Climate Change: Is China Really Taking the International Lead On the Environment?


As the world’s largest human migration China’s vacation season concludes this month, the country is expected to get some relief from unusually high levels of urban pollution. Over the last ten years, Chinese cities like Foshan, which saw its population rise from 750,000 to nearly 5 million, have seen their populations grow at a blistering pace. Of the ten fastest growing cities on earth, six are on the Chinese coast. As a result, the country has seen rapid economic growth, but struggled to tackle the side effects of urban transformation.

China’s Southeast Asian neighbors and the entire African continent have watched rural emigration rates expand to unprecedented levels. While China has reaped the economic benefits of urbanization, many obstacles to social welfare have surfaced on a scale not seen during comparable shifts in Europe or the Americas. Thus far, China has struggled to manage these pressures. Air pollution, inadequate housing, barriers to social mobility, and expensive healthcare are just a few of the challenges on President Xi Jinping’s plate. But Beijing’s new leadership has suggested that there may be changes on the horizon, pledging to liberalize the market, tackle corruption, and even implement a carbon tax.

In many ways, urbanization has magnified population pressures that were previously less pronounced. For one, rural emigration is usually accompanied by improving standards of living. And while the average Chinese citizen now has a carbon footprint comparable to that of a European, China’s urban environments are much denser. London, Europe’s densest population center at 5,100 residents per kilometer, pales in comparison to Shenzen, Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin, all of which exceed 10,500 residents per square kilometer. The infrastructure and energy modifications needed to support rapid urban growth on such a massive scale are difficult for many in the West to comprehend.

The problems of population density are compounded by the country’s heavy reliance on coal and growing levels of automobile exhaust. Two months ago, Beijing registered an Air Quality Index (AQI) reading of 755. The index "is based on the recently revised standards of the American Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA), which nominally maxes out at 500," wrote The Economist in January. Pollution is so bad that families are often recommended to keep children inside the house for days on end.

China is also well aware of the domestic consequences of climate change, particularly as it pertains to their massive rural population. Water resources are already deteriorating, largely exacerbated by melting glaciers across the south of China. Drought and hydroelectric inefficiencies are only growing in intensity, with low agricultural yields sure to follow suit. Beyond the humanitarian consequences, these crises are sure to drive urban immigration to new highs, further aggravating attempts to improve and regulate urban infrastructure.

As these foundational problems become more severe and difficult to fix, the central government knows it cannot continue down the fossil fuel road for much longer. Last month, the Ministry of Finance announced that it would introduce a new series of "environmental protection taxes" that would include a tax on carbon. The Chinese economy will suffer impediments to growth as a result, but the consequences of inaction are much graver.

Observers have suggested that a Chinese carbon tax might re-invigorate the debate over similar measures in the U.S. Ironically, the American lawmakers most steadfastly opposed to the implementation of carbon taxation have also been the most fervent critics of China’s government. The notion that China will sacrifice economic growth for environmental health is novel, and one that is likely to reverberate across the developing world. It is a scenario Washington would like to avoid. Meanwhile, with aggressive resource and energy investments throughout Africa, Asia and even Canada, China’s global economic influence is already flourishing.

African countries, in particular, are experiencing severe population pressures and immense poverty. Certainly, they will welcome growing Chinese investments – which now exceed those of the U.S. and carbon reduction initiatives. China’s neighbors, including India and Pakistan, have similar concerns about the repercussions of rapid urbanization. Their energy demands have been enough to sustain Iran’s oil economy despite crippling sanctions from the West. American influence has quietly waned as these new global energy demands strain supply.

If China can successfully implement environmental standards while enhancing economic freedoms, the country may silently gain superpower status, catching the international community off guard. Its begs an interesting question: what if China’s contributions to the international community actually do make them the most capable world superpower? Notwithstanding the concerns of political freedom restrictions and human rights abuses, Chinese leadership is not going anywhere.

While many American politicians have worried about eroding authority over economic and military affairs at the hand of China, Beijing’s soft power influences may in turn offer a superior and more sustainable model for the future of global development. Their Politiburo is showing an ability to act more efficiently and perhaps, more pragmatically, than the West.

Many obstacles remain, of course. Since becoming the world’s largest net importer of oil, China’s military will soon assume responsibility for monitoring international shipping lanes. As a byproduct, the Chinese economy will be increasingly vulnerable to Middle Eastern political instability. At the same time, American international influence is sure to wane as domestic drilling relieves oil imports.

If China is able to handle the job, their international economic strength and leadership may signal a day of reckoning. American lawmakers would do well to follow China’s trail before it is too late.