China and the United States: Reversing Roles on Climate Change?

This article was originally published in Dissent Magazine on May 25, 2017 by Robert Gottlieb and Simon Ng

Donald Trump meets with Chinese president Xi Jinping, April 7 (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

Although it is easy to forget amid the ever-escalating scandals facing Donald Trump, his presidency represents an unparalleled setback for efforts to address environmental issues and combat global climate change. His selection of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator was just the first of a series of actions and pronouncements that identify this administration as the most hostile ever to the environment. This is reflected in Trump’s love of coal and fossil fuels, his dismissal of science and regulatory intervention, and his appointments of pro-industry figures with major conflicts of interest in the Interior, Agriculture, and Energy Departments—not to mention the EPA itself—among other actions. At the same time, China, the second-largest economy in the world and now the largest emitter of carbon emissions, appears to be heading in the other direction. China, its Premier Li Keqiang declares, is ready to wage a “war on pollution” while its president, Xi Jinping, embraces a leading role for China in creating a green economy at a scale far beyond that of any other country, including the United States.

All of this raises the question of whether an environmental role reversal between China and the United States is taking place. The answer, sometimes surprising, is yes and no.

For longtime China-watchers, the idea of an environmental role reversal seems counterintuitive. During the past three decades, China’s embrace of marketization, rapid development, globalization, modernization, and urbanization turned it into an environmental outlier. This reputation had been secured by its horrendous smog episodes, water unfit to drink and even to use for irrigation, huge increases in the number of cars on the road, and other negative environmental impacts. China is also a global leader in the use of pesticides, a major coal producer, consumer, and importer, and, until recently, a reluctant participant in global climate negotiations.

The United States, prior to Trump, had a more uneven reputation. Many of the environmental problems that China is experiencing today were part of the fabric of development since the industrial revolution and the United States’ own shift to an urban and suburban nation. During the 1950s and ‘60s, in cities like Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, activists wore gas masks in their protests against air pollution—like many in China today. Rivers, streams, and groundwater basins became undrinkable water sources, and were unfit for swimming, navigation, and even agricultural use. The pesticide revolution had its origins in the 1940s in the adoption of the California industrial agriculture model. And there are still more cars on the road in the United States than anywhere else in the world.

However, thanks to environmental activism that took off in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, laws and regulations such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act helped change the United States’ environmental reputation. The U.S. record after that has remained decidedly mixed, as some administrations have cut back on environmental efforts (notably during Judge Neil Gorsuch’s mother’s reign at the EPA), and the fossil fuel industry’s grip has remained intractable—such that the United States continues to maintain an outsized role in contributing to problems like global climate change. During Obama’s presidency, as China surpassed the United States in carbon emissions and continued to use more coal and put more cars on the road, political figures, journalists, and even some environmental groups were quick to take the moral high ground, painting China as an unparalleled environmental offender.

Will that perception now begin to change? China, in the last few years, has increased its environmental bragging rights. While there are more cars on the road, there are also more electric cars than anywhere else in the world, thanks in part to quotas for electric cars—as much as 20 percent of cars that can be sold—and even limits to the number of cars that can be sold in a particular region on a lottery basis. However, the desire of China’s rising middle class to purchase new cars remains strong and even obsessive. For example, the Shenzhen government announced in 2014 that any lottery restricting car sales would give advance notice and solicit public feedback. However, six months later, a quota policy was announced limiting annual sales to 100,000 cars (20,000 of them electric) but gave less than an hour before it was to be enforced. The announcement caused an immediate spike in internet messaging and a rush to car dealers (who in turn immediately raised their prices). “It seemed like buying a cabbage rather than a car,” commented one car buyer who had rushed to beat the deadline, amid the flurry of cash changing hands.

Before cars became the kings of the road, bicycles were ubiquitous in China. During the Mao period, from 1949 through the 1970s, China appropriately became known as the “Bicycle Kingdom” as bikes became the preferred and most convenient mode of transport for reorganized work and living units (the danwei). As a result, production of bikes for the domestic market and the use of bikes for daily trips increased dramatically.

By the 1990s, production of bikes for the domestic market peaked, even though overall production, now primarily focused on export markets, continued to grow. Cycling became identified in China as a second-rate mode of transport, and cyclists were increasingly seen as getting in the way of motor traffic. “Improved efficiency of junctions can only be achieved by taking the cyclists out of the equation,” officials in Shanghai argued in 2001, asserting that cycling’s image was “inappropriate to a World City at the forefront of the technological revolution.”

That negative image persisted in China as late as 2009. That year, ahead of the Copenhagen climate conference, China’s U.S. ambassador and lead representative at the climate talks, Yu Qingtai, was quoted as saying that “every Chinese citizen should have the right to all of the modern industrial and transportation options enjoyed by, say, Americans—including the right to own a car.” “We should not be expected to stay forever as a kingdom of bicycles!” Qingtai told NPR’s Robert Dreyfuss.

