Here’s why China is serious about becoming the global leader on tackling climate change

Beijing, 2014. Image: Getty.

The Trump administration’s hostility towards climate action and research leaves a void in global climate politics. Could China step up? The Conversation

The world’s largest absolute emitter could certainly use US inaction as an excuse to backslide on its promises of greenery. But China could instead see this as an opportunity to project itself as our planet’s leading custodian.

Evidence suggests the latter course is far more likely. Opening the annual National People’s Congress in March, premier Li Keqiang pledged to “make the sky blue again”. Both the report he presented and the legislation and decisions reached continued to stress environmental issues, albeit perhaps not as emphatically as in recent years.

Meanwhile, in January at the annual World Economic Forum pow-wow in Davos, president Xi Jinping took advantage of Trump’s economic nationalism to affirm China’s commitment to globalisation. As the US rejects the very idea of global responsibilities, China is thus apparently aiming to reap the rewards of positioning itself as the polar opposite.

This isn’t just empty rhetoric. Chinese investment overseas in green technology increased by 60 per cent last year to $32bn. More importantly, the broader context of Chinese domestic politics has created strong incentives for further environmental efforts. This suggests an authentic medium to long-term commitment. And in China, it is the “dog” of domestic politics and regime legitimacy that wags the “tail” of geopolitical strategising.

Domestic pressure for climate policy

The environment is already a massive and potentially explosive issue within China. The increasingly powerful urban middle classes are becoming ever-more aware of environmental issues, particularly those that affect their health, such as air pollution or food, soil and water safety.

Beijing has encouraged investment in electric vehicles. Image: Wu Hong/EPA.

The government’s key programme to make manufacturing more innovative is also intimately tied to environmental goals and the opportunities of “cleantech” such as electric cars). Even China’s digital giants including Alibaba and Tencent are more interested in the environment than their equivalents in Silicon Valley.

Restoring Chinese greatness

There are even broader factors at play too. As the country has grown in both domestic prosperity and global stature over the past 40 years it has gradually been compelled to address with ever-greater urgency its own central question. This is: how will China once again be the unquestioned centre of the world?

Restoring civilisational preeminence is easier said than done, however, especially given the starting place for these efforts. The past 200 years have seen a violent repudiation of traditional cultures and painful engagement with Western-dominated modernity. This remains a sensitive wound. For central to the Chinese concept of a unique “Chineseness” is both its unsurpassed cultural greatness and its unrivalled longevity.

Chinese culture has endured for thousands of years. Image: unknown Ming court artist, 1538CE.

Embryonic “soft power” efforts have proven problematic, which calls into question the universal appeal of Chinese culture. Meanwhile, traditional ideas such as Confucianism occupy only peripheral roles in contemporary life. This exposes both the comparative youth of modern China and the unresolved legacies of its traumatic breaks with its past.

The situation creates twinned dissonances: between China’s actual and “rightful” standing in the world, and between its actual and desired relation to its own traditional culture. Crucially, though, protecting the environment is seen by the government as a key opportunity in both cases. Hence Beijing’s leading slogan of “ecological civilisation” – significantly a civilisational project that also, inseparably, has environmental sustainability at its heart.


The idea here is to draw on and renew distinctively Chinese ideas of Confucian harmony between humans and nature. This, it is hoped, could present a China to the world whose culture uniquely qualifies it to be the global environmental saviour. And it could reconnect the Chinese themselves to their traditional cultures, updated for a contemporary world of environmental responsibility.

Progress is unlikely to be smooth. China’s one-party state does allow for the massive mobilisation of resources crucial to the major projects of sustainable transitions. But that same political structure – best described as “fragmented authoritarianism” – also makes it harder to foster cutting-edge innovation and harder to implement environmental regulations – and to involve different stakeholders in decision-making.

As such, China still lags behind the US in the global game of cultural hegemony. Yet its grand project of “ecological civilisation” is so important in contemporary domestic politics that the environment will likely be seen as China’s trump card for some time yet. If America chooses to play its hand badly in the meantime, this will simply be welcomed in Beijing as a further stroke of good luck.

David Tyfield is a reader in environmental innovation & sociology at Lancaster University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.