For the most part, the Chinese economy is fast-growing and filthy – rapidly constructing large numbers of the coal power plants that are doing the most to endanger the Earth’s climate. At the same time, China has also started to build and deploy renewable energy technologies faster than any other country. From what outsiders can tell, China’s secretive leadership do seem to be concerned about climate change and the exhaustible character of fossil fuels.
Of course, China’s system of government has enormous problems. China’s unelected leaders remain in power through force and the suppression of the population. Censorship is endemic, and many parts of the government seem to be corrupt and self-serving. China is also aggressive toward peaceful domestic organizations, as well as Tibet and Taiwan. It is not clear that China’s growth model is sustainable even in terms of politics, economics, and security – much less in terms of the environment. It is not inconceivable that the Chinese Communist Party could lose control of the country in the years or decades ahead, and it is completely unclear what would transpire if that took place.
How, then, should people in the West who are concerned about climate change talk about China? Politicians already worry about the performance of their home countries relative to that of China. For that reason, pointing out how many solar panels and wind turbines China is building could potentially goad them into taking more action. At the same time, there is some reason to be concerned that praising any element of Chinese behaviour is an endorsement of the entire Chinese system of government.
All told, I find that argument fairly unconvincing. We don’t need to accept or reject governments as taken all in all. We can be critical about decisions made even by countries which are our closest allies and which have accountable and effective forms of government. By the same token, we can condemn Chinese censorship and repression at the same time as we praise the efforts they are making to deploy renewable energy and try to tackle the problem of greenhouse gas pollution. Of course, we shouldn’t stop complaining about those coal power plants, either. China is shooting itself in the foot with those, just as we are when we build expensive fossil-fuel-powered facilities. In a couple of decades – when the frightening impacts of climate change are undeniably obvious – these costly facilities will need to be scrapped and replaced with the costly renewable facilities we should have built in the first place.