Will China Be the Enforcer of the Paris Climate Agreement?

Yves here. While China has made impressive strides in technologies that reduce carbon emissions, I have trouble squaring that with their plans to build more coal-fired electricity generating plants.

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. Originally published at at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.


Greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants

It’s amazing what can be done by a government determined to do it. In the U.S., our approach to the climate crisis is to use the “invisible hand” of the market and be careful not to get in the way of “wealth creation” (for billionaires). The Chinese don’t have those constraints. Yes, they want to make their billionaires wealthier, but that’s not their primary goal. There’s a very nationalist strain in China, and to a greater extent, I think, than in the U.S., the Chinese government wants what’s best for China, and not just its wealthy.

Put differently, the economic policy of the Chinese government is to grow the country, including its billionaires. It often seems that U.S. economic policy is to grow our billionaires at the expense of the country. That may be no more evident than in the following story.

“You Talk about Fixing the Climate, But What about China?”

One of the main reasons the climate foot-draggers, in both parties, want to go slow on climate in the U.S. (aside both parties’ allegiance to “wealth creation”) is the China argument. In simple form, it says, “Whatever the U.S. does to save the climate will be undone by China, so why bother?” I don’t think that argument holds true any longer.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing in The Telegraph (my emphasis):

China is the low-carbon superpower and will be the ultimate enforcer of the COP21 climate deal in Paris

Chinese scientists have published two alarming reports in a matter of weeks. Both conclude that the Himalayan glaciers and the Tibetan permafrost are succumbing to catastrophic climate change, threatening the water systems of the Yellow River, the Yangtze and the Mekong.

The Tibetan plateau is the world’s “third pole”, the biggest reservoir of fresh water outside the Arctic and Antarctica. The area is warming at twice the global pace, making it the epicentre of global climate risk.

One report was by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The other was a 900-page door-stopper from the science ministry, called the “Third National Assessment Report on Climate Change”.

The latter is the official line of the Communist Party. It states that China has already warmed by 0.9-1.5 degrees over the past century – higher than the global average – and may warm by a further five degrees by 2100, with effects that would overwhelm the coastal cities of Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou. The message is that China faces a civilizational threat.

Whether or not you accept the hypothesis of man-made global warming is irrelevant. The Chinese Academy and the Politburo do accept it. So does President Xi Jinping, who spent his Cultural Revolution carting coal in the mining region of Shaanxi. This political fact is tectonic for the global fossil industry and the economics of energy.

Until last Saturday, it was an article of faith among Western climate sceptics and some in the fossil industry that China would never sign up to the COP21 accord in Paris or accept the “ratchet” of five-year reviews.

They have since fallen back to a second argument, claiming that the deal is meaningless because China will not sacrifice coal-driven growth to please the West, and without China the accord unravels since it now emits as much CO2 as the US and Europe combined.

This political judgment was perhaps plausible three or four years ago in the dying days of the Hu Jintao era. Today it is clutching at straws.

Eight of the world’s biggest solar companies are Chinese. So is the second biggest wind power group, GoldWind. China invested $90bn in renewable energy last year and is already the superpower of low-carbon industries. It installed more solar in the first quarter than currently exists in France.

The Chinese plan to build six to eight nuclear plants every year, reaching 110 by 2030. They intend to lever this into worldwide nuclear dominance, as we glimpsed from the Hinkley Point saga.

Home-grown energy is central to Xi Jinping’s drive for strategic security. China’s leaders know what happened to Japan under Roosevelt’s energy embargo in the late 1930s, and they don’t trust the sea lanes for supplies of coal and liquefied natural gas. Nor do they relish reliance on Russian gas.

Isabel Hilton from China Dialogue says the energy shift has reached a point where Beijing has a vested commercial interest in holding the world to the Paris deal. “The Chinese think they can dominate low-carbon technologies,” she said….

Do read the rest; it’s fascinating.

The Chinese Century & the Next Great Power Source

There are a couple of takeaways here. One relates to the fact that, as we all know, the U.S. has been competing economically with China to make sure the 21st century won’t be the Chinese Century the way the 20th century was the American Century.

