discipline of Politics & International Relations, Macquarie School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China succeeds in greening its economy not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government


Sung-Young Kim, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, UNSW; Hao Tan, University of Newcastle, and John Mathews, Macquarie University

From an appalling environmental scorecard 20 years ago, China has pioneered a “global green shift” towards renewable energy and recycling. The country’s drive to dominate renewables manufacturing benefits both China and the world, by sending technology prices plummeting.

Many have attributed this success to China’s authoritarian political regime.

Unlike a democracy, this line of reasoning goes, the state can override special interest groups or opposition parties to impose “authoritarian environmentalism”. This allows a rapid and encompassing response to severe environmental threats.

We take a different view. As the chief investigators on an Australia Research Council Discovery Project examining East Asia’s clean energy shift, we are examining why and how some East Asian countries – including China – are pursuing ambitious renewable energy transformations, and what Australia might learn from these countries’ experiences.

We argue China’s success in greening and growing its economy is not because, but in spite of, its authoritarian government.




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Not that different

China’s approach to greening shares much in common with democratic countries such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan. All have ambitious programs to rapidly build domestic clean energy industries and “green” their power generation.

As such, our project emphasises the link between China’s green shift and what we call “developmental environmentalism”.

Developmental environmentalism refers to a state approaching greening as an opportunity to promote national techno-economic competitiveness. It helps explain both the drivers of the green shift and the means of its execution.

The “means” are less about authoritarianism and more about the state’s capacity to induce the private sector into a cooperative relationship.

This type of negotiated relationship between the state and industry is the exact opposite of authoritarianism, which pursues its goals irrespective of the wishes of the private sector. Indeed, the pages of history tell us authoritarian leaders are far more likely to misuse their concentrated economic power, resulting in developmental failure.

Democratic successes

China is not alone in its green shift. In fact, some of the world’s most ambitious national greening programs have sprung to life in democratic settings.

Germany

The clearest example is Germany and its widely admired Energiewende (“energy transition”). Germany took an early lead in the development of solar devices through government-sponsored industrial programs.

Then in 2011, in the wake of the Fukishima nuclear disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear power stations.

Countries around the world are now emulating Germany’s Energiewende.

South Korea

In one of East Asia’s most vibrant democracies, South Korea, the election of President Lee Myung-bak in 2008 signalled a shift from intensive fossil-fuel development to “low-carbon, green growth”.

Lee’s focus was on greening the economy by investing in renewables and related infrastructure such as smart grids. His successor in 2013, President Park Geun-hye, continued this approach.

Finally, after President Moon Jae-in swept into power in 2017, South Korea committed to scaling down its use of nuclear energy.

Taiwan

Taiwan provides another fascinating example of a proudly democratic country that has followed in Germany’s footsteps. National efforts to establish a renewables industry began in 2009 under President Ma Ying-jeou. These initiatives targeted various clean energy industries for promotion, including generating solar and wind facilities and batteries.

However, just like Korea, the country’s over-reliance on nuclear energy (facilitated by a state-owned monopoly in the power sector) prevented the growth of a market for renewables.

A breakthrough in the country’s highly contentious debate over nuclear energy came with the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, who committed to the complete shutdown of nuclear reactors in the country.

Developmental environmentalism in action

These examples provide a clue that China’s ability to green its economy stems from something other than its authoritarian political system. We argue China’s success in greening stems from developmental environmentalism in action.

This does not simply mean a state that is “pro-development” and “pro-environment”. Rather, policymakers see greening the economy as chance to gain a competitive edge over other countries. The pursuit of strategic industry development goals involves nurturing – not displacing, as would occur in an authoritarian setting – “governed interdependence” with the private sector.

Best depicted by the Korean example, developmental environmentalism as a policy initially emerged as a response to threats to national industrial competitiveness. These included acute dependence on fossil-fuel imports, which are highly volatile, and global competitive pressures in the race to gain an early lead in the green economy.

Developmental environmentalism is also a strategic response to domestic challenges, such as the need to drive new sources of economic growth.

Lessons for Australia

If an authoritarian government provides little to no advantage for coordinating a green shift, what lessons might these countries have for Australian policymakers?

The key lesson is it’s not about designing the perfect constellation of policies or about pouring more money into entire industries.

Developmental environmentalism involves the political will to take big risks. Policymakers must target technologies – or segments of the economy – where government support could build national competitiveness.

Of course, this means creating a strategic, long-term approach to industry development, coordinated with the private sector.

Despite political gridlock, Australia is well placed to establish a foothold in the rapidly growing clean energy industry.

As the nation’s leaders engage in a fruitless debate over building new coal-fired power stations, Australian companies with world-class strengths in clean energies are emerging. Nowhere is this growing confidence more evident than in the blossoming of companies that have commercially ready smart microgrid and energy-storage solutions.

It would be a great shame – if not a national tragedy – if these companies were allowed to be picked off one by one by foreign multinational enterprises. This is the sad and familiar story of Australian manufacturing: highly innovative companies – a testament to our wealth of knowledge – are bought out, intellectual property rights absorbed, and manufacturing eventually outsourced. Often, shells of our prized national assets (typically the marketing and sales divisions) are all that remain.




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Wake up Australia, and take a lesson on solar from Korea


Yet, in the absence of a coordinated national strategy that focuses on building a national value chain or ecosystem of upstream and downstream players – as the Koreans and Taiwanese have done in smart microgrids – this future appears all but settled.The Conversation

Sung-Young Kim, Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics & International Relations, Macquarie University; Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and John Mathews, Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.