China can’t save the world from climate change by itself
In this photo taken Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, a chef prepares to cook food in a solar cooker which uses a metal and glass vacuum tube heated by mirrors curved to capture the sun's heat in Dezhou in the eastern Shandong province in China. Two dozen chefs with white aprons and hats cooked soups, baked buns, potatoes, and boiled rice at a festival to demonstrate the potential of solar cookers that organizers claim can help reduce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. | Fu Ting / AP

With all the problems in the world—trade tensions, political instability, traffic—it’s easy to forget about the mother of all threats, climate change. Sure, other grievances can seem insurmountable, but it’s unlikely any of those carry the potential to wipe out humanity as we know it.

So how are things looking on the climate front? Previous years saw CO2 emissions actually staying flat, though this by itself would not be enough to stave off cataclysmic environmental consequences. But 2017 and 2018 have seen a rise in emissions, by 1.6 and 2.7 percent respectively, according to a report released early last month by the Global Carbon Project. Bad news, by any measure.

News stories about these numbers were quick to point the finger at China, since the country had a projected emissions increase of 4.7 percent in 2018. But this makes sense, given its size. China has the world’s largest population and the world’s second-largest economy, and still relies on manufacturing for a great deal of its growth—though that is slowly changing as it moves to a more diversified, service-oriented economy.

What some might not know is when emissions are looked at on a per-capita basis, China is closer to the bottom of the list, below Germany, the Republic of Korea, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. At the very top is the United States, beating out China’s per-capita emissions by over a factor of two. Yet this disparity was mentioned only as an afterthought, if reporters bothered at all. The implication seemed to be China is no longer concerned about the dangers of climate change.

I think China would be the first to admit more needs to be done if we are to avert apocalypse. Some parts of the country were unable to meet their reduction targets this year, and renewed vigor will be required if the twin scourges of pollution and emissions are to be eradicated. New sources of energy will have to be found, and coal use in particular must be phased out over time. This is part of an already existing strategy, with cleaner fuels like natural gas being used to bridge the gap between reliance on “dirtier” fossil fuels and a society with 100 percent renewable energy sources. As a vast majority of the Chinese population lives on or near coastlines, it’s a little disingenuous to suggest people here are ignorant of the risks climate change poses.

It’s odd. Some in the West, which has long since moved past the heavy industrial stage of development and effectively outsourced its pollution, suddenly see fit to lecture developing countries who dare to pursue better lives for their people. Easy to say, I suppose, after getting a head start on industrialization and reaping the benefits. To be fair, most of the highly advanced economies in the West are doing their part to invest in green technology. But there is one glaring exception.

Since the election of Donald Trump, the U.S. has taken a protectionist, nationalist turn in the economic realm. This much is obvious. What gets forgotten in the many headlines about trade and markets is how this stance impacts the environment. Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama continued imperialist wars of aggression and presided over an economic “recovery” that saw massive upward redistributions of wealth, but he had undeniably better policy than Trump when it came to reducing emissions and serving as a global environmental steward. Under Obama, the U.S. committed to the Paris Agreement. Trump is hell-bent on backing out. With Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency had at least nominal support. Trump, meanwhile, has appointed climate change deniers to EPA leadership, making the agency a partner of the oil and gas industry in all but name.

Numbers don’t lie—China is, at present, the world’s biggest polluter. But China is also doing more to curb emissions than arguably any other country. It is the largest buyer and producer of solar panels, taking heavy losses to effectively subsidize the technology and make it cheaper in the long run. It is the world leader in wind power installation and generation. Nearly half of all new energy vehicles since 2011 were sold in China, despite the country having only 20 percent of the world’s population. Many of the largest hydroelectric power stations were built in China, and scientists continue work on new forms of energy generation with substantial public investment. Just last month, researchers in Hefei, Anhui province managed to bring a fusion reactor to 100 million degrees Celsius, an important milestone in the quest for abundant, clean, and cheap nuclear energy.

Yet despite all this effort, some continue to criticize. One report even admonished China for its success reducing air pollution, as this had contributed to an increase in warming! Before coming here a year ago, I heard horror stories of dark, smoggy skies. This showed, people would say, the country didn’t care about the environment. Now, after China has taken steps to fix the problem, they make the same accusation anyway. It seems there’s no way for the country to please its detractors.

China is doing all it can, contrary to what naysayers claim. But climate change mitigation is an international effort, and needs international participation. Though it is a big country in terms of economics, geography, and population, China cannot go it alone—nor can it make up for the inaction of other, far more developed nations. Group efforts are stymied if one party is expected to do all the work, or if another refuses to pitch in. There is much more at stake here than national pride, and plenty to lose besides a reputation for tough talk. Maintaining the status quo would spell disaster for the world and its people. Surely it’s possible to put aside ego and do what’s right for the human race.

Just this once.


Ian Goodrum
Ian Goodrum

Ian Goodrum is a writer and digital editor for China Daily in Beijing, China.