So the first takeaway is this — thanks to our billionaires and their control of the U.S. political process, that competition is over. In a world without a climate crisis, China will win economically. The U.S. has already, as part of an unspoken national economic policy, handed China control of the world’s manufacturing, in exchange for major additions to American CEO bottom lines, like Phil Knight’s at Nike. Put simply, U.S. national economic policy is to make China and Phil Knight rich at the expense of most Americans. Both China and Phil Knight have taken that deal.

The second takeaway is an insight from Kevin Phillips’ book American Theocracy, that world power (“greatness”) moves to the country that adopts the next great power source. For a while, the Dutch dominated with wind power (they really did), until coal power allowed the British to take their place as the world’s leading nation. The U.S. ran its economy on oil, not coal, and supplanted the British. The next great energy source is going to be renewables (if we can get to a stable world run on renewables).

The Chinese are counting on that being true, that the first nation that owns and runs on renewables is the next great national power. They want to control the world’s manufacturing and control the next-generation power source. They see this as their path to the Chinese Century, and they’re going to try very hard to get there. Again, from the article: “The Chinese think they can dominate low-carbon technologies”. In a world without catastrophic climate change, it’s likely they’re right.

But the third takeaway is this:

  • If I’m right that we have at most 10 years to start a massive conversion to zero-carbon power generation in the U.S….
  • If warming of at least +1.5 °C is “baked in” and guaranteed no matter what we do, and not stopping means we can only go higher that that…
  • If we don’t soon have a national “wake up call” that motivates us to emergency action…

… then no one will own this century, not us, not the Chinese, not anyone, because it won’t be ownable. If we’re lucky, civilization will survive this century more or less intact. Period. Every nation will spend its energy in adaptation, not expansion; in survival and self-preservation, not dominance. Consider, for example, that if 45°N latitude is the cutoff point for livability in the second half of a hot next century, China’s breadbasket, the North China Plain, at about 39°N could be at risk. That’s where China will spend its time and money. We may have similar problems.

Dismissing the “China Argument”

It’s true that we can’t “fix” (mitigate, in climate-speak) or avoid the worst of the climate crisis without both the U.S. and China lending a serious hand. If the Chinese are going to do their part — and it looks like they are — it does come down to us then. The Chinese are not saying, “Let’s wait for the U.S. before we get serious.” They’re taking a leadership role and acting. Time to take a page from that book and do our own part? Looks like the “China argument” just went away

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  1. emperorofeastla

    stuck here in la but sure
    we love america a lot for some reason and also make albums containing spoken word inspired by KOOS GROOOP

  2. emperorofeastla

    yves is another woman we declien to statehood how we got here
    but she tried
    oh yes
    we tried
    thank you comediennes
    there is one really unfunny really richly deserving of the financial woman we trust award

    also Jill Stein
    Bernie Sanders
    global warming
    in america we trust
    the Naked Capitalists of Los Angeles
    NCLA meetup 2016??

  3. PlutoniumKun

    A fascinating topic, I’m glad this is something NC is looking at.

    First off, a slight correction – the Dutch didn’t dominate via wind power – in fact they dominated through burning peat – the deep marshes and bogs of the country were cut out to provide the power to make the fine china and other products that they used to trade. Ironically, it was flooding caused by cutting peat that forced them into becoming world leaders in wind. But wind power in the Netherlands was largely used to stop the country from flooding – it was peat power that made the products that gave them something to trade.

    But one point people often miss about China policy – despite its very centralised power structure, China is big enough to have more than one policy running simultaneously. Hence its quite possible for a major part of the country to focus on renewables for economic and environmental reasons, while simultaneously another chunk of the country is digging and burning coal as fast as it can. There is no doubt the Chinese would dump coal if they could in favour of nuclear and renewables. But there many very powerful people, and very poor provinces and regions totally dependent on coal, so its a very difficult fuel to kill off. So while the rich coastal areas and political elites are pushing for renewables/nuclear, they can’t necessarily stop many poorer inland regions with their regional business and power elites building coal fired power stations. But my guess is that if there is one thing that will stop coal burning, its water issues – most coal reserves in China are in water stressed areas, there simply isn’t enough to produce it (coal is actually very dependent on clean water).

