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Cover Story, Enviroment

The East is Green?

China Steps Up Against Pollution and Climate Change

Chinese tourists wear masks as protection from the pollution outside the Forbidden City during a day of high pollution on December 1, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Getty)

by Thomas J. Shattuck*

As the famous Communist “anthem” famously says, “the East is red, the sun is rising. . . . The Communist Party is like the sun, Wherever it shines, it is bright.” At the recent Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress, Mao Zedong’s 5th generation successor, Xi Jinping, suggested East needs to go green.

President Xi Jinping devoted a portion of his opening work report to further entrenching and confirming China’s already emerging commitments to safeguarding the environment and tackling climate change.
With the Congress’ theme of “Remain true to our original aspiration and keep our mission firmly in mind, hold high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era, and work tirelessly to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation,” it is safe to say that tackling environmental issues is now a part of Xi’s vision for China, and in turn, a part of the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.

The inclusion of the environment in one of the most high profile speeches of Xi’s career may seem surprising as images of smog engulfing Chinese cities—and reports explaining the human and economic costs of pollution—are not hard to find on the internet. One recent study estimated that globally, pollution caused the death of at least nine million individuals and costs associated with care and death was $4.6 trillion in 2015. This study also found that “China’s environment was the second deadliest [to India], with more than 1.8 million premature deaths, or one in five, blamed on pollution-related illness.” Another study found that pollution takes over 3 years off a person’s life in northern China. The pollution and smog cause these health issues in residents north of the Huai River. These studies’ findings help to explain the environment’s elevated platform in China.

But now, China is working to become a leader in the global green movement. And with U.S. President Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris climate agreement (only the U.S. and Syria have not signed—or have pulled out of—the agreement), there is plenty of room for China and Xi to step up. Highlighting the importance of climate change in his speech was a calculated move to show his country’s commitment compared to a retreating United States.

Chinese workers ride in a boat through a large floating solar farm project under construction by the Sungrow Power Supply Company on a lake caused by a collapsed and flooded coal mine on June 13, 2017 in Huainan, Anhui province, China (Getty)

At a time when the current U.S. president is more committed to bringing back coal than fighting climate change, Xi Jinping and China have shown a resolute commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. Although the electric auto and renewable energy industries are just taking off in China, the sheer scale of the country’s population make even small percentage quite large in real numbers. Even though these sectors do not make up a bulk of China’s energy and automotive sectors, the country still boasts many of the “world’s largests.”

It is not just the CCP-led regime working to better China’s environment and reduce it emissions. The people have taken to the streets throughout China to protest construction of coal-fired plants. In 2012, residents of a town on Hainan Island protested the construction of one plant, and in 2015, 10,000 people in Heyuan in Guangdong Province protested the construction of another. These are only two examples of Chinese citizens demonstrating their desire for blue skies and clean energy.
It is clear that there is a bit of self-interest involved in developing these industries: a healthier and happier population, a more modern, high-tech economy, considerable job creation, and a more positive image compared to the United States.

Even though Xi’s rhetoric is clear that he wants to address China’s pollution problem and abide by the Paris Agreement, and even though he has good reasons to do so, what is actually being done in China to implement this commitment? Do recent actions point to China backing up words with action?

AUTO INDUSTRY’S ELECTRIC JOLT

There are reports that the CCP is working on creating a timetable to phase out vehicles powered by fossil fuels in order to have only electric vehicles on the roads. China is the world’s largest auto market, with car ownership in 2015 at 172 million.

An assistant general manager at Chery Automobile Co., a Chinese automobile company, estimated that the ban would occur “later than 2040.” BYD, a Chinese auto company backed by American billionaire Warren Buffett, expects that all vehicles in China will be electrified in some form by 2030. The CCP has set a goal of 2025 for electric vehicles to make up at least one fifth of the country’s auto sales.
No matter when the phase out occurs, Chinese companies are still leading the way in manufacturing electric and hybrid vehicles. In 2016, they produced 375,000, or 43% of the world’s supply; 332,000 were produced within Chinese borders. As a result of this production, China has the most electric vehicles on the road in the world, overtaking the U.S. It is important to note that the total number of passenger vehicles produced in China in 2016 was 24.4 million, so the number of electric cars produced is quite small in comparison.

Nevertheless, private companies and the Chinese government have shown a commitment in manufacturing more “green” vehicles.

A GARBAGE PROLBLEM

In July 2017, the Chinese government announced its latest initiative to combat its massive garbage and waste problem. The CCP notified the World Trade Organization that it was banning “24 categories of solid waste” including paper, plastics, and slag from steel, among other things. The ban, which took effect in September 2017, is part of an ongoing effort to reduce the pollution from waste and garbage in China. The announcement caused quite a stir because, last year, according the Economist, China imported 45 million tons of scrap metal, paper, and plastic, worth more than $ 18 billion.

