Extinction Rebellion (XR) protestors closed bridges and roads across cities around the world in April 2019 to persuade governments to act on the “climate and ecological emergency”. In London, the centrepiece of their action was a large pink boat, parked across the Oxford Circus traffic junction. The protests provoked derision and contempt from many parts of the British establishment, with former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson advising the protesters they would be better to “sail their pink boat off to China”.
Yet this argument, that European governments are doing enough and accelerated action is a waste of time until countries like China act, is outdated and dangerously complacent. China is rapidly laying the foundations to take a real grip on climate change and environmental conservation. The actions of Beijing cannot be used as an excuse for Britain’s shy retreat from the historic and monumental responsibilities that face us all.
In overall terms China is a headline act, now accounting for 27% of global carbon dioxide emissions, which reached all-time highs in 2018. China continues to invest in coal power stations and despite a recent round of clean and green reframing, fossil-fuel investments along the Belt and Road Initiative are a continuing cause for concern.
Yet, even without allowing for any discussion of history and development, China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions remain less than half those of the US and directly comparable with EU levels. Indeed, the emissions of this economic superpower may have effectively peaked well ahead of international commitments to do so by 2030 and it appears China is set to avoid the most egregious emissions excesses committed by many developed nations.
China is positioning itself as a climate leader and if we have learned anything from the economic transformation conducted from Beijing, it is that infrastructure and technology investments can change things fast. In less than two decades China has revolutionised domestic travel and connected its great cities. The country now has more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined, covering some 30,000 kilometres.
China already dominates the world in the adoption of electric vehicle (EV) technology, with 60% of global EV sales in the fourth-quarter of 2018 and 50% of global public vehicle-charging infrastructure. It is the world leader in renewable energy with a third of the world’s installed wind capacity and a third of solar — roughly equal to the next three largest countries combined (Japan, Germany and the US). The domestic “war against pollution” is paying dividends in improved air quality and health outcomes for urban citizens. Technical officials in cities across the country are working on ambitious building energy efficiency and renewables policies, while actively looking for solutions from leading peer cities across the world.
We can have no doubt this action is underway because of political leadership from the very highest levels of government. In his centrepiece speech at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017, President Xi Jingping promised “…a revolution in energy production and consumption, and [to] build an energy sector that is clean, low-carbon, safe, and efficient.” As the Chinese government moves to a strategic focus on high quality, slower growth, we can see the foundations being laid for the so called “ecological civilisation”.
Yet, just as it would be wrong to portray China as a climate villain, it is equally absurd to consider Beijing as having all the answers to the looming climate crisis. There is, instead, a messy reality to deal with. Contradictions abound in Beijing just as they do in London, Washington D.C. and Brussels.
The truth is that the US, the EU, China, and nations across the world are seldom pledging enough, never mind doing enough, in the face of what science tells us is an unfolding catastrophe.
Rather than pointing the finger, we must act together in a sophisticated, mature and urgent manner. All our futures are on the line. Just as rising waters threaten China’s cities, so the Bank of England recently warned that $20 trillion of assets could be wiped out by climate change. There is also cause to be fearful. “I don’t want your hope,” says the 16-year-old climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, “I want you to panic.”
That is why the XR protesters have had enough. The audacity of hope may have inspired a previous generation, the futility of hope has been its political heir. The message is now as clear as the science. We are in a crisis. We must act.
If we chose to embark on Boris Johnson’s pink boat trip to China, we would see evidence of a Chinese government tooling up with the necessary technologies and skills to take on the challenges of the twenty-first century. History tells us they can turn a colossal ship at a pace. That is what we must all do, together. We cannot allow ill-informed finger pointing to continue our dispiriting inertia, while there is real opportunity to lead in the exchange of ideas, technology and skills. Not only do our futures rely on it, but this is where true leadership lies. The world is in crisis, we must all grasp the historic imperatives wherever we live.
C40 Cities is a network of 94 cities committed to action on climate change. Luke Sherlock’s focus includes supporting Chinese cities to cut emissions from their buildings
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