    I think the deal for the Hinkley Point power station in the UK shows the direction the Chinese want to go. They want to be the worlds builders of key infrastructure – and a deal with the French and other more advanced nuclear nations is the way to go for them – others will develop the technology, they will build it and, of course steal the technology while they are doing it. Its a policy thats worked very well so far.

    However, its not clear to me that they can necessarily dominate renewables. The great Chinese weakness is in innovative technology. They really have not been able, despite massive investment, to match the US, Europe and Japan when it comes to the cutting edge. Given a choice, most user will still buy Japanese or US solar panels over Chinese ones for the very simple reason that they are much better. Likewise, European wind turbines are much superior to the alternatives. It might well be that Chinese cost advantages just won’t allow them to overcome the tech lead in other countries (not least because India might well actually be better when it comes to cutting costs using established technologies). Of course, idiotic policies in Europe and the EU are doing their best to throw the lead away.

    1. Steve H.

      – Hence its quite possible for a major part of the country to focus on renewables for economic and environmental reasons, while simultaneously another chunk of the country is digging and burning coal as fast as it can.

      That is an excellent point. Like the U.S., there is a diversity of conditions and population. Self-consistency is not necessary. It can’t be imposed (anymore), and having pockets of competing strategies is a good way to survive in changing conditions.

    2. different clue

      Under the current Forced Free Trade regime, “weakness” in innovation is no “weakness” at all. The International Free Trade Conspirators simply let non-China pay all the costs of innovation, and then the IFTC ships all the innovations to China for China to use to sell back to us creators of the innovations. With the Free Trade Lords taking their cut-off-the-top of the differential costs arbitrage.

      The only solution to that problem is the abolition of Free Trade and the restoration of Militant Belligerent Protectionism.

  4. Steven

    RabidGandhi criticized Michael Hudson in yesterday’s post of his latest public release: for “…paint(ing) things in a “good guys/bad guys” dichotomy viz. the IMF vs. the AIIB.” That criticism could possibly also be applied to China’s energy policy. I remember reading somewhere that China already possesses something like 60% of the manufacturing potential required to supply the entire world. (would really appreciate a solid citation on this!)

    The point is that the Chinese could perhaps have stopped or significantly slowed their construction of fossil fuel power plants IF they had used the technology transfer they received from the US / West to construct an sustainable economic infrastructure capable of supporting their people using the renewable energy and electrified transportation technologies the entire world is going to have to adopt sooner or later. (In this connection it is the height of hypocrisy to beat up on the Chinese for their energy policies while at the same time off-shoring the West’s industries there.)

    So one would have to say the jury is still out on this issue – as it is on whether China’s billionaire ‘Communists’ will be able to resist the lure of using the country’s recently acquired wealth as leverage to buy up and dominate the world – to use “Finance (a)s the new form of warfare – without the expense of a military overhead and an occupation against unwilling hosts.” as England and the US did before them.

    1. different clue

      No, it is not the height of hypocrisy for us to complain about that. WE did not do that offshoring. The International Free Trade Conspiracy did that offshoring against our bitter opposition. Subhuman tapeworm scum like Pelosi and Clinton arranged that offshoring, not us. We tried to stop it.

  5. Chauncey Gardiner

    I remain skeptical. Seems to be a full court press on to expand rail transport and develop crude oil, coal and natural gas export facilities up and down the US west coast to increase exports of Western US fossil fuels to China.

    I also believe China still imposes a 59 percent tariff on imports of solar equipment.

  6. Minnie Mouse

    So we trust the sea lanes enough to base our economy on importing Nikes (steel, electronics, even solar panels etc.) from China to pump up a carbon pollution bubble in China and then trust China to clean it up?

