Soon after taking office as the first-ever special presidential envoy for climate of the United States of America, John Kerry compared the scale of the climate crisis to that of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. As of 1985, the two superpowers had 100,000 nuclear weapons and the two premiers, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, started the process of disarmament. Today, each country has only 1,500 warheads.
Kerry went on to tell CNN that the US had to reach out to China. The future of humanity and of the planet was at stake. Other countries mattered too, but there was little doubt that along with the US, China mattered the most.
Part of this calculus stems from a deeper appreciation of where China stands today vis-à-vis the global environment as much as from the political and economic order. China is grappling with the ecological costs of breakaway growth and the rapid industrialization of a mostly agrarian society. Its post-reform-era economic growth since 1978 has made it the second-largest economy on earth. But it also leads as the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane, and key pollutants like sulphur dioxide. Its direct impact with timber or oil imports is also considerable.
Where China differs from the US is significant. From around 1978, when Deng Xiaoping became a key influence, successive leaders have grappled with the dilemma of environmental protection in the context of rapid economic expansion. From a beginning with the ‘one child policy’, afforestation and the creation of nature reserves, this set of initiatives expanded significantly after the Yangtze floods of 1998. Jim Harkness quotes the phrase by Premier Zhu Rongji: “Now we must coax the forest tiger down from the mountains.” Controls on logging in the catchment area of the Yangtze basin were seen as vital after the devastating floods that claimed over 4,000 lives.
The wider penumbra of regulation as well as incentives to afforest the Loess Plateau gained greatly from a modest but important opening up of spaces not only for expertise but also for voluntary organizations. In more recent times, the ban on use of imported shark fins in state banquets, the crackdown in 2017 on ivory smuggling and the support to stop cross-border commerce in tiger parts have all gained from press campaigns, superstar endorsements and a growing middle class. Nature as heritage also fits well with the communist party’s claim as the custodian of the country’s future.
But China’s course also has major contrasts with that of the US. In his two terms as president, Ronald Reagan did more than champion free markets vis-à-vis labour and capital. He began the rollback of environmental regulations that were put in place in the early 1970s. This trend reached its apogee during the four years of the Donald Trump presidency. Even under the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Republican-controlled Congress has been hawk-like in allocating funds for protection, repair and renewal of the environment.
China, by contrast, made the idea of an ‘Ecological Civilization’ a major part of its party programme in 2007. Eleven years later, under President Xi Jinping, this concept was enshrined in the Constitution.
Has China gone green? Certainly. In taking on new and ambitious targets in carbon emission reduction and trying out a range of approaches — from larger State nature reserves to Payments for Ecosystem Services to farmers — China has embarked on vast and ambitious initiatives in its cities, villages, forests and coasts.
In a deeply perceptive new book titled China Goes Green, Yifei Li and Judith Shapiro tackle an intriguing question head on. China’s political system is no monolith, but it has demonstrated, time and again, that it can not only do U-turns on policy but also actually achieve results. At a time when democracies such as the US, Japan, India, Brazil, Mexico and those in Europe struggle to balance the drive for growth with the need to protect resources for the future, the Chinese leadership seems to have more room for manoeuvre.
The catch is that much of the greening of China is coercive. A new nature reserve on the cards since 2017 is 1,15,000 square kilometres in size. It will involve the displacement of no less than 65,000 people. There is little doubt that once approved such plans will be carried through. Coercion for conservation is not unique to China: America’s famous Yellowstone National Park came into being by excluding American Indians and poor whites. That was in another century and it would be more controversial today. And rightly so.
Yifei Li and Shapiro acknowledge the gains for China and the world at large. But rather than the State going green, they contend that the environmental issues are now a way to bolster the State’s legitimacy.
The top-down system of Mao Zedong’s time has changed but only in degree. Half-truths abound. Greenpeace estimates that China has added 12.6 gigawatts of power via wind and solar sources since 2014. But this world leader in renewables has also added five times as much in coal-based power plants.
The tightening of political controls in the Xi Jinping era makes public criticism more difficult. China is also treading down a path familiar to early industrializers. In the 1970s, Japan imported timber from Indonesia while saving its own forest cover. China follows suit, exporting environmental destruction to poorer countries.
The larger question is of how far a political system can meet the challenge of justice beyond immediate human concerns such as wages, profits and jobs. The US, Europe and Japan tried to strike a balance with respect to their own citizens. Citizen action, an open press, the courts and the rights of protest and advocacy have often helped as correctives to government and large economic interests. Such impacts expanded as these societies came to rely less on land to generate wealth and more people lived in town than village.
China is a study in contrast. Its urban centres now house the majority of its citizens. It has the world’s largest middle class. But its political system has more in common with the former Soviet Union. Its environmental challenges are in part like those of the US and in part like those of India. In its global ecological footprint, both direct and indirect, it rivals the former. But on issues like urban air pollution, loss of grassland and forest and the flood-drought cycle, it is more like India (with a far more repressive and effective State).
The issue goes beyond the old debate of democracy versus authoritarian systems. In that discussion, the issue was posed as one of free will versus regimentation. But we all know the levels of race, gender and income inequity in both systems, with the difference being they could be openly debated in the former. But the question of nature is more complex. Climate change or species and ecosystem extinction will affect the earth for generations to come.
Kerry did name India, Mexico and Europe as vital partners, stressing that all of them had to work together. But China matters most. Beijing may not have the answers but will be a key part of the question.
The author teaches History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University