Authoritarian Environmentalism and its Effect on China's Fight against Climate Change
By Isabella Rathleff
China has, for the better part of the 21st Century, been a major subject of international climate-related scrutiny. Its industrial sector has, in the space of a couple of decades, experienced exponential growth, paired with the urbanisation and industrialisation of areas outside larger urban centres like Beijing and Shanghai. The result has been twofold: firstly, the country’s rapid pursuit and achievement of a significant degree of economic development, enabled by the advancement of various successful global industries; and secondly--perhaps more important than the first, particularly in a global context--is the effect this development has had on carbon emissions, both domestic and international.
In many ways, China has become the victim of its own ambition—its pursuit of economic development and influence has given it a powerful position in the global economy, but this position puts it squarely in the spotlight of global scrutiny with regard to, among other things, its contribution to climate change. Because large-scale industrialisation has taken place in China much later than in other major contributors to climate change—notably the US, the UK, and much of Western Europe—it consequently faces the difficult question of how to grow economically in a way that ensures an adequate standard of living for its large population but is also environmentally friendly.
The China Dialogue, in its assessment of Dr. Judith Shapiro and Yifei Li’s book China Goes Green, addresses the progress that the country has already made on this front, at least in terms of its international climate reputation. Over the past decade, the attitude of the Chinese government and officials towards addressing the climatic consequences of its recent economic triumphs has undergone a dramatic shift. In 2009, China was accused of “wrecking” the Copenhagen climate talks, earning itself widespread disdain as other countries attempted, to different degrees, to confront climate change. More recently, though, when the US withdrew from the Paris Accord in 2016, China did not follow suit as had been expected, and was resultantly heralded as an international leader on climate. And, in September of 2020, President Xi Jinping issued a statement setting out a list of climate goals, including to achieve peak carbon emissions by 2030, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. However, conflicting opinions exist as to whether or not these goals—particularly the first, given its apparently direct conflict with the current state of industrial growth in China—are achievable.
When considered in a positive light, it can be easy to find examples of success with regard to China’s environmental performance. Ma Jun, Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPEA) in Beijing points out that in 168 Chinese cities, the average concentration of airborne particulate pollution has fallen by around 1/3 since 2015. This, and other examples, demonstrate dramatic and extensive change in areas the government has shown itself to be particularly concerned with, such as air quality. This success has also been partially thanks to the work of increasing numbers of ENGOs (including the IPEA itself) which encourage large companies to address their carbon and pollution footprints.
Nonetheless, Bill McKibben argues in the National Geographic that the 2030 peak carbon goal is essentially unattainable, even if the government’s full action plan is put in place. He also argues that the 2060 neutrality goal would require significant changes to the proposed plan in order to be achieved. The fact of the matter is, China’s industrial, and, critically, consumer revolutions have really only just begun, and the process of further development and industrialisation presents an enormous challenge to the progress of climate-related efforts. China’s international growth, while on the one hand providing a wealth of resources for expensive carbon emissions reductions, is also an inhibiting factor which may ultimately prevent the country from reaching its ambitious goals within the timeframes set.
In their book, China Goes Green, Dr. Judith Shapiro & Yifei Li discuss the fact that the measures being implemented on a local level are authoritative, unhelpful and thus will ultimately be unsuccessful, a sentiment echoed by the World Economic Forum and the China Dialogue.
Ma Jun, in a recent Oxford Climate Society lecture, gave the example of recently introduced Shanghai recycling regulations which, since 2020 have compelled the city’s residents to recycle their waste in various appropriate bins at certain set ‘waste disposal’ hours. Compliance failures, including failing to dispose of recycling at the prescribed hour, can result in various social and economic punishments, such as damage to the non-complying citizen’s social credit score.
Dr. Shapiro argued that while the measure itself may seem, theoretically, to be helpful in terms of the waste-reduction goals which are part of the country’s emissions targets, the actual positive effects of the measure are limited by popular disdain for them. The policy was imposed without any public communication or opportunity for dialogue, and has been implemented with very little education on either how to recycle properly or why it matters in the context of combating climate change.
This “authoritarian environmentalism”, argue Shapiro and Yifei in the book, promotes a negative attitude of disdain and resentment towards environmental policies and, on the whole, serves to reduce public sympathy for environmental efforts. Perversely, this creates a barrier to the government’s goals for combatting climate change which, in many ways, can only be achieved if they are successfully adopted at the local level. As such, it is critical that the Chinese government takes into account the needs and views of local communities when implementing environmental regulations—particularly as there is relatively strong local support for environmental protection. What is needed, say Shapiro and Yifei, is a greater degree of sympathy for individuals’ livelihoods and patterns of behaviour, and, ultimately, collaboration between government and community.
It is difficult to present a straightforwardly hopeful summary of China’s efforts against climate change. On one hand, great progress has already been made, and many of the individual aims set out by the government in 2020 are on track to being achieved, at least in part. On the other, though, it is clear that collaborative action is required from the government in order to sustain and further public cooperation with environmentalist efforts. If drastic changes both to the extent of the measures being introduced and to the attitude with which the government introduces them are made, China could make rapid progress towards its goal of carbon neutrality.
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