China's power and climate change

In an assignment on global security, Manchester Metropolitan University politics student Anna Patterson asks whether China's pursuit of global superpower status offers a model to tackle climate change

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The effects of climate change are being seen in almost every corner of the world – uncontrollable and devastating wildfires in Australia, floods in South Asia, cyclones in Southern Africa. 2019 was the second hottest year ever recorded. This is probably not news to anybody reading this, as these events, facts and figures are becoming inescapable across most media outlets. For the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change, 175 countries came together for two weeks to create a plan to keep the increase in global temperature below 3.6°F. However, the US pulled out of the agreement under President Trump and China’s efforts increasingly seem to be inconsistent with the targets they agreed. China and the US make up around 40 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, so their unwillingness to co-operate massively undermines the view that the Paris Agreement would finally bring about the change so desperately needed. Yes, the attitude of the Trump administration is worrying considering the power and influence it has over the rest of the world, but what is happening in China is much more complicated than the media presents, and actually within its approach there is a solution that might just serve us all.

In 2016 President Xi called the Paris Agreement a “hard-won achievement’’ that “all signatories must stick to”. If we take that on face value, it would seem we have no reason to doubt China is fully accepting of the threat of climate change. Furthermore, there are signs that appear to prove it. China has more coal fired power plants than any other country in the world – about 40 per cent of the global total. In 2014, this was recognised by the Chinese government and it shut down small coal mines, set limits on coal consumption and even cancelled an Australia’s worth of new coal plants.

To decode what China really means, we must first understand the concept of the third industrial revolution

However, even though China leads the world in global hydropower – producing a third of the world’s total capacity and enough for every Chinese citizen to power two homes in a single year – its CO2 emissions have not reduced at all. In fact over the last four years they have increased, growing by 4 per cent in 2018. Which leads us to think, does China actually mean what it says? Surely if China is as dedicated as it says, it would have the power to at least keep emission levels at their previous level? Is a surge this large a result of a deliberate action?

To decode what China really means, we must first understand the concept of the third industrial revolution, the current economic context and shifts in international power.

The same three factors determined the first industrial revolution (1760-1840) and the second industrial revolution (1870-1914). These were: a new energy source, a new communication system and a new financial system, according to the academic David Brown. Talk of a third industrial revolution started decades ago, but now the possibility of it is becoming a reality, as these three factors appear to be fulfilled or on their way to fruition – renewable energy, the internet and, the least developed of the three, a new financial system. This is internet-driven – crowdfunding and peer to peer finance – indicating a new era of democratisation in finance, says Brown.

The first one is obvious – new energy sources in the form of renewables. As much as the US administration and others would like to believe otherwise, fossil fuels are a finite resource. They will run out, with some estimating the world’s reserves will completely dry up by 2060. Reliance on fossil fuels poses an immediate security risk to basically any countries other than Russia, the US and those in the Middle East. With 80 per cent of its oil needing to be sourced from elsewhere by 2040 as a result of dwindling reserves and security concerns, it’s perhaps no surprise China has accounted for almost half of the global renewable energy spending in the last 10 years, equivalent to $125.9 billion, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Perhaps it’s the potential elevation of security risks and economic gains that come with renewable energy that is the motivator for China’s lead in the field, and not an unending desire to fight climate change.

Energy has evolved to become perhaps the most important source of political power in the world. The struggle for power in the international realm between the three biggest players – China, US and Russia – has been dramatic over the last few decades. China and US have had a number of public face-offs recently, engaging in a bitter trade war, the US imposing $360 billion of tariffs on Chinese goods and China answering with $110 billion on US products. It’s undeniable that China is trying to use investment in global infrastructure to spread its influence further than it did through manufacturing (on which it started its ascent as a superpower). Becoming a leader in renewable energy and infrastructure also provides an avenue for China to gain reputational status, especially in the light of the US’s disdain for tackling climate change.

