(Pic: Xinhua News Agency)
On July 19th Zhou Shengxian, Chinese Minister of Environment Protection, and Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, met in Beijing for the EU-China Environmental Policy Dialogue. At this largely unpublicised meeting the ministers agreed on an EU-China strategic partnership to address environmental challenges, and reaffirmed their commitment to encourage more sustainable consumption and production patterns, both in the context of EU-China bilateral relations and globally, according to a joint statement released after the dialogue.
There are also clear advancements in Sino-American cooperation on this issue, as only a week before this EU-China meeting, top American and Chinese officials announced new joint environmental initiatives, including cutting emissions from heavy-duty vehicles and improving the energy efficiency of buildings and industry. These initiatives came after an agreement to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners, which was the only concrete achievement that came out of Obama and Xi Jinping’s bilateral summit in California in June.
These agreements are certainly a cause for hope, but considering China’s environmental record, it is unlikely that a few bilateral agreements will be enough to convince the world that Beijing is finally changing its stance on the issue of climate change and environmental protection. One would think that in a country where 8 of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are located and which loses 1300 square miles of land to desertification per year, the environment would be a priority. And even more so taking into account that China has one of the world’s most comprehensive environmental legal frameworks, although there are problems with its implementation. But, unfortunately, until recently there have been very few serious attempts by the central government and the environmental protection organs to tackle China’s grave environmental problems, as Beijing has prioritised fast economic growth over the environment. Nevertheless, this seems to be changing.
A few days after the EU-China Environmental Policy Dialogue, on July 24th, the China Daily newspaper announced that Beijing plans to invest 2.3 trillion yuan (about $375 billion) in energy saving and emission-reduction projects before 2015. This plan has reportedly already been approved by the State Council and comes on top of a 1.85 trillion yuan investment in the renewable energy sector.
At the same time, and in a very unusual move, the National People’s Congress is currently soliciting public opinions and suggestions on a draft amendment to the national environmental protection law, which was tabled for its second reading in June. While the NPC is on paper the highest organ of state power in China, it is often described as a “rubber-stamp” for Party decisions, making it even clearer that the highest levels of power are finally willing to tackle China’s environmental problems. This amendment stipulates harsher punishments for polluters, and will eliminate the ceiling on penalties – which is currently at a one-time penalty of up to 200,000 yuan ($32,540) -, because the limited financial penalties have so far failed to deter businesses from polluting, as it is considerably cheaper to pay the fine than to restructure production and discharge systems.
China has long been perceived as an unabashed polluter, but this series of measures underscore a change of tack and signal a clear new trend in Beijing’s treatment of the environment. They reflect a new determination to move toward balancing environmental protection and economic development at a time when suffocating environmental problems are beginning to stifle economic growth and have become a major source of discontent in China. Since the 1980s reforms, the Chinese government has prioritised economic development over environmental concerns, which have often been overlooked in order to fuel China’s dramatic economic growth. Local officials are evaluated based on their performance in a set of criteria, one of which is GDP growth, while environmental protection is not included. This has given them no incentives to fight for the enforcement of national environmental laws, since the closing of a factory may cost them their position or part of their salary. In addition to this, government officials are very often major shareholders in the companies in their region or have personal ties with their managers, giving rise to a trend of local protectionism of polluting industries.
Beijing’s change of tack comes at a time when the environmental situation in China is worse than ever. In an annual update on the country’s environment by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, the situation was described as “grim”. The report found that 57.3% of the groundwater in 198 cities in 2012 was “bad” or “extremely bad”, and that the air in only 27 out of 113 key cities reached air quality standards last year. This problem got even worse earlier this year, as air pollution in Beijing reached record levels of 600 to 900 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic metre, far above the safe level of 25 micrograms per cubic metre designated by the World Health Organisation. Disgruntled citizens and activists, who are starting to notice the threat posed by the country’s environmental issues and the effect they can have on their health, have begun to take action, and this year has seen a dramatic increase in the number of environmental protests in the country. We are seeing a clear development of environmental consciousness in China, as more and more people attend (often successful) demonstrations against specific projects or industries that are seen as environmentally damaging. For instance, after three successive days of demonstrations in July, protesters in Jiangmen, Guangdong, obtained a written guarantee that the state-run uranium processing plant that was going to be built nearby would not go ahead. And last October, a week-long series of protests in Ningbo was also successful in stopping the construction of an oil and petrochemical complex.
China is currently the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gases, after the United States, and is projected to become the world’s largest around 2020. According to UN estimates, China and the US account for 40% of the global emissions of greenhouse gases, and this is having a huge impact on climate change and the worldwide environmental situation. Regardless, until relatively recently, China and the US remained wary of each other and remained reluctant to commit themselves to any measures or international agreements that might have a negative impact on their national economies. Given the current global economic climate, both China and the US feared the loss of market competitiveness with respect to the other if only one of them agreed to comply with potentially limiting measures. Although China, unlike the US, did ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it is not required to cap its carbon emissions yet due to its status as a developing country, and, this way, China and the US reached a “both or none” situation, despite calls from the international community for them both to take action. However, this situation seems to be changing with China’s new assertiveness on the issue of environmental protection and climate change. Beijing is taking the initiative, breaking the stalemate and leaving the US, the world’s largest emitter, even more isolated on the field of environmental protection.
This new approach has made Beijing into Obama’s unlikely ally. Obama has long been pushing for an environmental reform in the US, but his plan has been met with fierce opposition from Republicans and the fossil fuel industry, who believe his measures would take its toll on the national job market. However, during a speech at Georgetown University on June 25th, right after China announced its plan to invest trillions of yuan on environmental projects, Obama also announced a series of comprehensive measures to confront climate change, and said he would continue to press this issue as a priority of his second term in office. He then said that he plans to bypass a Congress deadlocked by unyielding Republican opposition to his environmental reform, and to take executive actions that do not require congressional approval. Beijing’s new environmental approach is giving Obama leverage to push for his national environmental reform, by playing on America’s much celebrated position as a global leader, and the fact that China is publicly taking the lead on the issue of climate change and environmental protection. Obama’s speech was, as a result, aimed not just at a domestic audience, but also at other countries convinced that the US was lagging behind on this issue. “Make no mistake”, he said, “the world still looks to America to lead”.
But actions speak louder than words, and both China and the US will need to step up their actions if their environmental initiatives are going to be relevant. Both countries’ environmental plans and promises are still considerably vague, and it is possible that they will remain diplomatic niceties. However, the apparent change of tone in Beijing’s environmental discourse and the effect this is having on Obama’s environmental reform yields hope for future international agreements and cooperation between the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases. And this is good news for all international efforts to stop climate change.