The East is Greening

The East is Greening

Martin Empson argues  (Focus on China: The East is Green? Socialist Review Feb 2018) that China’s “economic model” is based on massive state investment, low pay, manufacture for export and promotion of domestic consumerism. This does not recognise that state driven investment is its determining feature.

Donald Trump  has complained that China’s state directed investment gives it an “unfair advantage” in economic development over the United States. Which begs the question why the United States is so loathe to use similar methods if the effect is so positive. Answering that question leads to clear implications about which class those states exist to serve. It also means that China has more opportunity than most to direct the scale of investment need to make a transition to a sustainable economy; and the evidence shows that it is taking that opportunity.

The other items in the list are posed as timeless. In fact wages are rising, and there has been a shift from export focused production to internal development: which has been complemented by a shift up in the value chain, with increasingly sophisticated and high quality goods being produced; some of them world leading. 

Quantifying China’s development gives us some startling figures.

Between 1990 and 2018, life expectancy went up significantly faster than in the USA. From 69 to 75 years in China; from 76 to 78 years in the US. 

Average per capita income grew dramatically; from $990 per person per year in 1990 to $16 760 a year in 2018; catching up with and overtaking Brazil; and accelerating well beyond India: which started out slightly wealthier at $1 120 per person per year in 1990, but grew at less than half China’s rate to $7 060 by 2017 .

Clearly, the “low pay” is no longer so low – and – if China is considered a socialist state – this can be considered a purpose of the economic development. But, even if you think that China is a variant of capitalism, it is clearly a very positive development for most people in China.

750 million people taken out of extreme poverty in one generation is a staggering and positive achievement. That is more than twice the population of the United States and half as many again as the whole population of the EU. China accounts for three out of four people lifted out of poverty across the world in the last generation, according to the World Bank. This is a good thing, and the left and environmental movement should be unambiguous about that. People in China largely are; which is why the CCP has positive support. Another way to envisage this is that at foundation of the `People’s Republic in 1949, the average living standard in China was comparable to that in England in Tudor times; today it leapt up to close to that in contemporary Poland.

Ways Forward. 

Martin’s argument that this rapid development and improvement in living standards is driven by a “consumerist fantasy” that is “driving environmental disaster” – and that “stopping the wheels of China’s fossil fuelled industry” is a task of the left and environment movement – which implies degrowth without being explicit about it and poses “challenges to its (China’s) economic model”, without specifying what that challenge would consist of, nor what changes would be made.

It is important to bear in mind that the presumptions we are used to – living in a highly developed, affluent society that has outsourced its manufacturing (often to China) and takes certain levels of development and well being for granted – are not normal for most people in the world. While people in the green movement in the UK have a live and relevant debate about pathological levels of over consumption in late capitalism, nearly half of people in China live in rural areas, still with, especially in the North West, relatively poor living standards, limited transport and connectivity, use coal for domestic heating, and would consider our discussions a self indulgence of the pampered and privileged. Connecting these people to a grid – being done in the current five year plan – is a positive development – and will significantly reduce the extremely inefficient and polluting use of coal as a domestic fuel. Anyone who remembers what coal fires did to laundry (and lungs) in the 1950’s and 60’s should get the point. 

A question of leadership.

There are real issues and real challenges. How to reduce dependence on coal and how fast this can be done? Enhancing the efficiency of the renewables sector and increasing the pace that it expands – in China and in the Belt and Road initiative? How to reduce pollution?

This is not a problem of political leadership.  The political will is there. China aims to be a model for “independent” economic development on a global scale – that’s economic development not dependent on the dictates of the World Bank and IMF – and to take a global lead on the environment and climate change to build an “ecological civilisation”. Xi Xinping quotes Engels – “Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us.” He also committed to “pursue the new vision of green development and a way of life and work that is green, low-carbon, circular and sustainable.” Xi Xinping at BRI Forum May 2017. The adoption of the ecological civilisation at the 2012 Party Congress has been followed by” many major reforms that included issuing compensation guidelines for environmental damage, stronger environmental law enforcement, expanding clean energy production and use, creating national parks, nominating senior officials to protect rivers, restricting industrial projects and promoting green financing to raise funds for China’s transition.” South China Morning Post 11/10/17

