China is the world’s largest emitter of CO₂ yet it simultaneously leads the world market in renewable energy
In recent years, China has been responsible for more than 30 percent of global CO₂ emissions, making it the largest emitter in absolute terms—even if its per capita CO₂ emissions are behind those of the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany. At least 35 percent of China’s emissions result from the production of goods for export, with some also resulting from the recycling of Western waste. To cope with its enormous production output, China continues to build coal-fired power plants at a rapid pace both at home and abroad, each facility equipped with state-of-the-art filter systems, and owns more of them than any other country. Meanwhile, obsolete power plants are steadily being decommissioned.
Based on 2005 figures, China’s emissions are set to be reduced by 65 percent by 2030, with a goal of achieving a carbon neutral (net zero) economy and society by 2060. This approach is problematic if the focus is not on emissions reduction but on the increased use of technologies such as carbon capture and storage. At Tsinghua University alone, more than 2000 proposals have already been developed for how this goal of carbon neutrality can be achieved. In 2018, almost 25 percent of electricity was supplied by renewable energy. China is also a pioneer in the field of renewable energy production. 25 percent of the world’s hydropower is situated in China. In 2018, one million e-cars were sold in China—more than in the rest of the world combined. China is also pursuing pilot projects on hydrogen use and fuel cell technology and has created 30 percent of all green jobs worldwide. The idea of eco-socialist civilization is firmly entrenched in the Chinese Communist Party’s overall programme. In addition to a stable electricity supply, the programme has also contributed substantially to poverty reduction within China itself.
In all projects where profit maximization and geopolitical interests take precedence over social and environmental issues, questions arise regarding negative social and environmental impacts. The Silk Road project is no exception. What is unique about China’s mega-project is its scope and the associated potential to combine poverty reduction with environmental and climate protection in a meaningful way. This has been a cause for consternation among several other governments who see their geopolitical and economic influence in these areas dwindling; their concern over environmental impacts, however, sometimes appear to be a mere pretext to jostle for position.
Environmental Challenges on the Silk Road’s Horizon
CO₂ emissions are increasing at a particularly rapid pace. Since 2014, China has invested almost six times as much in coal power in the Silk Road countries as it has in wind and solar energy. The continued extraction of oil and gas deposits is also leading to a chronic dependence on fossil energies in these countries. In addition to those from coal-fired power plants, emissions also result from increased freight transport—by trucks, trains, and ships—outside China, although a wholesale transition to rail-based transport is planned.
Projections show that emissions from the countries involved in the Silk Road project will lead to a dramatic increase of three degrees in global temperatures (the countries involved, excluding China, already account for 28 percent of global carbon emissions). This figure could rise to 66 percent by 2050, even if all other countries stick to their emissions targets. The Paris Agreement set the upper limit for temperature increase at two degrees, although scientists considered even that to be negligent. In addition, the increased consumption of raw materials leads to further over-exploitation of the natural environment, leading to the destruction and fragmentation of habitats, increased pollution, and the loss of forests—and with them the loss of carbon sinks.
China’s immense investment in reforestation projects is an attempt to counterbalance these effects. The world’s largest environmental programme, with a duration of 72 years and an investment of five billion US dollars per year, covers 400,000 km² of forest—an area larger than Germany. In spelling out these environmental and climatic dimensions of the BRI, however, it becomes clear that the solution cannot simply be a new round of Silk Road project financing, as the US and Europe are already planning, mainly with a view to compete with China.
China itself describes the New Silk Road as an alternative to protectionism and the hegemonic aspirations of the United States and northern Europe: the idea, President Xi Jinping says, is to create a global community, for the shared future of humanity. In order to ensure that projected emissions levels are not reached, priority must be given to the installation of renewable energies. In keeping with this goal, not only new technologies but also environmentally sound legislation should be exported so that the agreed two-degree threshold is not actually breached. However, for the New Silk Road, whose construction will be particularly emissions-heavy, the consequence cannot be the cessation of development projects already underway in numerous countries; rather, the West should assess the project in terms of concrete possibilities and not from a perceived moral high ground. For example, the transfer of technology, fair (climate-related) loans and trade agreements, as well as reparation payments from the Global North to the countries of the Global South, could contribute to advancing genuine, socio-environmentally compatible development instead of further entrenching existing colonial structures.
Environmental impact assessments must become obligatory for all major projects, including but not limited to those that fall under the umbrella of the New Silk Road initiative. These assessments must also carry such weight that they may also mean that a project cannot be implemented. There should be more transparency in the implementation of projects and contracts wherever people and the natural environment are at risk—on the one hand, to be able to trace which companies are involved in which projects, and on the other hand, to be able to better verify the environmental data. But since the New Silk Road is a project that will have unprecedented ramifications, new ways of cooperation will clearly have to be found.
Firstly, the participation of affected citizens and civil society actors in decision-making processes must be increased in order to promote the formation of a “global community of responsibility”. If the ideal of individual freedom continues to prevail, regardless of the consequences it entails, it will not be possible to avert the damage of a climate catastrophe caused by the exploitation of natural resources. As early as 1968, Hardin addressed this problem in “The Tragedy of the Commons”, and in 1990 Elinor Ostrom proposed the theory that communities that know each other and depend on collaboration with each other in the future are more willing to engage in community-based resource management. Perhaps China is already pursuing some of these aspects with its state model and the New Silk Road?
Secondly, once a shared vision and an idea of shared responsibility have been established, this will also enable greater acceptance among the local population in the event that the state subsequently imposes climate and resource protection measures, even if they go against the interests of the economy. To some scientists this seems to be a sensible solution to our climate problem, while others raise the spectre of eco-authoritarianism. At the same time, the example of China shows that state-led environmental programmes can become oriented more towards results than values such as transparency and justice, which can easily lead to individual rights being undermined in the process.
Thirdly, international agreements must be anchored in legislation and implemented in a binding manner. Given the lack of progress in international climate negotiations in recent years, the question naturally arises as to which extent China can also use the political opportunities presented by the New Silk Road project to advance climate protection. China’s active and constructive role has already been demonstrated in the international climate negotiations. This would unleash tremendous potential, although the right to have a say and transparency would still need to be fully guaranteed.
Whether a balance will be established between China’s prematurely fulfilled climate targets for 2020 under the Paris Agreement and an increase in emissions resulting from the investment policies of the New Silk Road remains to be seen. The extent to which the responsibility of the countries involved and their expansionist policies will have consequences in climate negotiations also remains undetermined.
It is entirely plausible that, in terms advancing climate protection, China could bring with them not only the Silk Road countries but countries such as Germany as well—one only has to look, for example, at the meagre progress on climate protection in this country so far (including, among other things, the so-called Verkehrswende, or transition in forms of transportation).
China’s head of state, Xi Jinping, has spoken out in favour of a “green, healthy, intelligent, and peaceful” New Silk Road, and to this end has called on cooperating countries to improve environmental protection and nature conservation policies: every violation against nature eventually has its revenge, and it is in one’s own interest to save one’s country from such a fate, he noted.
The question therefore remains as to which radical path must be taken in order for human life to remain viable. “Can the planet cope”, asks Yifei Li, a professor at Shanghai University, “with a liberal democratic process when the dangers are so acute?” The global community must realize that responsibility can no longer be externalized. The principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” according to Article 3 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change requires systematic implementation. This requires a common effort on behalf of all involved parties.