Understanding "Ecological Civilization" According to China
We present to you the first issue of GREEN (Géopolitique, Réseaux, Energie, Environnement, Nature), a twice-yearly journal published in two languages (French and English) offering a multi-disciplinary analysis of energy, environment, and climate issues.
Even though ecology and climate issues receive wide media coverage, the sheer volume of available information — which can be contradictory and incomplete — can limit the ability to inform and transmit fundamental information on the climate emergency. The scientific discourse is often happening at a frequency that is barely audible to the wider public and civil society.
Two convictions guided the creation of GREEN. First, that environmental and climatic issues deserve to be understood with nuance in order to fully grasp the complexity and multifaceted nature of the challenges that underlie them. Second, the dialogue between the experimental sciences and social sciences on one hand, and between scientific discourse and editorial discourse on the other, are powerful tools to making these subjects accessible and intelligible. This is why we designed GREEN as a place where these dialogues could be reconciled and restored, between the urgency of action and the long term. GREEN is therefore intended for a wide audience: for experts and policy makers and, without sacrificing its technical rigor, the reader who is curious and concerned about environmental and climatic issues.
This ambition is supported by the contribution of a number of French, European, and international researchers as well as a scientific committee which reflects the diversity of the project. Leading academic, political, and economic figures have honored us with their confidence and respective insights into the environment and climate.
Choosing China as a focus for this first issue was a gamble, but how can we understand the climatic and environmental challenges of our era without considering the world’s largest CO2 emitter, the second largest economy, and seemingly one of the most ambitious States when it comes to climate change?
China’s announcement that it intends to reach carbon neutrality in 2060 generated surprise as well as hope within the international community. Surprise, because this goal seems very ambitious as the country’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, currently representing 27% of global emissions. Hope, because with this announcement, China is demonstrating its support for the initiative launched by the Paris Agreement which was seriously compromised by the Trump administration’s choice to withdraw from it. The year 2020 was supposed to be a pivotal one: the countries that had signed the Agreement had pledged to strengthening their commitments to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions if necessary. China, followed by Japan and South Korea, successively announced their intention of reaching carbon neutrality in 2060 for the first, and 2050 for the two others. The European Union, which introduced the goal of carbon neutrality in its Green Deal of 2019, recently reached an agreement with its member states to reduce its emissions by 55% between now and 2030. In the United States, then Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden had announced, as early as the summer of 2020, his goal of “zero emission” domestic electrical production by 2035. Uncertainty remains, however, whether these announcements are feasible given current public policies. Chinese investment, particularly in high-carbon assets, both at home and along the New Silk Roads, leave room for only modest optimism. On a global scale, the Covid-19 pandemic raised hopes that the world economy would see a lasting reduction in its energy intensity. However, the resulting decrease in emissions was short-lived, and no lasting change can be seen.
China’s ambitions toward reducing CO2 emissions — the Chinese government’s announcement of carbon neutrality is limited to carbon and not all greenhouse gases — is not enough to ignore the complexity and diversity of the challenges which that country must face to effectively fight pollution and the widespread destruction of ecosystems which are necessary for life. Far too often we consider climate as the be all and end all when it is only part of the equation for preserving the planet.
In terms of climate change, the Chinese government’s proactive rhetoric (which has only been the case for a few years, see the articles by Amy Dahan, p.13, and Andrée Clément, p. 110) underscores the highly geopolitical nature of the fight against climate change. This ambition raises questions despite its apparent virtue — the ecological transition appears to be an implicit lever of power for economic growth, garnering market share in several industrial sectors and influence on the international stage. However, the economic and diplomatic benefits seem to outweigh the actual benefits in the fight against climate change (see the article by Jean-Paul Maréchal, p. 21). This is covered in the first part of this volume.
The climate issue naturally leads to the energy issue which is the main driver of climate change on the global level. This is why China’s relationship to energy deserves close examination, for the so-called “low carbon” technologies — renewable and nuclear energies, electric vehicles, etc. — are now at the heart of China’s strategy to decarbonize its economy and reduce its emissions. In key technologies such as photovoltaic and wind, China has invested more rapidly than any other country on Earth. And yet coal, which already makes up the majority of the country’s energy mix, continues to be developed by China both at home and abroad through its New Silk Roads (see the articles by Eric Armando, p. 85, and Han Chen and Cecilia Springer, p. 92). More generally, carbon infrastructure makes up a significant part of the overall volume of China’s Silk Roads investments — where does this leave the feasibility of China’s energy transition and the fulfilment of its climate commitments? This is the question that we will attempt to answer in the second part of this volume.
Beyond energy and climate, the third and final part of this volume questions, in a larger sense, the idea of ecological civilization that has been written into China’s constitution since the 2000s and reaffirmed in 2017 by Xi Jinping. Ecology is concerned with the interactions and interdependence of living things between themselves and their environments. Beyond climate, an ecological civilization is therefore based on respect for the environment and planetary limits. And yet, China’s air and soil quality is still concerning despite the announcement in 2014 that the country was going to war against pollution (see the article by Stéphanie Monjon and Léa Boudinet, p. 117). Furthermore, the Chinese Communist Party’s growing interventionism in the environmental sphere can be seen in little-known issues, such as the digitalization of cities (see the article by Federico Cugurullo, p. 123) and the development of new economic governance tools such as environmental social credit (see the article by Stéphanie Monjon and Elodie René, p. 127). This leads to the questions raised in the third chapter of this volume: what does the Chinese “ecological civilization” consist of today? Does this ambition lead to the strengthening of Chinese authoritarianism?
Stéphanie Monjon, Léa Boudinet, Clémence Pèlegrin, Understanding “Ecological Civilization” According to China, Sep 2021, 4-5.
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