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The Challenge of Climate Change

December 17, 2021

Judith Shapiro is professor and director of the Masters in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development for the School of International Service at American University. She was one of the first Americans to live in China after US-China relations were normalized in 1979. Her research and teaching focus on global environmental politics and policy, the environmental politics of Asia, and Chinese politics under Mao. She has written, edited or co-authored 10 books, the most recent of which is China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet, co-authored with Yifei Li.

China, as the world’s leading manufacturer, has also consistently been by far-and-away the world’s biggest polluter over the last few decades. Reacting to the environmental tipping points that are getting ever closer, Beijing has set out distinct carbon emissions goals and the country is increasing spending on solutions such as new energy sources. But the response is far from perfect and there is still a long way to go.

In this interview, Judith Shapiro, a renowned China environment policy expert and professor at American University, discusses the feasibility of China achieving its new carbon neutrality goals, its role in meeting global climate targets, and the advantages and disadvantages that the Chinese system offers in tackling these issues.

Q. How would you characterize the current state of China’s environment compared to other countries, such as the US and India, and what are the biggest challenges China is facing?
A. In becoming the manufacturing hub for the world, China may have become wealthy, but it is also destroying much of its beautiful landscape and endangering the health of many of its citizens. Public health impacts from air, water and soil pollution are so acute that even the Party is questioning whether the economic growth and prosperity is worth all of the costs. China’s environment is at a tipping point, with major efforts to restructure the economy to focus less on “dirty” industry and more on services and technology. China’s rejection of foreign plastic garbage and e-waste is a good example of this shift, which will not only benefit the Chinese people, but also pressure developed countries to confront the consumption model on which global commerce is based. In a best-case scenario, multinational companies will be forced to cut down on the waste they produce by extracting raw materials, manufacturing goods, transporting them to distribution centers and sales outlets, and disposing of them. The “displacement of environmental harm” which is despoiling not only China but our planet, is unsustainable, unjust and ultimately self-defeating.

Q. China’s leader Xi Jinping has set ambitious targets for changes to China’s energy usage and other environmental impacts. How achievable are these goals in the time frames that they have set out?
A. China’s stated goals are within achievable range, but they may not be enough to stop irreparable climate change. Some environmental goals are easier to achieve than others. For example, switching from coal to natural gas is do-able, despite the widespread criticism of the continued construction of coal-fired power plants both at home and abroad on the Belt and Road. I expect there will be continued improvements in air and water quality. Soil contamination is more difficult and is quite widespread since industry and agriculture co-exist closely in many parts of China. This affects food safety as heavy metals can be taken up in vegetables and grain. Biodiversity loss is also very difficult to stem, despite China’s creation of vast national parks in the western regions. Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to non-human life, and human development pressures have caused enormous loss of habitat. Moreover, the rising middle and upper classes of Chinese society have strengthened the market for endangered species used in Traditional Chinese Medicines, causing spillover to endangered species around the world, including pangolins, bears, turtles, sharks and the elephants whose ivory is prized in carvings.

The carbon-neutrality goals of peaking by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2060 are also achievable, but we must ask ourselves how these goals will be met and what costs will be involved. For example, creating more renewable energy will mean the construction of more hydropower dams, which have enormous negative effects on human livelihoods and ecosystems. They involve involuntary resettlement, often to less-desirable situations. The construction of nuclear plants, also a major piece of the new energy plans, is risky, if not dangerous, as we saw with the recent problems at the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant. This is despite China innovating nuclear technologies that may be somewhat safer than the old ones.

Moreover, achieving many of China’s carbon goals will involve increased controls over individuals, social groups, companies and local government entities, thus further centralizing Beijing’s power and limiting personal and public freedoms.

Q. How does the nature of China’s system play into its environmental situation? What are the main aspects of its approach in terms of the creation of and solutions to the problem and can this approach be used elsewhere across the world?
A. Many developing countries are envious of China’s transformation from the extreme poverty and political chaos of the Cultural Revolution to the economic powerhouse it is today. China has transformed itself into a superpower in just a few decades. That transformation was achieved through economic decentralization that allowed the creativity, innovation and ambition of the Chinese people to have full rein. The reforms were also marked by significant government control of major commodities as well as support for certain industries. A gray area between the state and private enterprise allowed corruption to flourish, and it continues to flourish today. The profit motive is a core problem in the “implementation gap” between environmental protection and pollution control measures issued by the central government and what happens in practice at the regional and local levels. Outsiders often misunderstand how difficult it is for the central government to enforce environmental laws; they think that since China is an authoritarian country, the CCP should be able to carry out its directives without opposition. But the enforcement of Chinese laws is a messy process and local officials often benefit from maintaining polluting factories, either as investor/owners or because they provide jobs. The officials are rewarded for economic growth and maintaining social stability, although increasingly they are being evaluated for environmental protection as well.

The historical moment of outsourcing manufacturing to China has passed, and it is unlikely that other developing countries will be able to replicate China’s success, not least because the extraction of resources is becoming more and more problematic and contentious, and because climate change is forcing a rethinking of carbon-intensive growth models.

