New Times,
New Thinking.

We need to talk about China

The Asian powerhouse is often used as an excuse for inaction on net zero. Meanwhile, their push to renewables dwarfs “Bidenomics”.

By Jonny Ball

This article was originally written as a weekly newsletter for subscribers to the Green Transition. To subscribe click here.

As wildfires raged this week in the Algarve, and now in Hawaii, the UK naturally got stuck into a very healthy debate about a Greenpeace protest. Specifically, the question was asked, were the campaign group’s members right or wrong to drape the Prime Minister’s house in black tarpaulin in response to the granting of new North Sea oil and gas licences? It’s not for the Green Transition to judge – but the plot thickened when it was revealed that Labour’s candidate for Mid Bedfordshire had protested outside the Home Office with the climate activists while dressed as a zombie in a separate event last year (although this seems to have been little more than a lightly attended photo opportunity on a drizzly Westminster afternoon).

“Eco-zealot”, cried the Daily Mail, while Grant Shapps, the energy secretary – fresh from granting those oil and gas licences – called for Keir Starmer to “ban members of the eco-mob” from Labour’s candidate list. Meanwhile, the political commentator Iain Dale wondered aloud on Good Morning Britain “when we’ll see [Greenpeace] protest outside the Chinese embassy, because China is still building coal-fired power stations and nobody seems to mind”. And, in a similar vein, a Spectator column also bemoaned us talking “all the time” about “the enormously expensive goal of net zero” when we’re “not particularly bothered” about China’s carbon footprint.

But are they right? Are environmentalists targeting their righteous indignation in the wrong place? The UK has, after all, made more progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions than many of its OECD competitors, while China has become the world’s biggest polluter. Indeed, one Tony Blair told the New Statesman last month that “one year’s rise in China’s emissions would outscore the whole of Britain’s emissions for a year” (although he did caveat this by saying this shouldn’t be used as an excuse for inaction).

China emits more carbon dioxide than any other country. But, funnily enough, China also happens to have a lot of people. Its total carbon footprint has grown exponentially in recent years, mostly fired by the dirtiest of fuels (coal), as the country has been transformed from a poor, mainly agrarian economy to the world’s primary exporter of manufactured goods. The Chinese government defends its reliance on coal by claiming that the country is still at an early stage of its development, compared with the advanced economies of the Global North.

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In per capita terms, which seems like a fairer measure of contribution towards climate change, China is still dwarfed by the US and many other countries. When listed in rankings per person, China loses the dubious honour of being World’s Number One Polluter, to become merely the world’s 41st biggest, according to the Worldometer statistics website.

[See also: Is China’s economy turning Japanese?]

And this doesn’t tell the full story. While many in the UK’s climate policy scene swoon over Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act – and the admittedly transformative effect it is projected to have on domestic supply chains and renewable energy generation – China is adding as many renewables to its grid as the rest of the world combined. The Asian powerhouse produces three-quarters of the world’s solar panels and around 60 per cent of the core components of wind turbines. Even as the US forges ahead with unprecedented investment in green energy projects, and Europe tries to mimic this with its Green Deal, the International Energy Agency projects that China will install almost half of new global renewable power capacity between 2022 and 2027.

Last month John Kerry, the US climate envoy, visited Beijing for climate talks. The US wanted to “move beyond the real differences we have,” Kerry said. “Of all the topics in the world, there can’t be differences on this.” The purpose of the Inflation Reduction Act was to create a homegrown industry that was less dependent on China, he added. “It’s creating a new supply chain here in our country… That is the entire purpose… and it’s working.”

Back in Britain, urgent debates rumble on, discussing the relative merits and ethics of protestors walking slowly down a road and throwing material over a mansion in North Yorkshire. Our politicians, meanwhile, fall over themselves to play down their green credentials and disassociate themselves with anyone or anything deemed too eco-zealot-y. Extraction licences are pushed through, pundits blame China, and the Chancellor says we won’t go “toe-to-toe” with the US in a “distortive subsidy race” for renewable energy. Anyone get the feeling we’re being left behind?

[See also: Meet the workers that maintain the UK’s solar power]

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