Xi Jinping is a lucky man: He got to spend a few days in Paris, at the UN Conference on Climate Change, while his fellow Beijingers suffered under some of the worst air pollution in that city’s history. Xi’s speech in Paris may have lacked the rhetorical flourishes of Barack Obama, but Xi certainly showed he knows how to say the right things. He emphasized the importance of acting decisively on climate change, reaching a strong but fair (“win-win”) agreement, transferring technologies to developing countries, and ensuring that the Paris agreement would be a beginning and not an end. But equally, Xi insisted that any accord should “permit every government to respond as best fits with its national conditions.” He lauded China’s approach to global warming, including energy conservation and renewable sources such as wind power; but he underscored that China would meet its international obligations under the banner of “national independent contributions,” meaning no legally binding treaty.
Xi thus covers both ends of the climate change debate. He sides with the developed countries in supporting global governance (meaning rules, not mandates), stressing the urgency of adapting to climate change, and working with Washington to place macro limits on carbon emissions. Stressing independence of action, avoiding specific targets, and limiting commitments to any international agreement puts China on the side of developing countries. The Chinese position is clever politics, but really comes down to climate-change marketing: words that appeal to everyone but guarantee nothing. Ask the folks in Beijing for an opinion, if you can get them to tear off their gas masks and speak frankly. They might respond with Ronald Reagan’s famous words: Trust, but verify.
The bottom line is that China, like most other highly industrialized countries, is going to move at its own pace on climate change, at a time when many scientists believe that if we are to avoid a two-degree Celsius rise in global temperature, about two-thirds of the earth’s carbon must be left in the ground. Politics, not the planet, will determine climate-change policy. We see this in China’s coal use, now revealed to be greater than ever—“burning up to 17 percent more coal a year than the government previously disclosed” (www.nytimes.com/2015/11/04/world/asia/china-burns-much-more-coal-than-reported-complicating-climate-talks.html). The promise in Xi’s agreement with Obama last fall that the two biggest polluters would work in tandem to attack global warming is heralded by even the most battle-hardened environmentalist (such as Mark Hertsgaard in The Nation: www.thenation.com/article/the-paris-climate-conference-last-chance-for-planet-earth/). But that promise seemed shaky even then, since China’s part of the agreement will not need to be fulfilled until 2030, and of course Obama will shortly be out of office, with positive steps such as tougher emissions standards for coal-fired power plants and vetoing of the Keystone XL pipeline subject to reversal by his successor. Now, there is more reason for pessimism.
One such reason is that China, like the United States, fails to address the two most widely endorsed measures to deal with climate change: a carbon tax and an end to government subsidies to fossil fuel producers. China’s subsidies to the coal industry are among the world’s largest (http://priceofoil.org/2015/09/25/oil-change-international-statement-on-chinas-announcement-to-limit-investment-in-polluting-projects/). Evidently, the Xi Jinping administration, which has pledged along with many other governments to end subsidies, can no more resist the state-run coal industry than can Washington resist the oil and gas lobbies. Total fossil fuel subsidies worldwide have gone down of late, but they are still huge: at least $462 billion, by some accounts much larger (www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/science/on-tether-to-fossil-fuels-nations-speak-with-money.html). In consequence China’s northeast must endure blinding and health-damaging air pollution, merely one sign of how easily promises are not kept. (As a friend of mine says, “promises made are a debt unpaid.”)
China’s ambiguous commitments on global warming may be related to Xi Jinping’s expanding net of repression, a subject I touched upon most recently in Post #98. The scientists and bureaucrats who are helping shape China’s environmental policies certainly deserve applause for taking policy making out of the dark ages, when only capitalist countries were said to have pollution. But they operate in a closed system, unexposed to people who represent the public interest. Limiting China’s response to climate change is politically feasible because of the ongoing roundup and muzzling of lawyers, human-rights activists, liberal professors, and ordinary citizens who protest social conditions–and because of a legal system that supports the party-state’s actions. For example, a Danish newspaper (Globalt, July 30) reports that in July 2015 alone, over 130 human-rights lawyers were detained in twenty Chinese provinces; 23 of them were arrested. Amnesty International lists 232 activists and lawyers detained in China during a one-month period last summer (www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa17/2207/2015/en/). Tom Phillips has written in The Guardian (December 3) about an official clampdown this year on academic critics—detaining some on corruption charges, preventing others from publishing. Corrupt behavior there may be, but the political intent of the campaign is clearly to silence those who question absolute communist party rule. The crime is called “improper discussion of Central [party-state] policies” (妄议中央). See Wendy Zhou at http://cmp.hku.hk/2015/11/26/39344/.
I have no idea how many of these human-rights victims are environmental critics, but I’m willing to bet there are quite a few. They recognize that air and water pollution and incessant carbon emissions from industry and cars cannot be brought under control without fundamental legal, political, and cultural changes—changes that would directly challenge the party-state system. Applying the rule of law, eliminating conflicts of interest, and curbing official corruption, for example, are crucial to China’s environmental security. Where are the protectors of the environment going to come from if they are under surveillance, forbidden to publish, or in jail?