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Energy, environment and climate change: domestic or global challenges?

As underlined by the Chinese leadership on several occasions, the government tends to be less concerned by the global effects of climate change than it is of its local effects, as these directly affect agricultural productivity, health and, consequently, China’s economic performance[1]. From a Chinese perspective it could be argued that these detrimental effects on the economy are those to be primarily credited for the fact that climate change and environmental protection have gained strategic relevance in China. Certainly thanks to climate change, and through environmental negotiations, China has also gained a prominent role in the international arena, but it is arguably the urgency to tackle local challenges that have pushed China to join international institutions and regimes. This has in fact allowed China to gain access to funding and technology necessary to boost its economic growth and, eventually, to protect its policy priorities.

But how serious is the energy/environmental challenge for China? Its National Climate Change Programme focused on the negative effects of climate change on agriculture, water, ecosystems and coastal zones, and underlined China’s need for advanced technology and natural resources conservation in order to secure its own economic development[2]. The World Bank report[3], drafted together with the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration  (SEPA), highlighted that in 2003 acid rain cost RMB 30bn to Chinese agriculture, RMB 7bn for damage to buildings, and air pollution increased the costs of healthcare by RMB 520bn. To these, another RMB 66bn should be added as a result of water contamination and several billions could be added to cover the increased costs of cancer treatment. Altogether it can be calculated that these costs amounted to about 5,3% of Chinese GDP[4], and are expected to increase in the coming years due to global warming[5], exacerbating water scarcity and desertification, but also flooding, especially in the coastal regions[6].

Climate and environmental imbalances as well as, more generally, resource scarcity are set to engender increasing international frictions with neighbouring countries. This is true, for instance, in the Mekong basin[7], but also with Japan, South Korea and Russia[8], who are affected either by Chinese energy policy or by its pollution. In addition, these elements can boost migrations, the so called ‘environmental refugees’[9], which could dramatically affect China’s development by overcrowding its cities.

These issues, together with frequent accidents in the coal mines[10], have increasingly been the object of public protests and, despite the government’s efforts to reduce the negative impact of Chinese growth on the environment (e.g. by closing small coal mines since the 1990s)[11], China’s energy supply will remain in large part reliant on coal. In addition, pollution together with the unhealthy practices carried out by chemical plants in the countryside, are increasingly singled out as among the main sources of dissatisfaction among the Chinese and the cause of the rise in the number of diseases[12]. In 2003 the government reported that there were 58,000 protests involving three million people[13], while Zhou Shengxian, head of the SEPA[14], confirmed that in 2005 there had been 510,000 disputes related to environmental pollution which “caused a great threat to social stability.”[15] It is also known that, in 2005, a 10,000-strong military contingent had to intervene to tackle 30,000-40,000 villagers from Zhe Jiang Province who had attacked 13 chemical plants as well as buses, government officials and police cars[16].

The amount and frequency of protests show that Chinese people are increasingly aware of the negative effects of climate change and environmental degradation, and this is even more evident when looking at a poll made in 2006, in which 83% of Chinese responded that “steps should be taken to address global warming”, and 42% stressed that they believe that global warming is a “serious and pressing problem” that demands immediate action “even if this involves significant costs”[17]

It is therefore understandable why, for China, climate change is not only a global issue, but also, if not primarily a domestic problem. Failing to tackle climate and environmental related challenges might put seriously in question the Chinese leadership and China’s economic growth, which is necessary to employ about 10 million new workers a year[18]. Failing to do so would cause civil unrests. Both environmental challenges and the lack of economic growth are thus key challenges to China’s domestic stability[19], and, even though higher priority is currently given to the latter[20], in the long run environmental costs (e.g. including flooding, pollution, climate change) might overshadow the gains deriving from unsustainable economic growth. That is why the fourth generation of Chinese leaders is increasingly convinced of the fact that long term economic growth must go hand in hand with a fight against the local effects of climate change and environmental degradation[21]. In recent years local administration’s performance has started to be evaluated also in light of the progresses in terms of energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions[22], and government’s investments (and international cooperation projects) have mainly focused on energy saving, emission control and rural environmental protection.[23] This approach is in line with what Zhou Genghu calls ‘conservation society’ (节约社会 jieyue shehui), and ‘scientific development’ (科学发展观 kexue fazhanguan)[24], and included in Hu Jintao’s strategy towards the development of what he defines an harmonious society[25]. But how to achieve an harmonious society? The solution on the table of China’s leadership seems to be to acquire the technologies that allow high economic growth while reducing the side effects on the environment and on public health (which are increasingly the object of public protests). In order to achieve this international cooperation is fundamental.

