At the UN’s climate summit recently, a number of countries announced new decarbonization goals. As I mentioned last week, net zero by 2050 is beginning to look like the standard. However, it’s hard to escape the fact that many of the world’s biggest emitters aren’t yet signed up. Until they are, real progress on the global issue of climate change is going to be limited. In particular, the future depends on the actions of India and China.
Both had announcements to make last week, captured in the closing press release. But from the outside, it looks like there isn’t much engagement. I’ll talk about India another time, but is China even concerned about climate change? Does its leadership take it seriously?
I think exhibit number one is a Xi Jinping speech from 2017. It was made to the National Congress of the Communist Party, so it’s hardly aimed at a Western audience. It runs to almost 25,000 words and describes a vision for ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. You can find it online in English here, and if you want to know how China views itself and its environmental responsibilities, in its leader’s own words, I can’t think of a better place to start.
On climate change, Jinping is clear that “We should be good friends to the environment, cooperate to tackle climate change, and protect our planet for the sake of human survival.” And there’s lots more on wider environmental issues, including many statements I would love to hear from the British government:
- We will promote a revolution in energy production and consumption, and build an energy sector that is clean, low-carbon, safe, and efficient.
- We promote a sound economic structure that facilitates green, low-carbon, and circular development.
- We encourage simple, moderate, green, and low-carbon ways of life, and oppose extravagance and excessive consumption.
- We will improve systems for regeneration of croplands, grasslands, forests, rivers, and lakes.
Jinping has a particular name for all of this. He calls it ‘ecological civilization’, and says that “building an ecological civilization is vital to sustain the Chinese nation’s development.” It’s a holistic vision for a flourishing socialist China that respects and values the environment and protects it for the future. It is a long term project that includes the circular economy, clean energy, land restoration, and the beauty of China’s landscapes.
“Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us” warns Jinping. “This is a reality we have to face.” The speech doesn’t criticize the actions of the past or the present, but it recognises that things have to change, and that the damage done to the environment must be actively restored. He talks about new industrial and economic structures that will allow nature to heal itself, and “with this, we can restore the serenity, harmony, and beauty of nature.”
There’s lots more I could add. If you’re interested in China’s political system, its views on democracy, or its plans for the military, it’s a fascinating document. There are also clues about why China might look like it isn’t playing ball – it mentions the need for reform in global governance, and the need for equality across nations in international institutions. Some of the world’s international institutions are notoriously tilted in favour of the West, and the US in particular. As a nation of 1.3 billion people with a 5,000 year history, China is going to engage on its own terms, thank you very much.
China has developed its own hybrid model for the economy, using free markets within a Communist structure. It has a distinctively Chinese brand of socialism, and in the idea of ecological civilization, it has its own philosophy of sustainable development.
Of course, this isn’t a policy speech. It’s very much about vision, unity, and building common purpose. So it’s low on the detail of how any of this will happen. But on the charge that China doesn’t get climate change or doesn’t care, I think it’s pretty obvious that isn’t the case – at least not at the top. The transition from an industrial civilization to an ecological civilization is written into the constitution. Whether China wants to pursue its environmental agenda in line with UN agreements, that’s another question. But if it can deliver on the ecological civilization vision, and embed it in national and regional decision-making, that may not ultimately matter.
“What we are doing today to build an ecological civilization will benefit generations to come. We should have a strong commitment to socialist ecological civilization and work to develop a new model of modernization with humans developing in harmony with nature.”
Imagine, if you will, a US president declaring a ‘new model of modernization’ in harmony with nature. It would probably be recognised as an epoch defining moment. Like the Truman Doctrine in the Cold War, it could shape the unfolding history of the century. Books would be written about it. International relations students would study it. Because it’s happened in China and in Chinese, ecological civilization hasn’t had that kind of attention. If we could fast forward fifty years, we might find that it does in fact turn out to be an epoch defining idea. We can certainly hope so. The future of the planet depends on whether or not China can build Jinping’s dream of an ecological civilization.