Beijing Water

Hot green air

In September, President Xi Jinping stunned and dazzled during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly when he pledged carbon emissions in China would peak before 2030 and the country would achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. So what’s really going on here? Probe International’s Patricia Adams unpacks Beijing’s great greenwash.

A radio interview broadcast by Between the Lines, ABC Radio, Australia, on October 8, 2020, with host Tom Switzer.

Listen to the full broadcast here

The transcript follows below:

TOM: Xi Jinping promised China would be carbon neutral by 2060 and the media lapped it up. But is the Chinese Communist Party leadership genuinely committed to slashing emissions to becoming carbon neutral in four decades? [Read more on this]

PAT: Well, the promises that he made recently are no different than those made in 2015 at the Paris Club when the agreement was signed. [Xi] promised at that point that China would peak its emissions by 2030. So nothing new there. As for the 40-year prediction that [China] will be carbon neutral: it’s really meaningless. It’s so far off into the future and, of course, establishing carbon neutrality is virtually impossible. So what’s really going on here?

I think that the Chinese Communist Party is fighting for its survival. It is doing that by trying to create jobs and also by cleaning the air. Their biggest vulnerability with respect to their own population is providing an economy that will give jobs to people so that they won’t rebel and also by cleaning the air. The polluted air became one of the flashpoints in China in the last decade because people were fed up with breathing the polluted air that was killing them. By best estimates, there were probably half a million people who died from polluted air every year in China, and it’s not just air, it’s soil and water as well. So for the Communist Party to survive it’s got to address these two issues. That’s its focus and it knows that the only way to do that is by pursuing and securing fossil fuels, cleaner fossil fuels than they have used in the past and they know that, for example, the renewables are just simply not up to the job, they’re not going to do it. To maintain those fossil fuels they’ve got to develop their own coal supplies, they’ve got to pursue development of further oil in the country, which is very tough because they really only have legacy fields now that they’re trying to extract the last little bit of oil out of. They’ve been unable to increase their gas supplies significantly because, being a centrally planned economy, they don’t have much innovation, they don’t have price signals, they don’t have incentives, the industry’s not really interested. Foreigners have tried to go in there and do fracking and they’ve given up after a while.

TOM: We keep hearing that China has the world’s largest installed renewable energy capacity, wind and solar development, and that China’s reliance on coal in its energy mix, that’s coming down. Doesn’t all that suggest the Chinese government is indeed making big cuts to emissions?

PAT: No. In percentage terms, the amount of energy that’s coming from coal has gone down. In absolute terms, it’s gone up. The amount of energy that’s coming from renewables is still a tiny, tiny fraction of their total energy supplies and their total energy needs. So it’s razzmatazz. They’ve built huge solar panel fields in rural areas, and I should add that there’s a lot of pushback on that. People don’t like having their land taken up. They build windmills. People don’t like living next to windmills. But when you put that all together, it’s a very small percentage of the energy that is needed and demanded by Chinese industry and citizens. Meanwhile, fossil fuels continue to be the main source of energy in the country and that’s why China is working very, very hard to secure supplies. For example, by securing the South China Seas and declaring sovereignty over that.

TOM: So just to clarify here: your line is that the Chinese Communist Party is focused obviously on economic growth and, for the foreseeable future, carbon energy remains the cheapest way of growing their economy and reducing poverty and that’s why China is the world’s largest producer and importer and consumer of coal. That’s your line, right?

PAT: Not just coal. Coal, yes, for sure, but also oil and gas. And they’re developing some more innovative versions of methane gas and converting some of the coal into gas as well. If you put all of those fossil fuels together it still accounts for about 84 percent of their overall energy supplies and it will continue to do so.

TOM: OK. Now let’s go back to Paris late 2015. The defenders of that climate deal, they point to the Green Climate Fund, whereby primarily the rich nations led by the United States and the European Union, is supposed to provide around 100 billion US dollars in aid to developing nations to decarbonize their economies. It’s been five years now since Paris was signed, how has that worked out?

PAT: Not well. They have managed to raise $6.2 billion out of the $100 billion that was supposed to be raised by today and they have 143 projects. There’s a lot of infighting apparently, very poor management, and it’s not surprising. It was very easy for the leaders to go off to Paris and make these grandiose promises. But, when push comes to shove, they just were not coming up with the money. 

TOM: OK. But how does Beijing then meet its emissions targets without these huge subsidies from the OECD nations to support green technologies? 

It’s important to remember that China’s fossil fuels are strategic to the survival of the Communist Party. The renewables are propaganda.

