Of all the vacuous illusions about the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which have reduced British and other free and open countries’ policies on China to a jumble of contradictions, one of the most persistent – and the least tenable – is that toning down criticism of the CCP’s revisionist abuses at home and abroad will somehow encourage Beijing to participate fully in the global campaign to limit climate change. This notion persists even in the face of Xi’s evident disregard for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and the hopes of those who wish it success. By examining the nature and drivers of PRC policy on the environment, this article seeks to provide a more realistic view of what is to expect from the CCP in response to the existential challenges of climate change, and hence to suggest some necessary adjustments in the United Kingdom’s (UK) approach.
Seventy-odd years of CCP rule have inflicted appalling damage on the Chinese environment, and now increasingly affect its neighbours, the region and the world as a whole. Irreparable damage to groundwater quality affects 90% of the PRC’s cities, risking ‘catastrophic consequences for future generations’. Air quality has deteriorated dangerously in tandem. The consequences for public health have been acute. Toxic contamination – notably by heavy metals – had reached the stage that Chinese reports said in 2014 that millions of hectares of farmland might have to be taken out of cultivation. The effects of industrial and agricultural pollution have been intensified by widespread deforestation, desertification, erosion and increased soil salinity.
The CCP’s national environmental disaster is a major driver of global warming, contributing significantly directly to dangers from flood, droughts and rising sea levels. Given the pressures of domestic demography, economics and geography, if the CCP does not play a major role in co-ordinated global efforts to combat climate change, the PRC will face worsening harms whose socio-economic consequences could soon compromise the foundations of the CCP’s authoritarian power.
Growing popular alarm about filthy air was one of the first issues that spurred the CCP into palliative action. During the last decade, the CCP has publicly avowed the need for effective countermeasures and has adopted policies to reduce harmful pollution. Yet, during the same period, the PRC has become, by far, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Xi has remained aloof from the urgent aspirations of COP26, announcing that the PRC’s carbon emissions will continue to increase for the next eight years before tapering down to zero over the next 30 years. The scale of this increase will reportedly negate whatever improvements may be achieved by Europe over this time, not to speak of the impact in terms of undermining collective purpose.
Meanwhile, the CCP’s ambitions for Chinese global economic domination combined with vast resources of materials such as rare earths and lithium, and the continued failure of free and open countries to develop alternative sources, provide strategic incentives for Beijing to maintain highly polluting extraction and refinement practices, not least in areas populated by non-Han ethnic groups who are now utterly deprived of political influence.
Overseas, similarly lax environmental standards used in infrastructure and mining projects under Xi’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) have caused significant environmental damage around the world, notably but not exclusively in South America. Even some of the CCP’s own organs promoting the BRI have admitted this harm. BRI dam developments have involved extensive deforestation, another even more harmful cause of which has been increased PRC demand for soybean cultivation in Brazil and elsewhere.
Unilateral PRC activity not only has inflicted major environmental damage on the South China Sea by unregulated exploitation of natural resources in nearby waters, it also abrogates international commitments by plundering those of Antarctica. For decades the PRC has imported irreplaceable primary growth timber from a widening swathe of northern Myanmar, to the detriment of the local environment and the benefit of an unelected regime. There are numerous other instances of reckless Chinese environmental ravages, but it is worth noting that in 2018 the PRC’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment recorded more than 200 million cubic metres of plastic waste floating off Chinese shores.
In sum, despite unrelenting propaganda to the contrary, including recent claims that ‘China is now well-positioned to take responsibility and lead the fight against climate change’, the PRC, its new wealth globalised in a surge of exploitative engagement with vulnerable client states, remains a major contributor to environmental harms across the world. This perhaps explains the efforts of PRC officials – most recently Li Gao, Director of Climate Change at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment – to indulge in discursive statecraft and disinformation by blaming the current environmental crisis on ‘Western’ carbon emissions over the centuries since the Industrial Revolution, as if this shibboleth somehow justified egregiously unsustainable activity by the PRC today.
But as is often the case with CCP revisionist dialectic, the facts do not add up. Recent calculations have indicated that since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the UK released around 78 billion tons of carbon dioxide, while in the last ten years alone the PRC has generated around 88 billion – and Chinese emissions are set to rise further still. The argument here is akin to claims that since Hong Kong’s democracy under British rule was less than perfect, the CCP can now wipe away its last traces and rule by arbitrary fiat.
How should the free and open countries, and the UK in particular, respond to this gulf between the CCP’s public position on climate change and the underlying realities? A key priority is to take proper stock of Britain’s own policies and ensure that they stand up to scrutiny in a world of globalised supply chains. Her Majesty’s (HM) Government sets store by wind power as a panacea for current ills. In this case, it is worth considering the fact that a major wind farm, one of the largest yet planned, will use labour and facilities in the south of the PRC to build 114 of the structures used to support the turbines on the seabed – known as turbine jackets. Shipping enormous structures made of Chinese steel several thousand miles to Scotland from South China is hardly a shining example of green policies in action, instead illustrating perfectly a recent observation by The Spectator that relying on Chinese imports carry a high carbon footprint, as well as moving jobs offshore.
Separately, it does seem that large quantities of rare earths sourced in the PRC end up in the wind turbine motors. The conditions in which these materials are mined and refined are among the most disquieting of the CCP’s many pollution scandals. While efforts are being made to reduce dependencies on Chinese rare earths, these are still at an early stage; for the present, behind the clean façade of wind energy lies a much less sustainable reality. Pretending virtue while conniving with such a country protracts UK supply chain dependencies – surely seen for the risk they are since the Covid-19 pandemic – and greedily prioritises trade with the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, rather than environmental considerations.
Green politics and real world economics can be ill-suited bedfellows. But if, as the HM Government’s Integrated Review suggests, a new consistency between them is deemed crucial for the protection of the national interest against a canny ‘systemic competitor’ – in this case from the PRC – it is surely prudent to establish some consistent rules and reform the the UK’s globalised economic model to reduce British dependency. As HM Government pursues Net Zero for the British economy, greener energy supplies – wind turbines included – should be built at home and with materials that come from more diverse and greener suppliers. This, of course, will take a coordinated international effort, which a ‘Global Britain’ is well-placed to lead.
After all, the systemic competitor concerned has very different intentions on that front from Britain’s own. If HM Government is genuinely concerned about the environment, a more holistic and realistic approach is needed.
Matthew Henderson is a James Cook Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. He studied China at the universities of Cambridge, Peking and Oxford, before serving as a diplomat with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for nearly 30 years.
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