With Trump now in charge in the US, China is moving to take global leadership on environmental issues. We should celebrate, with caution, says Peter Knight
Is red China set to become the new best friend of the greens? Probably. It will be a delicious irony if this comes to pass. While growing up in racist South Africa in the 60s and 70s, China was the bogey man, the nasty communist menace intent on taking our gold and our women. When China started building the railway line from Tanzania to Zambia (TanZam), our alarmed apartheid government conjured up images of millions of menacing yellow men surging over our borders bearing Mao’s little red books and clattering Kalashnikovs. We could fully identify with McCarthyism because we now had our very own (yellowish) reds under our beds.
For greens, fast-growing China rapidly became the big Satan, too. It was not only the wide-scale dumping of toxic wastes, polluting of waterways, diverting of rivers and the creation of debilitating smogs, but also China's fast-industrialising economy that quickly became the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). And possibly worse, its insatiable demand for potions and animal products stoked the market for everything endangered: tiger bones, lion penises and, of course, lots of elephant tusks and rhino horn.
China the only option
But look what’s happening now. The green sinner is fast becoming the saint, thanks to the new orange-tinted president of the United States. Ever the astute tactician, China is wasting no time in filling the power vacuum created by the US retreat from the global stage. As Trump prepares to put America First behind physical walls and protectionist trade tariffs, communist China is promoting the liberal economics of globalisation, as President Xi Jinping did at Davos. It has also declared a ban on ivory trade, to the guarded jubilation of environmental campaigners and the African elephant.
We should rejoice, with caution, because environmental progress needs a global leader and it seems China is our only option. It’s obvious to all that China is choosing the environment because it wants to play a bigger role on the world stage, maybe even the biggest. It will undoubtedly continue to build islands in the South China Sea and assert its national rights to international waters. But that causes unnecessary conflict.
Climate change, on the other hand, is a global issue where China can show world leadership and only upset one country: Trump’s America. And given that Trump has called climate change a Chinese hoax, China’s actions are entirely appropriate.
Declining role for coal
It’s true that fossil fuels will be around for some time yet. And even the dirtiest, like coal, still have a valuable, if temporary, role to play in lifting people from poverty. But neither the most ardent driller nor the most energetic digger would argue that we should turn our backs on clean, renewable energy technologies in favour of a future fuelled entirely by fossils.
Imagine this. As the old crocodiles of the Trump administration retreat to their oil wells and coal mines, China starts to take global command of renewable energy technologies that the rest of the world wants and needs. While it continues to burn coal at an alarming rate, it gets serious about shifting away from its smoggy past. There is already some evidence of this, with China’s January announcement that it is immediately closing coal-fired power stations with equivalent generating capacity of Germany’s coal-powered sector.
Sidelining human rights concerns
China is a technocratic country and mostly meets its technical objectives. Global greens are excited and supportive of China’s positive actions on climate change. This makes Chinese politicians happy because it gets the environmental NGOs on side and helps to sideline the social campaigners, with their niggling concerns about human rights.
Of course the world is a much more complicated place than this imaginary analysis accommodates. But be generous and imagine the trajectory of the ascending China (supported by trumpeting African elephants) exploiting the US retreat and consolidating its position as a world leader. In four (at worst eight) years, if all goes well, America emerges from purdah with a less myopic president and re-joins the global community. This is when we all kowtow to China – now the dominant world power – thanking it for snuffing out the flame of climate change and saving the world.
Not entirely unlikely.
Peter Knight is chairman of The Context Group. www.contextsustainability.com