Credit: Lucy Dunn

Spotlight: China at COP26

By George McClure

What is the CCP’s approach to climate action? Columnist George McClure explores.

Greta Thunberg recently published a damning indictment of those countries due to attend COP26 talks. Referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released earlier this year, Thunberg highlights the amount of work, time, and effort required to steer clear of an impending disaster and the smarmy-faced abeyance. 

Despite living in an era of sophisticated nation states with a vast wealth of talent,  knowledge and expertise spread out across the world, many of our leaders do not seem to recognise a very simple reality: that hallmarks of consumerist culture – shopping habits, energy expenditure, 48 hour trips to Spain – create tangible consequences for the environment we occupy. At a crucial point amidst growing calls for  concrete action, governments have fallen instead to issues of “political  sovereignty”, engaging in tit-for-tat disputes over whose fish belongs to which country, ensuring at every step along the way that they appear to stand for democracy and the will of the people.  

In the meantime, a very real and unavoidable global health crisis has consumed  every facet of our daily existence. For reasons of exigency, modern states have shown – across widely varying levels of success – the ability to marshal members of the public, and  sectors of the economy, under a single purpose. The question remains why the same can’t be applied to the looming environmental crisis, whose effects will be far less remediable  and transitory in the long-term. The simple fact is that we are addicted, as states, as  communities, as individuals to an unrestricted inflow of goods and services, with zero checks and balances to ward off damages to local environments.  

Several articles (and maybe a book) are required to explore the intricacies of the world economy and the role of states, such as the UK and the US, in exacerbating an ecological backlash. However, the remaining paragraphs of this article will  look specifically at China and the challenges the country faces as its leaders take centre stage this November. I must note to the reader that I am not a trained economist and some of the more specialist nomenclature will be omitted for reasons of clarity. I will try and  present a brief overview of China’s unique political and economic structure and what  responsibility it shares in the country’s failure to implement effective environmental policy.  

“Several articles (and maybe a book) are required to explore the intricacies of the world economy and the role of states, such as the UK and the US, in exacerbating an ecological backlash.”

I don’t know about any of you reading this, but China has been receiving a lot more press attention in recent years—and perhaps not for reasons the country’s officials would prefer. China has entered the 2020 decade determined to position itself as a powerful  alternative to the largely US-dominated world order. International scrutiny is centred on areas of China’s nebulous authoritarian system, namely its treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, and its suppression of civil rights in Hong Kong. Instead of a candid international address, dispelling fears in the corporate world of de facto association with  mass genocide, Chinese leader Xi Jinping salvaged what little face he could, ramping up  the country’s propaganda machine, spreading “alternative” facts via outlets like CGTN,  bullying Australia with increased tariffs, attacking Indian soldiers at the Himalayan border, insulting the Japanese nation with a tweet… the list goes on. 

Yet throughout all the tumult, China has remained stalwart in its commitment to the Paris Climate Pact, setting out plans to turn the economy carbon neutral by 2060 and  investing huge sums in developing sources of renewable energy. It’s worth emphasising that China is the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels and, despite its burgeoning green industry, still relies on coal to service its vast consumer  demand, evidenced by nation-wide blackouts in recent months. With this in mind, it is very difficult for the Chinese government to abandon the coal mines in the same way that Thatcher did with the collieries in the 1980s. While the UK entered the 21st century buoyed by a bloated private sector, the Chinese followed the opposite tact, favouring  instead the expansion of its state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In this vein – no pun  intended – China’s coal industry is intricately tied up with matters of state. Relying less on  foreign investment and increasingly on government subsidies, numerous coal factories are  guaranteed against liquidation, since the latter would create other problems for the  government, namely rising unemployment and political instability. By extension, if the world’s second largest economy can stymie its own growth for political reasons, questions  mount as to the number of other national concerns facing compromise for issues that  seem arbitrary and costly. The reality, however, is that China, at least in its current state, cannot and will not bring the slightest change to its system, even if the entire world is at stake.  

The ruling CCP is already toeing a dangerous line permitting even a modicum of public debate around the subject of environmentalism. Back in 1960s communist Czechoslovakia, the most prominent opponents to the regime would emerge  under state-sanctioned movements for benign subjects like human rights. The equivalent  for present-day China could be the climate crisis. All that remains is a delicate balancing act: never pushing too far in one area to avoid dislodging the foundation of  another. With the climate crisis racketing up the heat, pressure will inevitably be applied and China will have no choice but to respond. Just don’t be disappointed if CCP officials react flatly; their livelihoods and the basis of their authority would be at stake, too, and they would sooner see the planet burn than watch their legacy fade to history.


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