By Ava Lipatti
Along with war and poverty, environmental degradation is one of the most pressing problems for humanity in the 21st century. Centuries of capitalist, colonial resource extraction and untethered industrialization have devastated the global South and brought untold destruction on the planet and its inhabitants. But while “world leaders” United States and Western Europe continue to drag their feet, China has emerged as the world leader in environmental justice.
This may come as a surprise, given the popular narrative about extreme pollution in China. To be clear, climate change and fossil fuels present major problems for China. Being the most populous country in the world, China does top the world in carbon emissions. However, this narrative is misleading for a couple of reasons. First, it distorts the facts: when carbon emissions are considered per capita, China beats 40-some countries, including the United States, Canada, India, and Russia. It’s also worth noting that a recent study found that smog may be up to 27 times more toxic in Europe than in China, because smog in Europe is caused primarily by industrial pollution, whereas in China, natural dust is a leading cause. Second, this narrative ignores what China is doing to fight climate change, deforestation, and other injustices against the environment.
China leads the way
In terms of clean energy use, China leads the world in a number of categories. In 2016, China surpassed the United States as the top producer of renewable energy, contributing around 40% of global growth, more than the entire OECD. Already the world leader in wind power usage (outperforming the entire European Union), China plans to double its wind energy capacities by 2020 through government subsidies. China’s wind farms produce more energy than all U.S. nuclear plants. Furthermore, over one third of all nuclear energy plants in construction in 2015 were in China. China also leads the world in solar power production, ranking first worldwide in PV power capacity. In 2016, the country installed more than 34 gigawatts of solar capacity, accounting for nearly half of the total worldwide added capacity, and more than double the U.S.’s contribution. The world’s largest solar farm, Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, is China’s project.
In June 2017, the Qinghai Province, with a population of over 5 million, successfully ran entirely on renewable energy for seven days. This is the first experiment of its kind, demonstrating that a sustainable future is possible.
Of course, there is still much room for improvement: around two thirds of China’s energy is supplied by coal, despite a 30% decrease in coal imports in 2015 and a massive decrease in coal consumption in 2016. However, the Communist Party has pledged commitment to improving the numbers by 2050, with some estimates even suggesting that 86% of China’s energy needs will be met with clean sources by then.
Increased reliance on renewable energy has also come with significant efforts to curtail the negative effects of fossil fuels and other pollutants. Beijing air quality has improved significantly due to Chinese state policy, including replacing coal plants with gas plants, increasing clean energy consumption, and removing 1 million ‘high polluting’ cars from the roads. Further, the Chinese government has pledged to cut pollution from power plants by 60% before the year 2020. According to a 2009 New York Times article, China is building cleaner coal-fired plants at a rate far outpacing the United States:
“Western countries continue to rely heavily on coal-fired power plants built decades ago with outdated, inefficient technology that burn a lot of coal and emit considerable amounts of carbon dioxide. China has begun requiring power companies to retire an older, more polluting power plant for each new one they build.”
In terms of job creation in the clean energy sector, China beats the United States. China offered a total of 3.6 million jobs in renewable energy in 2016, whereas the U.S. had only 777,000, trailing both absolutely and per capita. Prioritizing prosperity and social need over profits gives China the leg up in terms of both providing jobs for workers and creating a more sustainable overall society.
China’s sustainability efforts extend beyond clean energy investment. When it comes to deforestation, yet again China is a world leader. By 2020, China will cover nearly a quarter of its land in forest. China already leads the world in afforestation, boasting 69.3 million hectares of artificial forest. While Flint, Michigan has by now gone three years without clean water, China has just launched 8,000 water clean-up projects, an investment worth $100 billion USD. Only a centralized, planned economy under the control of a workers’ state can produce such astonishing initiatives.
Sustainability for the global South
China’s technological advances in clean energy and other areas will not only benefit China. Through the ambitious Belt and Road initiative, the CPC looks to expand mutually beneficial ties with global South countries through investing in much-needed infrastructure development.
Through infrastructure development such as high-speed railways in Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as other diverse investments, China is leading the way in developing the productive forces of many countries in Africa, as well as Asia and Latin America. Although these countries can only decisively break from the shackles of the global imperialist system through establishing socialism, bilateral ties with China significantly undercut the NATO/WTO stranglehold on the global South. Through mutual trade and infrastructural development, China is playing a major role in laying the basis for decolonization and economic independence for the entire global South.
In this context, Chinese technological advancement in clean energy and other sustainability projects will inevitably benefit the global South insofar as the Belt and Road initiative strengthens ties between China and the rest of the colonized world. For China and its trading partners, infrastructure and prosperity go hand-in-hand with sustainable development, paving the way for a brighter future.
Capitalism or socialism?
The reason that China has been able to take such massive initiatives is because of its socialist system: in China, the economy is rationally planned in order to meet the needs of the people, rather than for profit. Markets and private industry do exist in China, but they play a subordinate role to the state-owned commanding heights of the economy.
In the United States, the economy is dominated by an increasingly small number of corporate conglomerates in pursuit of profits. In this economic system, sustainability and climate justice are in contradiction to the profit-seeking oil industry. As long as the capitalist system exists, profits will be placed ahead of human needs, and state investment in sustainable development will be the exception rather than the rule.
In socialist China, environmental sustainability goes hand-in-hand with poverty eradication and economic growth. Even if an industry is not very profitable, a command economy allows the state to allocate funds for it anyway if said industry is necessary for the overall welfare of society. China is thus able to develop a more sustainable and hospitable society for all of its people.
When we fight for socialism, we are fighting for a sustainable future for our entire planet. While socialist China leads the way, we must struggle for a better society to replace the global imperialist system and its profit-seeking destruction.
Ava Lipatti is a Marxist, anti-imperialist, feminist activist and writer.