globalisation politics sustainability

What is China’s ecological civilization?

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.

22 comments

  1. Your determination to speak well of China is remarkable. China is a one-party dictatorship with a dreadful human rights record – for example its ruthlessness towards peaceful proponents of human rights and democracy following the death of Liu Xiaobo in 2017, its sentencing of artist Chen Yunfei to four years in prison for ‘provoking trouble’ in connection with his activities commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and, above all, its appalling treatment of the Muslim population of Xinjiang province and the Buddhist population of Tibet.

    As for its ecological record, of which President Xi speaks so eloquently, the phase ‘actions speak louder than words’ is unavoidable. It’s dreadful: for example, the damage to people and the environment resulting from its construction of huge dams (the Three Gorges Dam for example has been described as ‘one of China’s biggest environmental nightmares’) and the toxic and wide-spread consequences of rare earth extraction, smelting, separation, processing and transportation.

    Moreover its emissions of greenhouse gases are by far the worst in the world exceeding those of the USA, Western Europe, Canada and Australia combined. Its per capita emissions are, despite its huge population, 35% higher than the UK’s. And it’s getting worse: 141 million tonnes of new annual coal mining capacity were approved in the first half of this year with more coal-fuelled power stations expected to be built. This month China expects to complete the Menghua railway – with an annual delivery capacity of 200 million tonnes of coal. And its plan to build over 200 new airports by 2035 is unlikely to help. Unsurprisingly China’s GHG emissions increased by 4.3% in the last two years. And that doesn’t of course include the large number of coal projects (about 300) that China has funded throughout the world – in particular as part of its ‘Belt and Road’ project under which it is financing 102 GW of coal power capacity.

    Not much evidence there that China really gets or cares about climate change or that its leadership takes it seriously. And none at all that its emissions are likely to be cut to net zero by 2025 – or 2050 or even 2100. Yet, as you say, the future depends on India and China. Do your friends at XR know about all this?

      1. Thanks. And just for the record I confirm that your friends at XR understand that there’s no evidence that China (responsible for 30% of global emissions and on whom our future depends) is likely to cut its emissions to net zero by 2025 – or by 2050 or even by 2100.

          1. Nor do I. All I’m doing is confirming that, when I asked ‘Do your friends at XR know about all this?’, you answered ‘Yes’. I don’t suppose ‘your friends at XR’ represent XR any more than you do.

    1. I just provided a link showing that China’s historic emissions are vastly greater than the UK’s. It’s disappeared – presumably because of the link. My question is this: what about China’s historic emissions as they’re so much greater than ours?

        1. I understand it well enough. And your video confirms my link (still not published) by showing that China’s cumulative emissions are three times greater than the UK’s. So my question stands: what about China’s historic emissions as they’re so much greater than ours?

          BTW I could give you another link – this time to an IPCC chart (from a recent Technical Summary) showing that from 1750 to 2010 OECD countries were the source of less than 50% of cumulative global emissions. It’s particularly telling because since 2010 the gap has got considerably greater. If I provided the link now my post would probably disappear. Would you like me to try?

    1. Thanks – appreciated.

      My only observation is this: the UK emits only about 0.4 billion tonnes of GHG gases in a year (about 1% of the global total). Whatever its past sins, it can do no more than reduce that to 0.0 billion tonnes – which is what XR is demanding it must do by 2025. As we’ve discussed, that would bring a multitude of ghastly problems. But, as I’ve just learned from you on another thread, the reality is that XR – despite that demand – plans to rely on the citizens’ assembly to ensure that all goes smoothly. And that presumably could mean that the whole thing is deferred to, say, 2050. As I said – interesting.

    1. So you don’t speak for XR. OK – but you did say ‘what I propose would not mean hardship for anyone’. But, as XR’s unambiguous demand would, if implemented, certainly bring hardship, you must be saying that – at least in your view – you would expect the citizens’ assembly to override the demand. I suggest you advise XR to publicise that because it would almost certainly get it more public support and sympathy.

        1. With some respect Jeremy, I don’t think I’m the one who’s getting into a knot. Let’s review where we are:

          1. We agree that, if implemented, XR’s second demand would bring serious hardship to a lot of people – especially the most vulnerable. (I noted that just one example is the withdrawal of the gas and oil used to heat homes (over 20 million), hospitals etc.)

          2. But you say (and here I quote) ‘what I propose would not mean hardship for anyone’.

          3. That’s a bold statement. And, not unreasonably, I ask you to explain precisely what it is that you propose.

          4. You prevaricate. And eventually the nearest you get to an answer is to say (and here I quote) that ‘the citizen’s assembly … wouldn’t sanction the ‘dreadful hardship’ [I] think is inevitable.’ You go on to say (and again I quote) that ‘That’s the whole point of it’.

          5. That can only be interpreted as saying that the citizens’ assembly would override XR’s unambiguous second demand.

          6. I suggest, not unreasonably, that you advise XR to publicise that because it would almost certainly get it more public support and sympathy.

          That’s where we are – a very interesting outcome.

  2. I don’t recognise that as being where we are, and I find it bizarre that you think I’m prevaricating on proposals. I presume you’re aware that you’re commenting on a blog all about climate solutions that has been running for 11 years now. You’ve got a deep catalogue of ideas I think are worth pursuing.

    This is a post about China’s ecological civilization, not your interpretations of XR’s demands. I’m not going to argue about it.

    Don’t worry. The internet is big. I’m sure you can find someone to argue with somewhere else.

    1. I made my point about China and its ‘ecological civilisation’ and would have been very happy to leave it there. Or better still to have discussed the detailed issues that I’d raised. But you – not I – chose to move on to the wholly unrelated issue of XR’s demands.

      My point about prevarication was not about the wide-ranging and interesting comments you make on this blog. It was, as I make clear above, about one very specific example of prevarication. It was this: having agreed that XR’s second demand would bring serious hardship, you wrote ‘what I propose would not mean hardship for anyone’. So, not unreasonably, I asked you (several times) to explain precisely what it is that you propose. I didn’t get a clear answer – the nearest being your interesting observation that the citizens’ assembly wouldn’t sanction hardship, that being, as you said, ‘the whole point of it’.

      1. You raised XR.

        I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said I don’t agree with your assumptions about hardship. And yet you keep saying ‘we agreed’ and ‘you agreed’.

        Bye for now.

        1. I believe you’re misrepresenting our various exchanges about damage (especially to the most vulnerable). However I’m not planning to pursue it any further at present.

          So yes – bye for now.

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