This is a slightly tweaked version of the talk I gave at the Socialist Solutions to the Climate Crisis meeting at the Marx Memorial Library alongside Dan Kovalic from the University of Pittsburg, Lauren Collins from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the Nicaraguan Ambassador Giselle Morales-Echaverry and chaired by Ben Chakko from the Morning Star. A film of the whole meeting can be viewed here.
What China does to tackle the climate crisis will have a huge impact on whether humanity succumbs to it or not.
This is partly because it
- is already the world’s largest economy in Purchase Power Parity terms
- has a population greater than that of Europe, North America, South America and Australasia combined; a four continent country
- is a developing country that has developed very successfully
- is now exceeding the US in the number of patents for new inventions filed every year
- is a country run, not by the private sector interests that make the USA the best democracy money can buy, but by a Communist Party with 90 million members; whose project is to build Socialism with Chinese characteristics.
This is in a context in which the US – as the self proclaimed “indispensable nation” and “global leader” – the country for which the rules in the “rules based international order” are written – is failing spectacularly to lead the world in confronting its greatest existential challenge – the breakdown of the climactic conditions in which human society can continue to exist – and prioritising war instead.
- On current government spending, the US is putting fourteen times as much into its military as it is into domestic green transmission, and is encouraging its allies to increase theirs too; which they are doing.
- The economic context of this is that, because globalisation now favours China not the US, the US is “decoupling” from it and pressing its subordinate allies to do the same, while screwing them over at the same time.
- China, by contrast, is spending more than twice as much on green transition as on its military. More precise look at these figures here.
China’s is the right priority for every country because of the scale of the problem. Reports that the 1.5C limit is fast getting beyond reach should be a klaxon going off in all our heads. Not an invitation to fatalism, which will be fatal, but to redouble efforts to accelerate the scale and speed of transition to limit the damage as much as possible.
The consequence of not doing so will be severe. In 2007 a joint report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Centre for a New American Security entitled “The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy Implications of Global Climate Change” made this prediction for the impact of the kind of climate breakdown we could be heading into.
“Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long, nightmarish episodes of triage; deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.”
That’s what we have to avoid, and the Labour movement has to take a lead in making sure we do. Not least because if we don’t the widespread anxiety about the future will give rise to wilder and wilder versions of the tsunami of irrationality we are already seeing, with severe consequences as climate crises bite and people seek false solutions. We should note that the capitalist class, which emerged historically– in its own head at least – as champions of reason and enlightenment – are going down promoting collective insanity; Q Anon and on…The only question is whether they take us with down them.
Socialist solutions are needed because, as the FT noted recently “The Free Market will solve the Climate Crisis – but not in time”. This is even recognised in the Skidmore Review of the government’s Net Zero “Strategy” which notes that the state has to provide clear goals, legislative frameworks and sufficient investment for any transition to be viable. The US Inflation Reduction Act has taken the same approach, which has now prompted the EU to follow suit, streamlining investment procedures, resetting regulations and priming green pumps.
This is better than letting the market follow its financial nose while hoping for the best, but its still within a framework in which it is the job of the state to provide the conditions for private sector profitability – with that profitability being the determinant of whether a transition takes place or not.
This won’t be good enough – which brings us back to China.
In the context of the second phase of the Wars for the New American Century, and the great decoupling that goes with it, China will not get a good press in this country; and the dominance of a set of negative narratives relentlessly repeated means that relatively few people, even on the Left, will give it the benefit of the doubt.
This sometimes takes the form of extreme cognitive dissonance. A recent Labour Party Foreign Policy Group Report said that China’s success in poverty reduction for 850 million people in the last half century was “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history.” but then goes on to argue for technological, commercial and academic disengagement from, and military preparedness to confront, the country, people and Party that produced “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history.” A similar view is common in the climate movement.
So, on climate, does China get it? Beyond Xi Jinping’s speeches about the need to build an ecological society and for global cooperation to achieve it – a concern that predates him becoming General Secretary – there’s what China does domestically, how it acts internationally, and how the two intertwine. I want to look at two key areas.
- Energy Transition.
- China is still heavily dependent on coal to generate power, but we should note that since 2011 the quantity of coal used every year has levelled off, while the economy has been growing dramatically.
- Last year China accounted for nearly half the world’s investment in low carbon energy, with four times the investment put in by the USA.
- Overall, China’s investment in wind and solar has been on such a large scale that it has made them a cheaper source of energy than fossil fuels, which is a crucial global life line.
- The current (14th) Five Year Plan envisages a better connected grid with renewables at its core and coal relegated to a back up role.
- The International Energy Agency and others project that China’s 2030 target for renewable power installation could be met by 2025, which indicates the sort of exponential growth that will be needed for China’s overall emissions to start dropping before the end of the decade.
- The IEA assessment is also that the speed and scale of this drop will, exceed Western precedents.
At the same time, the decision to cease any funding for coal fired power stations as part of the Belt and Road initiative is estimated by the IEA to have the same beneficial effect as the whole of the EU actually getting to Net Zero by 2050. So, a massive deal.
That means that the energy development paradigm for those parts of the Global South where China is hegemonic will be via renewables. The “dash for gas” in Africa being pushed by the EU, and Tony Blair Institute among others, at the last COP is depressing contrast. They are selling this as a “transition fuel” for the continent, but its actually for export to Europe.
- In 2019, of 425,000 electric buses in the world, 2,500 of them were not in China.
- The city of Shenzen in Southern China replaced its entire 16,000 strong bus fleet with electric vehicles in 2016. London, with 8,000 buses, is going to take until sometime in the 2030s, and TFL is very good by UK standards.
- In 2021 China produced 57% of the world’s electric vehicles and 77% of the batteries needed to power them. We should note in passing that the only gigafactory making EV batteries in the UK is part owned by a Chinese company. The debacle of build it from scratch startup company BritishVolt illustrates the difficulties of the UK model; which can’t compete with the level of subsidy that continental scale economies like the US and EU can put up, while its increasingly Sinophobic Foreign Policy posture will inhibit any inward investment from China, where this technology is best established.
- The rapid development of China’s High Speed Rail Network has saved it from dependence on internal medium haul flights – of the sort that the US relies on and which were largely responsible for US carbon emissions rising again last year.
- This is also and essential paradigm for Global South transport development through the Belt and Road initiative, which runs on rails.
So, Socialists in the climate movement have a number of tasks
- To challenge disinformation about China in the movement and, as the saying goes, “seek truth from facts”.
- Oppose the war drive and military spending, campaigning for financial and technological transfer to the Global South instead.
- Oppose economic decoupling as detrimental to climate progress (a very clear example of which is that the trade sanctions imposed on Chinese solar panel imports by the US this year has led to a 23% drop in domestic installations – which is bad for emissions and bad for jobs) and seek win win global solutions on the context of the most rapid possible green transition.