MMU student Anna Patterson. Main photo: solar power station in Wenling City, Zhejiang Province, east China. Photos: Joe Sheridan, Shutterstock

As someone who has visited Africa often over the last 10 years, I see a growing Chinese presence. In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, on almost every sign on every new development there will be a Chinese logo, brand or developer, whether it be a shopping mall, hospital or road. Ten years ago, China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner. Having missed out on the benefits colonisation brought to most of Europe, many see Chinese expansion in developing countries in Africa as its way to make up.

To name a couple of projects, in January 2018 a 470-mile electric railway from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to the port in Djibouti was completed. Most of China’s projects are or have the potential to use renewable power. In Kenya a 290-mile railway from Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa was opened in 2017, which is rumoured to soon extend into South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Projects like these funded or carried out by the Chinese are massive, some of the largest projects that have ever been embarked on in the region. China’s first overseas military base is in Djibouti, built in exchange for major investments, loans, a pipeline and two airports. It is clear that China has intentions further than the immediate economic gains it receives from investment in Africa.

An established relationship with countries like these would return China many political and economic benefits

Jeremy Rifkin, a leading economic and social theorist on the third industrial revolution, says developing nations are the most valuable and susceptible in the onset of the third industrial revolution. A considerable part of the third industrial revolution revolves around the idea that in order to make the move to renewable energy a country’s infrastructure must undergo a complete and radical overhaul. He says that it is much easier to create infrastructure than to replace it, because of political and bureaucratic obstacles to the latter. Therefore in developing countries, where they have little to no infrastructure, the task will be much less difficult. Rifkin believes that the only way in which a country’s economy will continue to grow through the next 100 years is by eradicating its reliance on non-renewables. Countries that do not prepare in this manner are destined for at best chronic economic stagnation or at worst complete collapse. Giving developing countries the means to prosper through this period could see economic development similar to the advancement by now developed countries seen during the second industrial revolution, fuelled by coal. For that reason, an established relationship with countries like these would return China many political and economic benefits, including trade deals or support in intergovernmental organisations like the UN. These projects create work for Chinese workers as well as local ones. They also put China in a prime position to profit by supplying the projects with the renewable energy needed to run them.

China has made capturing global markets in renewable energy technology a key part of its economic strategy but the political gains must not be under-estimated in their potential to transform the global balance of power. President Xi has made his admiration for the book The Third Industrial Revolution by Rifkin very public. In 2015 China unveiled its five-year plan, which mirrored the writings of Rifkin so much it looked like it had “been pulled right out of a series of essays” by him, according to the writer Nathan Gardels. China was not at the forefront of the last two industrial revolutions but appears to be keen to be in the vanguard of the third. Many of the attempts that have been made so far to tackle climate change, like the Paris Agreement, put the emphasis on global co-ordination and agreement. Clearly that has proved incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Perhaps the third industrial revolution theory presents a way in which we can tackle climate change on a basis that preserves the interests of each and every country that takes part. It can be presented in a manner that emphasises that those who act now will see economic benefits now and into the future, regardless of whether they believe climate change presents an imminent threat to the lives of their children or grandchildren. It can also be driven by investors, big business and markets, as ultimately this is who this theory depends on, meaning that the frustrating inability of democracy to be able to provide a viable solution on its own doesn’t have to be as depressing or as big a barrier against progress. These are ideas explored by Gunther Taube in his foreword to the book Power Shifts and Global Governance: Challenges from South and North.

Rifkin’s theory spans far further than I have been able to address in this article. The very fact that the Chinese government is taking the steps I have and have not been able to mention towards Rifkin’s picture of what the world is going to look like gives me some hope for the future. Seen in this light, we should be less fearful of a world dominated by China, even if it acts on the basis of maintaining or progressing its position as a global superpower. I could even say that we should be more fearful of a world dominated by Russia or the US than China.

But there’s always a “but” and in this case it’s a big one. Would we be okay with a world dominated by a country that holds up to 1.5 million Muslims in concentration camps where they are beaten, tortured, raped and murdered? A country that is said to have limited travel of citizens on the basis of social status, whose limits on free speech are closer to the likes of North Korea than our own? With a president who passed constitutional changes allowing himself to stay in office for the remainder of his life? Little has been done in the west to challenge China over this.

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