Q. What prospects do you see for meaningful international cooperation aimed at offsetting environmental degradation?
A. I would like to see cooperation between the US and China on climate change (and on pandemics), but it seems that US policymakers are unable or unwilling to separate these issues from the long list of other issues on which we have disagreements. This is a pity, since shared technology, pilot projects for carbon sequestration, and scholarly exchanges can help the world’s two largest carbon emitters to craft equitable solutions. Even though China is the world’s largest emitter, it is still low on the list of per-capita emissions. Furthermore, developed countries have benefited more from the industrial revolution. That said, China has a huge responsibility to curb its emissions quickly or the planet is pretty much doomed. China’s policymakers recognize the perils of rising seas, melting glaciers and extreme weather events. Thus, climate change is a domestic security threat for China as well as a global threat.

Q. How will companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises and foreign companies in China, be impacted by China’s efforts to reach their targets?
A. I expect that companies will be allocated carbon pollution budgets as part of the national carbon exchange system. Cap-and-trade is an effective tool for carbon mitigation. The challenge will be to implement in a fair and transparent manner, without the corruption that is endemic in much Chinese economic life.

Q. To what extent can technology play a part in China’s environmental efforts? How is China positioned in terms of understanding and capabilities with such technologies?
A. If anything, China’s policy makers are overly focused on technocratic solutions. Many top leaders trained as engineers and scientists. The top science universities and think tanks are well funded and powerful. Technical innovation that may help resolve many global environmental problems could well come from China. Yet many environmental problems are also social and political problems, not just technical problems.

China is building a “Sky River” on the Tibetan Plateau to artificially capture moisture from the Indian monsoons in hopes of replenishing the melting glaciers. It is using social credit scores to enforce recycling mandates. It is using satellite technology and outer space exploration to monitor global land changes and to prepare to mine the moon for valuable rare earth minerals and Helium-3 used for nuclear fission. Some of these technologies are relatively untested and risky.

Q. If you were China’s leader, what would be your first steps to solving the problem?
Q. Many observers have noted that the “space” for citizens’ groups has contracted sharply under Xi Jinping, including the space for environmental groups. These groups have played a positive role in increasing public awareness of environmental problems, in holding factories and government officials accountable when they violate environmental laws, and in bearing witness to violations, from the illegal trade in endangered species to dumping of chemicals. They have organized government-compiled statistics about pollution and put them into the hands of ordinary people via apps, they have sponsored public events like tree planting and beach cleanups and have pressed for an end to an inhumane dog meat festival. In so doing, they have helped ordinary citizens to be well-informed about the costs of environmental degradation and partnered with the government to achieve goals that Beijing cannot. It is thus a real pity that the government has eroded the space for environmental participation. I strongly recommend that it re-think that relationship and acknowledge that environmental goals are best achieved with the full support and participation of the people, rather than being top-down directives to citizens who had no role in their creation and little understanding of why they are being asked to comply. Public participation is critical to the long-term success of environmental initiatives.

Q. On a more global scale, how do you see the situation and what is the most likely scenario?
A. We are, frankly, in a perilous situation. National governments are not moving quickly enough to forestall catastrophic climate change. Tipping points such as changes in ocean currents, permafrost melting and “calving” of glaciers are poorly understood, but scientists tell us that climate change is not a gradual process, and once tipping points are passed, there is no dialing them back. Climate change does not lie somewhere in the future; we already have terrible fires, storms and floods. China is not immune.

Q. One of the most prominent doomsayers of recent months is Bill Gates, who, echoing a UN climate report, said that we have until 2050 before we reach a point of no return. What is your view on that prediction and how important is China as a part of that?
I agree that China holds the key to whether climate change can be kept within manageable bounds, although other countries also have great responsibilities.

Q. How effective is China’s legal and regulatory system in dealing with these issues? How has this changed over time?
A. China’s environmental bureaucracy has strengthened steadily since the formation of the State Environmental Protection Administration in 1998. It became the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and then the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. With each name change, the mandate broadened and powers increased. At the same time, environmental laws have steadily become stronger, with stiffer fines for violators and prosecution of environmental crimes. An environmental court system was created. However, China is far from monolithic and other state agencies have competing agendas of economic growth, foreign trade and so on. The overall trajectory has been positive but the Ministry of Ecology and Environment is still underfunded and understaffed, and its authority over regional and local entities is not strong enough.

Q. What do you see as the role of the corporate sector in China in trying to reach these goals, via pronouncements like Net Zero? How accurate is Al Gore’s recent reprimand of companies for not approaching Net Zero correctly and using it as a “get out of jail free” card?
A. It is true that buying carbon offsets is far less effective than reducing emissions at the company level. Paying someone in Costa Rica not to cut down a tree that they did not intend to cut down in the first place, for example, achieves little to reduce climate change. While such offsets can buy time for a company in a transitional period, the emphasis needs to be on the footprint in house. We cannot buy our way out of climate change. Chinese corporations can play a positive role in helping the country reach its environmental goals. Doing so is good for business as consumers prefer companies with good environmental commitments and it is good for the planet.


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