By 2010, however, the image of a “world city” as amenable to, if not supportive of, developing bicycle infrastructure led to a renewed interest and revival in bike use in China. New bike-share programs were instituted and quickly surpassed other programs around the world, in keeping with China’s speed in deploying other innovations. Bike lanes that had been eliminated began to be restored, and even a vice-minister in the Ministry of Construction, Qiu Baoxing, argued that it was important for China to regain its reputation as the “Kingdom of Bicycles.”

Today, despite the new interest in bike sharing and restoring bike lanes and other bike-related initiatives, bike riding in China has continued to decline while car use has skyrocketed. Domestic bike production remains limited, while the manufacturing sector continues to emphasize exports. China has also flooded the U.S. market with cheaper bikes and even forced Kent International, one of the largest U.S. bike producers, to move some of its manufacturing overseas. By 2015 nearly two-thirds of China’s bike production revenues were from exports, in contrast to the United States, where 99 percent of the bikes sold today are imported, with many of those (upwards of 70 percent) coming from China.

Other transportation-related changes with important environmental consequences have been rapidly introduced in China, most in just the past few years. Subway and rail systems have expanded dramatically in places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and many mid-sized cities (population 4-8 million) are now clamoring for their systems as well. High-speed rail has been built along several of the main urban corridors connecting such cities as Shanghai and Nanjing, while others are in the planning or construction stage, such as a proposed Hong Kong to Guangzhou route. China has now surpassed Japan and Europe as the leader in high-speed rail. It was a 2013 trip on China’s high-speed rail that cemented California Governor Jerry Brown’s passion to build such a system in his state.

China’s focus on rail and major growth of urban transit systems has taken place in some of the most polluted air basins in the country, and not by coincidence. Air pollution has been the most emblematic effect of the country’s ambitious industrial development and urbanization strategies since gradual economic liberalization began in the 1980s. The development of new industries, including for export production; expanded energy development, particularly coal-based; and rapid expansion of car use became the major contributors to the dramatic increase in air pollution. What especially distinguished China was the speed and extent to which these types of developments and their related environmental consequences, including air pollution, occurred.

By 2013, the central government began to respond with a flurry of new policy initiatives. This included the first national Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, commonly known as “the ten measures to improve air quality,” as well as an improved air monitoring system that included real-time data. “The ten measures” suggested “a new mechanism for air pollution control led by government, enforced by companies, driven by market and participated in by the public” and set ambitious targets for air quality improvement. While concerns were clearly related to health and economic concerns (for example, greater incidences of environmental-related disease and reduced productivity), a major factor continued to be image and reputation. Xi Jinping, for example, remarked at an international conference he hosted in Beijing in 2014 that he hoped the air would be clear in Beijing for his hosts since air quality, he argued, was essential for “people’s perception of happiness.”

While there were concerns that air pollution was fueling public discontent, the government also concluded that this discontent did not threaten the stability of the system. Most of the reactions, such as the trade in gas masks or the installation of air filters in homes, were individual, and popular protests were limited. Those individual responses were also largely class-based: wealthier parents would choose the more elite schools with better filtering systems or move to areas where pollution levels were lower or even travel abroad during the most polluted periods.

Even as the central government began to respond, one of its core challenges has been implementation. By 2017, the failure of provincial and local governments to implement hundreds of environmental regulations established at the national level has undermined China’s quest to improve its environmental performance. For polluting industries, the low costs of business as usual have outweighed the penalties for snubbing regulations, a long-standing problem in many other countries as well. Moreover, local and provincial governments were not only wedded to the country’s broad development goals that themselves ran counter to environmental reforms but often had their own stake in the business interests driving local air pollution.

But at the central government level, it is increasingly clear that air pollution and other key environmental issues are beginning to rival economic development and urbanization as priorities. Smog, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang famously stated in one National People’s Congress, represented a “red-light warning against inefficient and blind development.” New penalties and fines have been established to hold local government officials accountable for failing to implement environmental policies. “Ecological civilization” has been elevated as a central policy objective. This latter goal was spelled out in a 2015 document of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and State Council on the Promotion of Ecological Civilization that called for “abandoning economic growth as the only criterion in government performance assessment [and establishing] a lifelong accountability system.”

Where environmental protests in China have become more visible and militant, they have been directed at local industrial enterprises and governments that have been working (and profiting) together. Toxic ingredients in food products, water pollution due to industrial discharges or pesticide runoff, or the use of toxic substances for production in areas that resemble sacrifice zones like Louisiana’s “cancer alley” have generated some of the sharpest protests. Many of these are spontaneous and often organized through social media. However, as with the issue of air pollution, the difficulty of establishing an organized social movement and elevating a local issue into a national campaign remains perhaps the biggest barrier to creating Xi Jinping’s “ecological civilization.”