  7. susan the other

    One thing the world needs to do is manufacturing triage. What products do we really need and how much of them – quotas. If we must restrict CO2 it goes without saying we must restrict consumption. I wonder if China is a good recycler. Because recycling and reusing are good ways to contribute directly to the cause. Too bad COP21 didn’t approach a modern version of all nations taking a vow of poverty. Of sorts. Clearly China has a lot to lose. The Yangze and Yellow rivers drying up would be more devastating than the Mississippi. Another omission by the COP21 was any coherent dedication to cleaning up the oceans. If the rainforests are the lungs of the planet, the oceans are the kidneys. We need to focus on everything at once. Yes, China can manufacture things to reduce CO2 but the problem is soooo much bigger than that. I also believe China will lead the way because they are focused more than the rest of the world. I just hope they are looking at the entire planet and they understand that manufacturing and heavy industry aren’t compatible with a clean environment even if they are only producing solar and wind equipment – and they could still kill their rivers and flood their cities with all their good intentions.

    1. different clue

      Look at Chinese slash-and-trash development in Tibet and Sinjiang? Do you see any trace of good intentions there? If so, can you point them out to me?

      Look at Chinese treating the Phillipines’s coral reefs the way the Israelis treated the Palestinians’ Gaza groundwater aquifers. And behold how nobody dares to complain about it, because China is stronger than Israel. Do you see any good intentions there? If so, can you point them out to me?

      1. Vatch

        Thanks for reminding us of China’s internal imperialism against Tibet and Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang), and China’s external imperialism against the Philippines. The U.S. government and multi-national corporations do so many vile things around the world that we sometimes forget that there are other nasty imperialists on the planet.

      2. Benlu

        Where are the slash and trash you saw?

        Did you see how an ancient civilization was destroyed by the US showering it with tens of thousands bombs and missiles. You ought to remind yourself also what was done to the natives Americans and do something constructive about that.

  8. Benlu

    It must be noted that a large part of emission in China comes from manufacturing for the consumptions of the rest of the world, many manufactured products are of low value end of the production chain. With the restructuring of China economy towards higher end manufacturing and moving lower end out of the country, China could significantly reduce emissions, coupled with aggressive use of cleaner energy sources.

  9. docg

    I recently viewed a PBS special on a humongous skyscraper currently being erected in the heart of Shanghai. This gigantic project will apparently result in the tallest building on earth. But the sky view of Shanghai reveals many many more huge buildings on a roughly similar scale. A few months ago, Leslie Stahl took her viewers on a tour of some of China’s notorious “ghost cities,” also replete with huge skyscrapers — only these are empty. Presumably the hope is to lure residents to these cities at some future time, but God knows what the actual motives were. Someone must be making money on these projects but I can’t imagine how.

    Regardless of the motives and regardless of the wisdom, I’m sorry but I can’t imagine building on this scale, necessitating the manufacture of tons and tons of steel and concrete, fueled by solar and/or wind power. Nor can I imagine the servicing of even one of these gigantic structures, with its enormous requirements, day in and day out, for heating, air conditioning, lighting, etc. provided by renewables of any kind. Short of an all-out effort to build thousands of nuclear power plants, I just can’t see China cutting back on coal any time in the near future. For all the brave talk about renewables, that just seems like pie in the sky to me. If we are really convinced by all the “climate change” alarms, then it looks as though nuclear is the way to go. And the question that keeps coming up in my mind: is it really worth the risk? Aren’t we in danger of leaping out of the frying pan and into the fire?

    1. Benlu

      Before China opened up, more than 80% of its population were rural. The plan of the govt has been to have at least 60% of the population to urban environment as more effective way to raise living standards of the people. For such plan, cities have been planned and built in conjunction with economic development plans across China. Of course it takes more lead time for a city to be fully functional and populated than say a housing project. Shenzhen was such project now with more than ten millions population.

  10. Fair Economist

    A technicality: the critical energy source for the Golden Age of the Netherlands was peat, not wind, although they did certainly use wind. Also, saying “45N” is the threshold for livability is an extreme simplification, to put it mildly. Altitude will be more important than latitude because once the icecaps have melted the poles will get pretty hot in the summer.

    I agree absolutely that the Chinese government has looked at the outcomes of full-out global warming and decided (correctly) it is a civilization-ending catastrophe for them. Their rivers become unusable because they become almost seasonal and the flooding from the ocean rising is just epically bad. The entire lower Yangtze floods, literally almost to the Three Gorges Dam. Shanghai is 200 feet underwater and literally hundreds of miles from the new coast.

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