However, despite the fact that both China and the rest of the world agree on the fact that international cooperation is necessary, the object of contention is how to cooperate and on what, and how to ensure that the cooperation remain a “win-win” one. Certainly the urgency to fulfil any international agreement on climate change, whose major effects are still to come, vary from country to country according to its level of development, to its capabilities and to its vulnerability. For instance, it is understandable why, in the CCP’s eyes, solving global problems should not endanger the ‘domestic stability’ of the PRC, which is where its legitimacy lies, or, put it more bluntly “China’s interest must come first”[26], as noted by China’s former special representative for climate change negotiations.

Nonetheless, one could ask: “What is China’s interest?” Is the interest of the Chinese Communist Party? Is that of today’s generation of Chinese people? Is that of the coming generations? Certainly the latter are those to be affected by environmental degradation and increasing environmental disasters. In addition, from an international perspective, failing to tackle global challenges could inexorably affect the country’s global image, and even justify unilateral (and sharper) measures by its international partners, which could jeopardise the growth of an export-led economy as it is that of China. It is true that in an interconnected and globalised world, similar measures might be difficult to implement, but such an eventuality should not excluded.

We are assisting to a complex balancing act between domestic interests on one side, and global interests on the other. Arguably, CCP’s goal is to maintain an optimal balance between these ‘glocal’ priorities, avoiding to lose ‘face’ internationally, while protecting the domestically set priorities. However, a similar understanding gives for granted that the interests of the peoples of China, in both the short and long term, are identical to those indentified by the CCP. While it is probably true that these have coincided since Deng’s opening up policy, there is room to question this assumption in the medium to long term, in light of what climate change entails; in other words, when the future generations might find themselves to cope with a heavily polluted environment, eroded by desertification and higher sea levels.

In conclusion, what China, Europe and the world need to consider when they deal with climate change, is that they face today is a massive intergenerational and international conflict of interest. Any solution will certainly require the awareness of the fact that global and local priorities are set to partially differ in the short term, as different are the levels of development of each nation, but they necessarily converge in the long term…time permitting.


This article was also published on “Understanding” and on “Europe’s World”:




[1] As noted by Heggelund, “It is well known that China gives high priority to local environmental (often pollution) issues, medium priority to regional environmental (often pollution) problems and less or limited priority to global environmental issues. Considering China’s most serious and direct environmental problems, this is a sound policy”. In addition she noted that it seems that China focus more on energy rather than environment, and more on pollution rather than biodiversity. Heggelund, Gørild, Steinar Andresen and Sun Ying. 2005. “Performance of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) in China: Achievements and Challenges as seen by the Chinese.” In 46th ISA Conference. Hawaii. Page 8, 18. Other have highlighted: “What matters is the national combat against harmful and destabilizing pollution, rather than trying to fight against global challenges that each country experiences differently”. Freeman, Duncan; and Jonathan; Holslag. 2009. “Climate for Cooperation: The EU, China and Climate Change.” In BICCS Report. Brussels: Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. Page 32

[2] People’s Republic of China, 中华人民国共和国. 2007. “China’s National Climate Change Programme, .” ed. 国家发展和改革委员会 National Development and Reform Commission.

[3] State Environmental Protection Administration of the PRC and World Bank. 2007. The cost of pollution in China : economic estimates of physical damages [sic] [electronic resource]. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Rural Development Natural Resources and Environmental Management Unit East Asia and Pacific Region.

[4] As Chinese GDP in 2003 was reported to be RMB 11.694 trillion. Hongjun, Wang. 2004. “Official: China’s GDP growing 9.1% in 2003.” In China Daily – 中国日报. Other statistics assessed at 3% of GDP the yearly cost of climate change in China. Ash, Robert. 2007. “Resource pressures and China’s environmental challenge.” For additional information see: Jiang, Gaoming. 2009. “The terrible cost of China’s growth.” In China Dialogue – 中外对话.

[5]The total cost of global warming is expected to rise to €5500 bn between now and 2050 according to the Stern Report. Stern, Nicholas. 2007. The Economics of Climate Change: Cambridge University Press. The IEA is reported to have mentioned that the cost for non action amount to US$ 500 billions. 2009. “Hedegaard: ‘Time is up’ for climate choices.” In For the EU it could account to € 65bn by 2080, according to the European Commission. Euronews. 2009. “Obama pledges US carbon cuts.” In Euronews.

[6] As reported by Meng the flood in Southern China in the summer of 2009 led to a loss of RMB 40 billion. Men, Jing. 2009. “The EU and China: climate change and development ” EU-China Observer(5):13-18. Page 15. And subsidence is reported to affect 46 cities in 16 provinces, including Shanghai, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanxi. See: Jiang, Gaoming. 2009. “The terrible cost of China’s growth.” In China Dialogue – 中外对话.