In the filing, China gave the follow rationale for its decision:

We found that large amounts of dirty waste or even hazardous waste is mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This seriously polluted China’s environment. . . . To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.

This announcement is not the first time that the Chinese government tried to fight its garbage problem. In 2013, it announced Operation Green Fence, which improved inspection measures on imported waste in an effort to ban low-quality waste. Its goal was to reduce the importation of contaminated waste, and importers could have their shipping licenses revoked if they violated the measures. In February 2017, National Sword 2017 was launched to reduce illegal shipments of electronic and industrial waste. The latest ban is only a continuation—albeit a much stricter one—of recent policies aimed at fighting China’s waste problem.

While China has set its eye on the perils of foreign waste, the country has an even greater domestic waste problem. China produces 520,000 tons of garbage per day, and the government has pledged to burn 40% of the country’s garbage by 2020. The country-wide daily burning goal is 500,000 tons by 2020. Producing—and burning—this much garbage and waste is not good for the environment.
Many plants in China burn the garbage to produce electricity for cities. One such plant in Beijing burns enough garbage to power over 140,000 homes. Another plant in Shanghai burns 1,500 tons of garbage per day. However, as academics and activists have noted, not all plants burn the garbage as cleanly and efficiently as others, which has not helped the pollution issue throughout China. Song Guojin, a professor at Renmin University, pointed out that China should emulate Taiwan’s practice of sorting garbage by type in order to make recycling easier and to reduce the amount of non-recyclable garbage.
While China is currently looking outward to combat its garbage problem, it must also look inward in order to find more long-term solutions to this problem.

CHANGES IN CHINA’S ENERGY SECTORS

In addition to changes in the auto and waste industries, China is seeking to increase its energy mix by developing green energy industries like solar and wind in order to rely less on coal.

China, the world’s largest coal consumer, has seen a decline in coal consumption for three consecutive years. In 2016, consumption decreased by 4.7%. This decline also marks a shift in China’s energy mix—coal accounted for 62% of the total share in 2016, down from 64% in 2015. The Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis says that China is “three years past peak coal.”

A Chinese labourer loads coal into a furnace as smoke and steam rises from an unauthorized steel factory on November 3, 2016 in Inner Mongolia, China. (Getty)

Another sign that shows coal production and consumption in China is slowly declining is that the CCP announced in January 2017 that it cancelled 103 planned or under construction coal power plants (the plants would have generated 120 gigawatts of power). Many of these projects were located in northern China, where coal is king. In August 2017, the CCP announced another round of stoppages; this time, it stopped construction on 150 gigawatts worth of coal plants. In addition to stopping construction, older, outdated plants will be upgraded to produce fewer emissions. The government has also set a goal of limiting coal-generated power to 1,100 gigawatts by 2020. These numbers point to a concerted effort by the government to reduce its coal production and consumption. Coal is the leading cause of greenhouse gases, and the over consumption of coal is the leading cause for China’s smog problem. The production numbers will have to further decrease for China’s cities to eliminate this life-threatening issue.

With coal consumption falling, China is finding its energy supply in renewables, namely solar and wind energy. In 2016, both sectors’ capacity saw increases (81.6% and 13.2%, respectively). Wind generation increased by 19%, and China broke the world record for solar installations with 33.2 gigawatts. In total, renewables accounted for about 25% of China’s electricity mix in 2016. These sectors, and others, show that renewables have a home in China.

The CCP plans to spend $ 360 billion in renewable power generation by 2020, and it also wants clean energy to meet 20 % of the country’s energy needs by 2030.

These increases in green energy production are not just improving the environmental situation in China, they also are creating millions of jobs. In the solar industry alone, China employs over 2.5 million people (compared to 260,000 in the U.S.). The country is home to the world’s largest solar farm and the world’s largest floating solar farm. The boom in the solar industry, however, will come at cost for the coal mining industry and its workers. China plans to cut 1.3 million jobs in the coal sector.

Despite the immense work and progress needed to make a meaningful impact, the recent improvements in China’s various “green” sectors shows that Xi does believe that the environment is part of the “Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” Continuing to develop green industries appeases a population fed up with life-threatening pollution and will only help to modernize the Chinese economy from low-tech to high-tech. The green movement in China has taken off rapidly, and there are no signs of slowing down. Perhaps, it is time to update the old anthem from the Cultural Revolution to reflect China’s future: The East is green.

*Thomas J. Shattuck is the Editor of Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog and a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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