The East is Greening
Martin Empson’s argument in Socialist Review (Focus on China: The East is Green? Feb 2018) poses more problems than it answers – but they are key ones for the left and environmental movements to explore and clarify.
His argument that China’s “economic model” is based on massive state investment, low pay, manufacture for export and promotion of domestic consumerism does not draw out that its determining feature is that its the state that predominantly drives investment not the private sector; and poses the other items in the list as though they are unchanging – though wages are rising, and there has been a shift from export focused production to internal development, especially in the last ten years: 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.
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.
Quantifying China’s development gives us some stark headlines.
Between 1990 and 2018, life expectancy has gone up significantly faster than in the USA. From 69 to 75 years in China as compared with 76 to 78 in the US.
Average per capita income has also grown dramatically, from $990 per person per year in 1990 to $16 760 a year in 2018. This has caught up with and now overtaken Brazil; and accelerated well beyond India which started out slightly wealthier on average at $1 120 per person per year in 1990, growing to $7 060 by 2017 – about half China’s rate.
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.
We should note what a staggering and positive achievement this is. 750 million people taken out of extreme poverty in one generation. That’s just under three quarters of the global total in that time (1.1 billion) according to the World Bank. Problems remain, about 60 million people – mostly in rural areas and roughly equivalent to the entire population of the UK – are still dirt poor and addressing their needs is the focus of the current five year plan.
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.
Martin’s argument that China’s rapid development and improvement in living standards is “driving environmental disaster”- and denying that “technical solutions” are available – implies that this development should stop. This is nowhere stated explicitly, but the implication hangs over the whole article in phrases like “consumerist fantasy” and “stopping the wheels of China’s fossil fueled industry.”
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, with, especially in the North West, 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 – as in the current five year plan – would be a positive development – and 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.
His central charges are that China is still 62% dependent on coal for energy production, that coal power stations are being built as part of the belt and road initiative, that China is developing fracking, that hydro-electric power comes at a colossal environmental cost, that the Chinese renewables sector is inefficient and that Chinese manufacturing industry both consumes huge quantities of raw materials and produces lung choking quantities of pollution.
These are real issues and real challenges. The solution to some of them is technical, unless you presume either that the answer is degrowth – or a problem of political leadership – as Martin seems to do. The political will, however, is there. Xi Xinping argues, as Martin quotes, that 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. Xi Xinping quotes Engels – “Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us.” Quite so. They get it. Even if you ignore this evident publicly proclaimed commitment, 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 (taking power presumably) has a number of problems. There is no indication that the latter have 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 prospect. Moreover, it was about pay, not environmental sustainability. Experience globally shows that -sadly-workers in fossil fuel sectors are not often 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 positive to negative.
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 GMB in the UK – while favouring 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.
At the time of the Katowice COP last November, the Silesian branch of Solidarnosc, which covers coal miners and workers in heavy industry, adopted a position denying climate change because they see the response to it as a threat to their jobs.
Further, the movements on environmental damage are 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.”
Martin’s argument that the people involved in struggles against environmental degradation and by workers in the fossil fuel sector “hold the key” to transformation to a sustainable economy 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.
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?
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 a population greater than a million and 8 bigger than London – and 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 a certain amount of 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 trajectory of rapid increase – of 10% a year from 2000 – 2010 declined sharply to 0% in 2016, then creeping back up to 1.7% in 2017 and 2.3% last year. This is not good news, but was still below the USA’s increase of 2.8% and India’s 5.7% for the same year.
Some of the way that China is attempting to square the circle and 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.” (PRC State Council 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.” (PRC State Council 2012)
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.***
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 “. This is a result of political decisions. To put it another way, why isn’t the rest of the world investing on the same scale that China is – and what would be the impact if they did?
The National Energy Development Strategy Action Plan has set targets for
wind power to reach 200 gigawatts (GW) by 2020, up from 129 GW in 2015
solar capacity to reach 100 GW by 2020, up from nearly 43 GW in 2015
geothermal energy capacity to reach 50 million tons of coal equivalent by 2020.
and to reduce coal’s share of total energy consumption to 55 percent by the end of 2020 and cap it at that level: compared to 64 percent in 2015.
Between 2013 and 2017 China’s investment in renewable energy doubled. The proportion of energy produced is rising rapidly, albeit from a low base. Wind was 4% in 2016, 4.7% in 2017. Solar was less than 1% in 2016, up to 1.8% a year after. Another $360 billion is going into the sector up to 2020, creating 13 million jobs (16 times as many as the US).
China is now the world’s largest producer, exporter and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles.
China now also has a clear lead in terms of 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 investing in international renewable energy projects For example, 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.****
So in response to Martin’s charges
that China is still 62% dependent on coal for energy production. It is. Without throwing millions of people out of work and into destitution there has to be a plan to reduce this. There is. This is coming down, and faster than expected.
that coal power stations are being built as part of the belt and road initiative. Though has been the case, China is increasingly investing in renewable power generation in other countries as well as at home and taking initiatives 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. Its China’s investment in wind and solar technology that now makes it the cheapest form available everywhere.
that China is developing fracking. In the UK, coal has nearly been eliminated as a major energy source partly by a shift to gas. The argument now is the need to rapidly move away from this towards fully renewable energy sources without an extended period of using gas as a “transition fuel”. China, with 60% dependence on coal for energy, has more of a case for making the same shift from coal to gas that the UK already has. Wind and solar, though expanding rapidly, are not scheduled to produce any more than 20% of total energy by 2030, even at the gigantic rate of investment that China is making, so a shift within fossil fuels to a less damaging one is more defensible there than it would be here. The 17 billion cubic metres projected to be pumped out by 2020 will replace coal. Fracking in Chinese conditions is rather tricky, so there are limits to the extent that this will be developed.
that hydro-electric power comes at a colossal environmental cost. This is true for the big projects especially, but without them China would be even more dependent on coal. They account for 18% of energy production in China. About the same as wind and solar combined. Now that they are built there would be little gained in shutting them down and an awful lot of coal would end up being burned instead.
that the Chinese renewables sector is inefficient compared to the West. The developmental lag that this reflects is being closed and efficiency enhanced. The scale of the investment and the intensity of the research has already closed this gap in some areas and exceeded them in others.
and that Chinese manufacturing industry both consumes huge quantities of raw materials and produces lung choking quantities of pollution. The pollution is a massive concern shared by government and people. It is, unevenly, going down. China no longer has any cities in the worst ten globally as a result of the measures taken, though still has many in the worst 50. The impact of Chinese demand for goods has
* 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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