[7] For instance as noted by Ajazeera, in March 2010 Thailand’s prime minister is reported to have seeked urgent talks with China after the water level in the Mekong River, that provide water to about 60 millions people, plunged to its lowest level in 20 years. Asia. 2010. “Mekong waters hit record low.”, Yongfeng, Feng. 2010. “Wringing China dry.” China Dialogue – 中外对话.

[8] Niquet, Valérie. 2009. “La Chine à la veille de Copenhague.” Note de l’IFRI.

[9] On this point see for instance: Moore, Scott. 2010. “Security in a drier age.” China Dialogue – 中外对话.

[10] For instance: Xuequan, Mu. 2010. “Water level in flooded coal mine drops as rescue operation enters third day.” Xinhuanet -  新华网.

[11] Niquet, Valérie. 2009. “La Chine à la veille de Copenhague.” Note de l’IFRI.

[12] “Cancer rates have surged since the 1990s to become the nation’s biggest killer. In 2007, the disease was responsible for one in five deaths”. Watts, Jonathan and Chen Shi. 2010. “The dark side of the boom.” China Dialogue – 中外对话.

[13] Burgio, Claire. 2007. “Democracy in China: a distant dream.” Asia Europe Journal 5:181-186. Page 185.

[14] Since 1998 SEPA has become the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

[15] Dan, Liu. 2006. “China sees environmental accident every other day: SEPA.” Xinhuanet -  新华网.

[16] Economy, Elizabeth. 2007. “The Great Leap Backward?” In Foreign Affairs: Foreign Affairs. Another example of protest was raised for the relocation of industrial plants in 2007. Li, Li. 2007. “Power to the People.” Beijing Review(1).

[17] On this point see: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and 2006. “Can Europe and China shape a new world “. Page 6. Another poll reported by Meng, noted that “among 22,000 young Chinese citizens between the ages of 16 and 35, 75 percent of those who participated in the survey believed that China is suffering from the effects of climate change. Men, Jing. 2009. “The EU and China: climate change and development ” EU-China Observer(5):13-18. Page 15.

[18] As quantified by Zhe Song, Chinese Ambassador to the EU. Friends of Europe. 2009. “Europe and China.” In Report of the international high-level Strategic Dialogue summit. Brussels: Friends of Europe and the Security & Defence Agenda (SDA).

[19] As noted in .He, Fan; Qin, Donghai. 2006. “China’s Energy Strategy in the Twenty-first Century.” China & World Economy. Page 99.

[20] As noted by E. Economy: “Environmental protection should not be achieved at the expense of the economy”. Economy, Elizabeth and Miranda A. Miranda Alice Schreurs. 1997. “Chinese policy-making and global climate change: two-front diplomacy and the international community.” In The internationalization of environmental protection. Cambridge, U.K ; New York: Cambridge University Press. Page 32. On the same point see: Duchâtel, Mathieu, Yikang Wu, François Godement, Zhang Jian, Li Yonghui, Zhu Feng, Xhou Suyan, Zhang Hua, Bernice Lee, Jiahua Pan, Jiang Kejun and Thibaud Voïta. 2009. “Playing with Europe soft agenda.” In China Analysis: Asia Centre at Science Po, European Council of Foreign Relations.

[21] As noted by Isabel Hilton, China now cares more about environment than 3 years ago, now they agree in taking on targets “not as a concession, but because the dangers of climate change to China are becoming increasingly clear.” Friends of Europe. 2009. “Europe and China.” In Report of the international high-level Strategic Dialogue summit. Brussels: Friends of Europe and the Security & Defence Agenda (SDA).

[22] International Crisis Group. 2008. “China’s thirst for oil.” Seoul/Brussels,: International Crisis Group. Page 9.

[23] Xinhua. 2010. “China stresses development of energy-saving industries.” In China Daily – 中国日报. Yan. 2010. “China to continue effort in pollution, emission control: State Council.” Xinhuanet -  新华网. Zhengxin, Li. 2010. “China to invest 12 bln yuan into rural environment protection in three years.” Xinhuanet -  新华网.

[24] As noted by Constantin, Christian. 2005. “China’s Conception of Energy Security: Sources and International Impacts.” Working Paper, University of British Columbia(43). Page 6-7, 16.

[25] Cooper Ramo, Joshua. 2007. Brand China: Foreign Policy Centre. Page 9-11.

[26] 中外对话, China Dialogue -. 2010. ““China’s interests must come first”: reporting of a speech by Yu Qingtai at Peking University.” China Dialogue – 中外对话.

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