“Is China Taking Over Global Leadership on the Environment?” was the third edition of City University’s Sustainability Lecture Series, held on the 12th of February. Moderated by Mark Clifford, Executive Director of the Asia Business Council and author of “The Greening of Asia”, the panellists for this part in the series provided diverse perspectives on China’s approach to current environmental challenges. The panellists largely concurred that the central government is committed to new environmental approaches but questions were raised about the sub-par behaviour of some Chinese actors and institutions.
The panellists largely concurred that the central govt is committed to new environmental approaches
The panel featured Alexis Lau, Professor at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and one of Asia’s leading scholars on air quality, Wu Changhua, Beijing-based Director in the Oﬃce of Jeremy Rifkin and founder of TECONET, a green economy start-up platform, Wu Fengshi, Associate Professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of “From Paris to Beijing: China, Next Champion on Climate Change?” and Justin Wu, Head of Asia-Paciﬁc for Bloomberg New Energy Finance and an expert on clean energy.
China’s environmental tipping point
At the outset, it was noted that the environmental tipping point for China was catalysed by a change in perspective. Justin Wu observed that in the days of the Kyoto Protocol, China was seen as a ‘developing’ nation, with a certain degree of permissibility to pollute. In the more recent past, in Copenhagen and the Paris accord, it appears that China no longer wishes to be seen as a ‘developer’ and by extension has decided that negligence is no longer permissible.
Chinese leaders are consistently trying to define the ‘new normal’ in terms of how environmental issues must be tackled
Wu Fengshi then noted that several European nations, and even India to an extent, may be far ahead of China in terms of normative power—but that does not phase China much. Chinese leaders are consistently trying to define the ‘new normal’ in terms of how environmental issues must be tackled. What constitutes this approach as per the panel discussion include setting red lines in terms of environmental degradation, pricing resources, offering compensation to negatively affected regions and forging ahead with the concept of an ‘ecological civilisation’.
Indicative signs of China’s newfound global leadership were cited from China’s actions abroad and at home: China’s actions abroad include Xi Jinping at the United Nations, pledging more funds toward green causes coupled with less avoidance, and the Paris climate accord. And China’s actions at home include stricter domestic regulations and increased accountability of local officials. The equation seemed to have two parts: macro-commitments coupled with micromanagement. In this regard, however, concerns were expressed about China’s domestic-international discrepancy: it was noted that Chinese firms fail to adhere to international environmental standards abroad although they adhere to them at home.
Furthermore, Dr. Lau pointed out that although efforts are visible now more than ever, the watershed moment for China was back in 2005, when the government made a ‘pledge to a blue sky’. Then the true turning point came seven years later in 2012 with the announcement of real time air quality checks.
The tone the conversation took on was that China is indeed committed to taking the lead on the environment, as evidenced by the systematic changes the government has made. The extent of China’s leadership on this front was noted by Lau yet again: a shift in thinking towards result-oriented regulation.
Permanence in change and the role of civil society
At this point in the debate, Mark Clifford questioned whether systemic change meant permanent change; the panellists seemed to believe that the push for technological development in the environmental sphere would ensure that change is permanent. Some argued, however, that permanent change can be expected for now only in air quality, while challenges in the sectors of oil, gas and coal still exist and require more regulatory focus. In order for China to influence larger processes of international change, panellists spoke with cautious optimism on the ‘ecological civilisation’ concept and how it can reinforce the Sustainable Development Goals.
Some panellists argued that ‘civil society’ is ‘western’ terminology: in China, ‘social organisations’ are more apt…
…in its one-party system, China has found its own version of checks and balances
When asked about where civil society fits in China’s equation of environmental change, some panellists argued that ‘civil society’ is ‘western’ terminology: in China, ‘social organisations’ are more apt. It was noted that public discontent has in the past put pressure on the government, such as in the case of waste management.
Despite this, some believe that the true power of the public cannot be mobilised because of a lack of non-governmental organisation autonomy and public expression. To this, panellists argued that NGOs in China have different challenges than they do elsewhere. When it comes to sincerity in environmental efforts, Wu Changhua said that in its one-party system, China has found its own version of checks and balances; in the form of a monitoring system put in place to ensure politicians on a local level are accountable.
Challenges still persist in non-renewable energy, permanence in change, & consistency in the commitment of Chinese firms home & abroad
In a nutshell, in a bid to leave no stone unturned in its effort to deal with increasingly imminent environmental issues, China has changed its perspective on several fronts. As per the discussion on 12th February, ‘civil organisations’- the public as well as social organisations – are empowered more than before, international commitments are being made, domestic checks have been put in place, a new international standard is being defined. Challenges still persist in certain aspects of non-renewable energy, permanence in change, and consistency in the commitment of Chinese firms at home and abroad.
As audience members pointed out in the Q&A session, the real tests going forward will be whether the Belt and Road is “greened”, whether local officials follow through with new environmental benchmarks and whether Chinese society fully adopts new sustainability paradigms.
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