books climate change globalisation

Book review: China Goes Green, by Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro

The future of the planet depends on what happens in Asia, as anyone following developments in climate change knows all too well.  China has been the world’s largest emitter for over a decade, and progress there has been mixed. The country leads the world in both renewable energy and coal power. Its leaders talk about ‘ecological civilisation’ while continuing to fund fossil fuels among its international partners. Optimists and pessimists bat facts back and forth, but ultimately China is a paradox. It is both hero and villain.

For all its importance, it is quite hard to follow environmental developments in China. One the most useful resources I’ve come across is Barbara Finamore’s book Will China Save the Planet? Now, from the same publisher, comes China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet. It’s a nuanced account of what China has done so far, and what lessons the world can learn from the authoritarian tone of environmentalism in China.

The authors, both of whom are real authorities on China, take a helpfully empirical approach. Chapters detail China’s environmental intiatives, such as the restoration of the Loess plateau, attempts to restrain coal power. There is a really useful perspective on China’s ban of imported plastic waste, something that threw Britain’s recycling industry into chaos a couple of years ago, but which spurred recycling within China.

The book delves into both successess and failures. It’s very helpful in explaining how power operates within China. For outsiders like me, it can be hard to understand the tensions between central and local government, or between the Communist party and the state. Some of the country’s ambitions falter over these divisions, with competing priorities or false incentives. Local authorities were encouraged to increase water treatment capacity, for example, but water quality doesn’t always improve. The focus was on capacity, meaning facilities often didn’t work or weren’t even connected to water systems. Monoculture forest planting has been a similar problem, with tree cover expanding without improving overall sustainability or protecting biodiversity.

As the subtitle of the book shows, the authors aren’t just interested in what China has done, but how it does it. It has a tendency to use a one-size-fits all approach, and is over-reliant on target-setting. And, of course, we’re talking about environmentalism in an authoritarian state. Many measures to improve the environment also extend the reach of the state into people’s lives, such as the coercive recycling programmes where government agents go through people’s rubbish to make sure they’re sorting it properly.

This is important, as China has an unusual ability to get things done. For some, authoritarianism looks like the best way to fix serious environmental problems – just ban things. Stop people flying. Make people recycle. Take away their patio heaters. Close down the oil companies. Some fantasise about a global planet authority that could just take control of climate change and tell us all what to do.

For the authors here, China are pioneering what they call ‘coercive environmentalism’, and it offers “less a model for global action than a cautionary tale.” One of the main reasons why total authority isn’t necessarily delivering results is that civil society matters. Green progress that sticks needs full participation from citizens, and that needs consultation and transparency. There needs to be accountability and learning when things don’t work, and without a thriving culture of environmental NGOs and opposition, China lacks the feedback mechanisms that would improve their environmental policies. Critical voices are suppressed, but they would actually make government action more effective.

These are important observations for those who want stricter environmental laws and more robust enforcement – if it isn’t done with consultation and accountability, it might not work. Coercive environmentalism increases government control without necessarily delivering better environmental performance. That isn’t an argument against state-led environmentalism, say Shapiro and Li, but a reminder of the importance of partnership and consultation.

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