PAT: Well, it doesn’t. It can only expand its renewable energy inside the country, to a certain extent it can export, but even there it’s been stopped by European countries, by the U.S., who are saying that (a) the technology was stolen (the IP was stolen) from Western manufacturers, that in some cases the technology has backdoors that allow for making the electricity system vulnerable in countries in Europe and the U.S. There’s real resistance to importing that technology into the industrialized countries. The Chinese government can promote it through the Belt and Road Initiative and they can finance these projects through rural countries, and they are doing that, but that’s also in trouble. They’re running out of money, for one, in the Belt and Road Initiative, and they’re also getting pushback from countries that they’re expanding into and that they have these projects in because, as many people have heard, they create a debt, the host government has to pay the money back, in some cases the projects don’t work well and so they resist paying the money back. The Chinese government is having to write off some of those loans, so that’s not going very well either. 

TOM: OK. We’ll leave aside your point about the Green Climate Fund in the Paris climate deal. Your critics, I can imagine they might accept that because it sounds like it’s based on fact. The money’s not there, the $100 billion in aid from the United Nations is not there for the Green Climate Fund. But they would say, the critics would say that as China becomes more fully industrialized, its growth will be driven more by technology and service industries. Won’t that mean a less carbon-intensive economy in China?

PAT: It would not. Where they are headed is for an energy mix that’s used in a Western industrialized country, so like Australia or Canada or the U.S. or a European country, and approximately 80% of our energy comes from fossil fuels. So I don’t know why China is suddenly going to become green. They’re welcome to try but I don’t think it’s going to work because renewables, for example, are insecure, they’re intermittent, they’re not a reliable source of power. Until the problem of storage in the form of batteries is solved, and that’s been the Holy Grail for decades now, scientists have been unable to develop batteries that work properly or that store enough energy for long enough. The problem with renewables is you must always have thermal backup, so when the sun’s not shining and the wind is not blowing, you’ve got to have a thermal facility that can turn on quickly if you expect to have a reliable source of power and that is true wherever you have a renewable power system.

TOM: What about this trillion-dollar China Belt and Road Initiative? In recent years, the World Bank, particularly under the leadership of President Obama, has been disinvesting in coal and other fossil fuels. Has the China-led Belt and Road Initiative been doing the same? 

PAT: No! Actually they’ve been doing the opposite and this is something that environmentalists discovered but it was really quite predictable. One of the things the Chinese government has always done is when they come to the end of building a project in China, they will look abroad to keep their workforce going. That happened with the Three Gorges Dam for example. They had a huge workforce that built it and when the project came to an end they had to do something with these workers. What has happened is a very large percentage of the Belt and Road Initiative financing is going to building power plants and they are generally more polluting power plants, coal-fired power plants for the most part throughout many Third World countries, and I believe that there are 300 of these projects that have either been built or are currently under construction in these countries.

TOM: Three-hundred coal-fired power plants?

PAT: Yes. Or fossil fuel.

TOM: Is this mainly around East Asia and Africa?

PAT: Yes. Absolutely. And Latin America. 

TOM: Bear in mind something my colleagues put together, it’s a very popular ABC panel program, it’s a bit like the BBC’s Question Time. The panelists all virtually agree that Beijing’s leadership could be trusted to stick to their zero emissions plan because their argument was that lowering emissions in China is in China’s national interest. But the main point I’m making is that this radical energy transition would hurt Australia’s exports to China. …

PAT:  I think Australia is vulnerable to the policies of the Communist Party of China but not for economic reasons and not for energy reasons but for political reasons. I think if the Australian government puts pressure on other countries and argues that, for example, there should be investigations into the origin of Covid-19, then you’re going to get pushback from the Chinese government and it will punish Australians.

It’s important to remember that China’s fossil fuels are strategic to the survival of the Communist Party. The renewables are propaganda. It’s to paint themselves green. The Chinese Communist Party is always going to need fossil fuels and they’re always going to need Australia’s fossil fuels. The issue becomes: do they want to punish Australia?

Now, this is a very important point because I think what’s happened is we have all realized since Paris that the Chinese government cannot be trusted. They kidnap citizens from Australia, they kidnap citizens from Canada, they incarcerate them without cause, they violate international treaties like the One Country, Two Systems in Hong Kong, and I think that what’s happened since Paris is that people have realized that the Chinese government cannot be trusted. So, for example, the promise that President Xi has made is just hot air. It is just a promise. There’s nothing there and, as I said, fossil fuels will always be important to China and to the Communist Party, as they will to all of our countries.

The renewables are really greenwashing, trying to give themselves a green cloak in this world in which they’ve become a pariah. The world is waking up to the fact that, for example, Chinese citizens, some of their most celebrated scholars and writers have called the Communist Party a vile, murderous regime and these are their words, not mine. I think that we’re all beginning to understand that in a way that we didn’t when the Paris Agreement was signed. So if I was in Australia, as we would advocate in Canada as well, it’s time to decouple. It’s time to reduce our dependence on trade with China as they are not reliable, they are not trustworthy. 

BACKGROUND READING

The Road from Paris: China’s Climate U-Turn

Categories: Beijing Water

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