Even if you ignore this evident publicly proclaimed commitment, and action following it, Martin’s argument that, rather than the CCP, the political answer lies instead with people involved in environmental protest and workers in the fossil fuel sector begs the question of what these movements – were they in power – would actually do that would be different to what the CCP is already doing. There is no indication that workers in the energy sector have shown any leadership role in this at all. Martin cites one strike in 2002 in Daqing that “showed their potential combativeness”. So, one strike, in one oilfield, seventeen years ago. This is a pretty thin basis for an alternative strategic leadership.  More to the point, the strike was about pay, not environmental sustainability. Globally, workers in fossil fuel sectors are not often yet in the front line of campaigning for a transition that will cost the jobs they already have and are used to- unless there is a very clear prospect of redeployment and/or the sector itself is contracting. Three examples from elsewhere; in order of negative to positive; all of which are reactive rather than leading. 

  • At the time of the Katowice COP last November, the Silesian branch of Solidarnosc, which covers coal miners and workers in heavy industry, put out a statement denying climate change; because they see the response to it as a threat to their jobs.
  • The GMB in the UK – while supporting a Just Transition in principle -responded to the Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change recommendation to cease production of gas hobs and connect no new housing to the gas grid from 2025 by calling for the government to ignore the advice.
  • Canadian oil workers in the tar sands and their unions have adopted Just Transition as a response to the accelerating collapse of tar sands extraction, undermined by lower oil prices.

The international fight for a Just Transition is one unions have to take more of a lead on. Unions can campaign and need to, but you need a state to lead. China is leading.

Further, the other arm of Martin’s projected alternative leadership, the movements on environmental damage, are often not discouraged by the CCP. Quite the reverse. “Having this urban middle-class outcry about air quality actually gives the leadership a lot of legitimacy to push through some of the difficult reforms they have been wanting to achieve.” Ma Tianjie, Beijing managing editor of Chinadialogue (cited in National Geographic 5/5/17).It goes on. “Today, officials “are very serious” about improving air quality, says Tonny Xie, director of the secretariat at the Clean Air Alliance of China. “I’m pretty convinced of that” and cites an example. With stunning (but typically Chinese) speed, the government has built a nationwide network of monitors tracking levels of PM2.5—the tiny combustion particles that penetrate deep into the body, causing not only breathing problems but also heart attacks, strokes and neurological ailments. More surprisingly, the government has made the data from those monitors publicly available. It has done the same with measurements taken outside thousands of factories. Anyone with a smartphone in China can now check local air quality in real time, see whether a particular facility is breaching emissions limits, and report violators to local enforcement agencies via social media. The level of information compares favorably to what’s available in the U.S.  Under the old system, local officials were evaluated almost exclusively on their region’s economic health. Now environmental concerns, particularly air quality, are given greater weight.”

So, what further measures are being taken and how effective are they; to what extent is China greening and how could this be accelerated? How much of a transition is already taking place? 

CO2 emissions

When you look at a map, China is about the same size as the United States. In purchasing power GDP it is already larger and, other things being equal, is projected to be twice as big in ten years – hence the current trade war to try to slow it down. But its when you consider population that China’s significance hits home. China has one in five of the world’s population – as many as the whole of North and South America, Western Europe and Australia combined. It has 65 cities with more than a million people and 8 bigger than London – while manufacturing is 40% of its GDP: so its CO2 emissions are bound to be very large – 30% of the global total. The CCP acknowledges the difficulty – “energy consumption has grown too quickly in recent years, increasing the strain on energy supply. Fossil energy resources have been exploited on a large scale, causing … damage to the eco-environment.” PRC State Council White Paper on Energy Policy 2012

Nevertheless, China’s per capita emissions remain half that of the United States and below that of Germany. A rapid increase of 10% a year from 2000 – 2010,  declined sharply to 0% in 2016, then crept back up to 1.7% in 2017 and 2.3% last year. This was still below the USA’s increase of 2.8% and India’s 5.7% for the same year. 