Back stateside, since November 8, things have been going in virtually the opposite direction. The Trump administration’s proposed 31 percent cut to the EPA budget and elimination of 25 percent of the agency’s workforce is the most striking symbol of that reversal. Cutting grants that allow public water authorities to monitor their tap water is an invitation to future Flint-type disasters, given the amount of lead in older pipes or in school drinking-water fountains that have not been replaced or retrofitted. Meanwhile, executive orders or administrative actions to complete the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines are an opening salvo designed to restore fossil fuel development as the country’s top energy priority. Trump’s fondness for coal, however, is not actually likely to increase domestic coal production, let alone coal-related jobs. Even if coal producers remain most interested in increasing coal exports, including to China, reduced domestic use is likely to still mean an overall decline or at the best a flattening of coal production. And as mining grows ever more automated, coal jobs will continue to decline regardless.

Much of the attention to the Trump-Pruitt environmental counterrevolution has been focused on the damage they could do (or have already begun to do) with regard to climate change. Efforts to dismantle the Clean Power Plan instituted by the Obama Administration in 2015; talk about doing away with vehicle emission reduction targets or enforcement; cutting back research funding, including funding for the satellites that monitor the climate; eliminating climate studies from the EPA web pages; and even smaller but significant steps such as eliminating the Energy Star program to set energy efficiency benchmarks for specific products are just the beginning. Under Scott Pruitt and his boss, no environmental rule or regulation is safe.

In a fascinating interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News in early April, Pruitt sought to deflect criticism around this dramatic rollback of environmental policies by arguing that states will be free to pursue goals that EPA is abandoning, such as restoration of the Great Lakes. But the Trump administration is eager to take away the power that states like California have utilized in the past when taking action on issues like air pollution and vehicle emissions as well as on climate change. In some respects, these tensions between local, regional, and state-level governments and the new administration represent the reverse of China’s situation: progressive cities and states have become important arenas for resistance to the Trump-Pruitt counterrevolution, whereas China’s local and regional governments have been more of a barrier to environmental action—just as some red states had been with the Obama administration’s modest, though important, actions on the environment, particularly in the last two years of Obama’s presidency.

One reason for stronger local and regional and statewide action has been the critical role of U.S. environmental and climate justice movements in changing the nature of the debate and ultimately the agenda for action. Some of those actions, like the protests against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, the drinking water protests in Flint, or some of the local actions against fracking, have gained media attention. In some cases, the protests have even reversed plans for development. Moreover, some of the environmental justice actions, such as the campaigns to develop a zero-emissions goal around ports, trucks, and the transport of goods, have led to key regional and statewide “Clean Air” policies and highlighted opportunities for new technologies that the ports, trucking companies, and governmental entities regulating them had neglected. These have led to important outcomes for both local communities most heavily impacted by pollution from the ports and transport of goods but have also had national and global implications, notably their climate change benefits. Trump’s infrastructure plans, likely to be heavy on privatization schemes and to disregard environmental impacts from places like ports, have been presented as a bipartisan olive branch but are unlikely to go over well in practice. Environmental justice groups are now well equipped not only to oppose such plans themselves but to stiffen the response of state and Congressional allies as well. Following in the footsteps of the January Women’s March, the massive April 22 and April 29 demonstrations that targeted Trump’s anti-science and anti-environmental agenda have displayed the critical role of a newly energized environmental resistance.

Has there been a reversal of roles between China and the United States, then? Even Chris Wallace, in his interview with Scott Pruitt shortly before Xi Jinping’s U.S. visit in April, asked that question, particularly with respect to climate change. Pruitt pushed back on the question, arguing that the US had been successful in reducing carbon emissions—a change, as critics pointed out, due to actions that the Obama administration had taken and that Trump/Pruitt now wanted to reverse. In that sense, surveying the current discourse and policies at the national level), one could say that yes, there is a role reversal in progress. But at the local and state level in the United States or province level in China, the answer is more ambiguous: some states and local areas continue to champion action around the environment and climate change while others (like Pruitt’s own state of Oklahoma) resist or even seek to reverse such action. Meanwhile, implementation in China at the local and regional level is at best uncertain and can sometimes sabotage any change.

Moreover, there is another factor that shouldn’t be underestimated: social movements. As with a range of other issues, environmental resistance has been galvanized in the Trump era. It builds off more than a decade of local action and resistance that are the hallmarks of the environmental and climate justice movements. China has no direct analog. It’s not for lack of discontent; the environment is a major source of public concern. Local protests against particular facilities in China have sometimes succeeded in at least relocating such facilities, but the government remains hostile to any nationally based organized movement. But these issues are not going away. To close the gap between the government’s avowed embrace of environmental goals and its failure to implement them will require sustained pressure from below. And as in the United States, the movement that takes on that mantle will need to challenge the very basis of growth and development that has become the country’s core identity.


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