By Isabel Hilton*
On 22 September 2020, a year already dominated by the unexpected, China’s President and Communist Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, delivered a surprise that was more widely welcomed than many of the year’s events. Speaking by video link to the UN General Assembly, Xi announced that China was setting a target for carbon neutrality by 2060 and that the country’s emissions would peak before 2030.
The second promise was only a marginal advance on the pledge made in Paris in 2015, when China promised its emissions would peak by 2030 ‘or earlier’. That had been hailed at the time as a breakthrough, although Chinese modellers would privately admit that China had the capacity to peak as early as 2022–2023. In keeping with Chinese practice, a modest promise easily kept is preferable to an ambitious one that might be missed.
In the heady post-Paris Agreement days, China’s signing up as a full participant seemed to be enough for Beijing to win praise in the global climate community. That was reinforced when the then freshly elected US President Donald Trump announced he was ordering the United States to withdraw from the agreement. In Davos in February 2017, Xi reassured his elite audience that China would continue to honour its international commitments.
But what did those commitments add up to and how deeply was Xi engaged in China’s climate policy?
When Xi took power in 2012, the climate and environmental impacts of China’s industrial development model had reached crisis point: air, water and soil pollution were costing millions of lives, and China’s carbon emissions—by then already the world’s largest—continued to climb steeply.
The costs of China’s turbo-charged growth were inescapable, but for much of the 2000s China under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao maintained that the country could not yet afford to take care of the environment and that, as a non-Annex One signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, China’s climate obligations were limited. ‘Pollute first, clean up later’, if not an official regime slogan, was an oft-repeated guiding principle.
At the same time, the industrial policies that had so far powered China’s rise were running out of steam: margins were thin, debt was climbing, damaging externalities were eroding government credibility and China’s competitive advantages—especially in cheap labour—were disappearing.
As the government machine began to work on the 12th Five Year Plan, launched in 2011, the need to move up the value chain and create a more efficient, higher-value economy dovetailed neatly with the other policy goals of controlling emissions and escaping the middle-income trap. China began to invest in the low-carbon technologies that it hoped would power its future prosperity and commenced a long upgrade of its energy sector to make it cleaner and more efficient.
Today, Xi’s regime slogan is ‘eco-civilisation’, the proposition that economic, industrial, agricultural, cultural and social norms must serve a goal of sustainability. He did not invent the term but in 2012, the year he came to power, it was written into the Chinese Communist Party constitution. Since then Xi has reinforced it as a guiding principle of China’s industrial economy.
At the same time, China’s propagandists have aimed to polish Xi’s claims to environmental leadership, attributing to him the authorship of the ‘two mountains theory’—in reality, like eco-civilisation, it is an idea with a long prehistory. Nevertheless, the theory neatly encapsulates this phase of China’s climate and environmental planning and its ambition to combine an overdue economic upgrade with climate-related economic opportunity.
Xi will have presided over three Five Year Plans by 2021: the 12th (2011–2016) was underway when he became leader, the 13th was devised under his leadership and most recently the 14th in early 2021. Over the course of these three plans the commitment to low-carbon technologies and a transition towards greener growth in China’s domestic economy has steadily grown.
This has been achieved by targeted investment in low-carbon technologies, including electric vehicles, batteries, solar and wind power, and a set of targets related to energy density, afforestation and increasing the non-fossil-fuel primary energy target. Other green measures include the slow development of an as-yet limited carbon market and experimentation in circular-economy projects.
China’s political economy has been characterised as ‘fragmented authoritarianism’, a description that captures, among other characteristics, the regime’s difficulties in ensuring that its declared policies are executed at lower levels of government. This is particularly evident where policies intended to protect the environment are in conflict at local and provincial levels with competing and more highly weighted demands to grow the economy.
Under Hu and Wen, officials in a weak environment ministry leant on the power of sympathetic journalists and China’s emerging environmental civil society for support as official environmental efforts frequently suffered pushback from powerful vested interests. Under Xi Jinping, as others have noted, the regime has become notably more authoritarian than that of his immediate predecessors: reforms to the state management of China’s lively environmental NGOs have tightened state supervision and stricter controls of both formal and social media have severely restricted the power of journalism to expose environmental wrongdoing.
XI’s approach has been described as ‘eco-authoritarianism’, favouring centrally directed measures to ensure bureaucratic compliance over other approaches, such as investigative journalism and class action lawsuits. Instead, Xi’s regime has undertaken repeated administrative reforms, including upgraded and high-profile inspections—modelled on the much-feared anti-corruption inspections—to expose polluting enterprises and to link responsibility for local pollution to local officials who now carry lifetime responsibility for pollution that they permit to take place.
Promotion prospects, too, can now be affected by environmental failures with the introduction of lifetime responsibility — no longer can an official escape the consequences by moving on to another post. Several rounds of legal reform have greatly increased the penalties that enterprises face for environmental violations. A reorganisation of ministries in 2018 upgraded the powers and reach of a new Ministry of Ecology and Environment, rationalising many previously siloed and fragmented enforcement powers. The ministry now has responsibility for climate change, which was previously within the purview of National Development and Reform Commission.
Results in some areas have been clear — air quality, at least in the eastern cities, is notably improved—but in others large questions remain. Despite the COVID-19-induced economic slowdown, China’s emissions have not yet peaked, and the country’s post-pandemic stimulus package is more brown than green, despite the regime’s claim to green leadership. Moreover, China continues to build substantial numbers of new coal-fired power plants at home and, damagingly, overseas.
If Xi’s 2060 target is to be met, China’s continuing dependence on coal will be among the biggest challenges. If Xi is truly to claim climate leadership, he must ensure that China’s overseas investments are brought into alignment with the global ambitions of the Paris agreement.
*About the author: Isabel Hilton is CEO and Editor of China Dialogue.