Technical solutions

Some of the way that China is attempting to square the circle to hold back carbon emissions while continuing to develop, are to reduce carbon intensity by increasing efficiency and linking up grids; so that “energy consumption per unit of GDP has been decreasing year by year.” (All quotes here from PRC State Council White Paper on Energy Policy 2012). “The state implemented a series of energy-saving renovations, such as of boilers, electrical machinery, buildings and installation of green lighting products.” Along with measures to make sure that

  • “the energy utilization efficiency of new projects in the heavy and chemical industries, such as non-ferrous metals, building materials and petrochemicals, is up to the world’s advanced level 
  •  The gap between the overall energy consumption of China’s high energy-consuming products and the advanced international level is narrowing.”  

These are indispensable technical measures and made a dent in CO2 emissions of between 10* and 20%** from 2006 – 2011, and this has continued since. The potential is qualitative. On this chart, you can see the increasing impact of these technical measures in counteracting the impact of economic growth up to 2016.***

  • Outlook-rrvaqnkrThis chart shows very clearly that increasing technical efficiency (the light blue column) is making more of a dent in CO2 emissions and that there is a lot of potential for a much greater impact from a shift in the source of energy generation (the orange column).

Further, the proportion of renewable energy produced by wind power has a lot of room to expand by increasing efficiencies. More grid connectivity for existing sites, better siting and choice of turbine and optimum height for the next wave. These are technical fixes. There is no political obstacle to them.

The same applies to solar – and this is beginning to move beyond catching up into taking a lead. “Trina, a Chinese company and the largest solar panel manufacturer in the world, broke the world record on the efficiency of multicrystalline-silicon solar cells in 2014 and 2015.”

Expansion of Renewable Energy

According to the International Energy Agency, 36 percent and 40 percent of the world’s growth in solar and wind energy in the next five years will come from China, roughly double its proportion of the world’s population.

According to the UN, China leads in investing in renewable energy China …. accounted for 32 per cent of the global total investment, followed by Europe at 21 per cent, the United States at 17 per cent, and Asia-Oceania (excluding China and India) at 15 per cent. Smaller shares were seen in India at 5 per cent, the Middle East and Africa at 5 per cent, the Americas (excluding Brazil and the United States) at 3 per cent and Brazil at 1 per cent “. 

The National Energy Development Strategy Action Plan set targets for wind and solar power to double between 2015 and 2020 and to reduce coal’s share of total energy consumption to 55 percent by the end of 2020: down from 64 percent in 2015 and 80% in 2010. The $360 billion going into the sector up to 2020 will create 13 million jobs (16 times as many as in the US).

China is now the world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles and has a clear lead in the underlying technology; with well over 150,000 renewable energy patents as of 2016, 29% of the global total. The next closest country is the U.S. which had a little over 100,000 patents, with Japan and the E.U. having closer to 75,000 patents each.

China is also now investing in international renewable energy projects  The BRICS New Development Bank, of which China is a participant, gave its first round of long-term green loans worth $811 million last April to fund clean energy projects to its members.****

These are the result of political decisions. What would be the impact if the rest of the world were investing on the same scale that China is – and, more to the point, why aren’t they doing it?


China “has eliminated small thermal power units … saving more than 60 million tons of raw coal annually. In 2011, coal consumption of thermal power supply per kwh was 37 grams of standard coal lower than in 2006, a decrease of 10 percent.” 2012 PRC State Council Energy Report

**”From 2006 to 2011, the energy consumption for every 10,000 yuan of GDP dropped by 20.7 percent .”
Rapid development in non-fossil energy. 2012 PRC State Council Energy Report


**** “One of the key factors driving these changes is that, unlike traditional fossil fuels, renewable energy sources are widely available around the world. Whether it is solar or wind power, tidal energy or hydroelectric plants, most countries have the potential to develop some clean energy themselves. This means that many countries which currently have to import most of their energy will in the future be able to generate their own power – helping to improve their trade balance and reducing their vulnerability to volatile prices.” (Forbes. Jan 2019, China Is Set To Become The World’s Renewable Energy Superpower, According To New Report)

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