Is China Taking Over Global Leadership On The Environment?

By Sadhika Nanda 16 March, 2018

City University’s Nanda summarises top experts' views

The central govt is committed to new environ approaches but some Chinese actors & institutions are subpar
Public & social organisations are more empowered plus intl commitments & domestic checks are now in place
The real tests will be whether the Belt & Road is “green”, whether local officials follow environ benchmarks & more

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.

Further Reading

  • Two Sessions, Five Highlights For Water – An ‘ecological civilisation’ is now embedded in China’s constitution and ministerial reform has been tabled. Find out what these mean for water in our review of this year’s Two Sessions. Pay attention or risk being blindsided
  • Key Water Policies 2017 – 2018 – Missed out on key water and water-related policies in China this past year? Catch up with China Water Risk Woody Chan’s review, including the latest on the new Water Ten Law and environmental tax law
  • China Steps Into Soft Power Vacuum – As the US retreats, Asit Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada explore how China is becoming the world’s leading soft power, from infrastructural development to research progress, and hurdles it faces ahead
  • Sustainable Finance – Hong Kong Is Ready! – Is Hong Kong ready to embrace sustainable finance? RS Group’s Leonie Kelly, Tze-wei Ng and Alicia Lui share findings from the Sustainable Finance Initiative’s first market-survey
  • Water Efficiency Policy: A Technological High-Water Mark? – From biomimicry to data analytics, Singapore is developing new technology to produce clean water without sinking the environment. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Tommy Kevin Lee and Cecilia Tortajada expand
  • What ‘Xi’s Thought’ Means For Water – One key message from Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress was harmony between environment & economic growth, surely this bodes well for water? China Water Risk’s Feng Hu reviews
  • Green Development For A Beautiful China – The Minister of Environmental Protection Ganjie Li outlined the MEP’s achievements and future plans at the 19th People’s Congress. What are the key takeaways? China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu reviews
  • A Chinese Model For Foreign Aid – As the US & the EU retreat from their foreign-aid commitments, Professor Asit K Biswas and Kris Hartley from the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy see this as an opportunity for a new and willing aid champion, China. See why
  • Can China Clean Up Its Act? – China faces unprecedented air, water & soil pollution after decades of growth. With its contaminated land area bigger than the United Kingdom, Asit K Biswas & Cecilia Tortajada look at what China’s policymakers are doing to change this
  • China’s Green Planning For The World Starts With Infrastructure – China can exert greater external influence through infrastructure development but Professor Asit K Biswas and Kris Hartley from the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy caution against it citing financial and environmental risks. See more
Sadhika Nanda
Author: Sadhika Nanda
Sadhika Nanda is an undergraduate student from Bangalore, India currently studying Asian and International Studies in City University, Hong Kong. During time off from classes, Sadhika is a freelance writer, most recently having taken on projects for edtech startup Snapask. She has previously worked as a Research Intern for Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), Hong Kong.
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