China’s rapid economic growth and military modernisation have been made possible by the abundant supply of relatively cheap energy. Since 1949, Beijing’s energy policy was focused chiefly on self-reliance, necessitating an immense infrastructure geared to exploitation of domestic coal-reserves. China produces 4.7 times as much coal as the second-largest producer, the United States, and nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. Coal is cheap, durable, transportable, and its exploitation generates spectacular profits for Chinese business and political elites. Despite the record-breaking investment in renewable energy, it is unlikely Beijing will curb greenhouse gas emissions beyond maintaining breathable air, as such a policy would be contrary to its perceived national interest and imperial ambitions.
In the subtly suggestive language of President Xi Jinping, China is determined to “strive with endless energy toward national rejuvenation”. A systemic approach to curbing emissions from generating ‘endless energy‘ would require shifting to more expensive, less reliable or less portable energy sources. Any increase in the cost of energy translates to increased production costs for the entire economy and thus reduces international competitiveness, driving exports down and imports up, making the nation more indebted and politically weaker.
Despite technological inferiority to USA and EU, China’s status as the world’s biggest exporter puts it in a superbly powerful position. It guarantees global influence by exercising the ‘soft power’ of trade restrictions (or favours) while being shielded from direct military aggression by a combination of nuclear weapons and strong financial ties with its trade partners and client states. For now, China cannot compete any other way, and the strength of its international position is directly linked to its industrial output and trade, which in turn depend on rapidly scaleable and cheap energy supply. This explains why China is the world leader in coal production as well as coal consumption. Its current annual rate of growth in coal consumption is estimated at 3%, and the growth in CO2 emissions stands at 3.5%, according to the Global Carbon Budget Repor , but David Leitch of RenewEconomy estimates that China’s emissions will increase by more than 5% in 2018.
If Beijing does nothing substantial to curb its greenhouse gas emissions then everyone else’s effort will be not only futile but economically self-defeating. For more on this see, Impacts of Greenhouse Gas Regulations on the Industrial Sector.
At the same time, China is the world’s top investor in renewable energy technologies, according to the US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, but “many of the massive showcase renewable projects in the outer provinces are too far away from the energy-hungry cities and industrial centres of the east, and transmission lines and the grid haven’t been upgraded to utilise the power.” Consequently, a lot of renewable energy is simply wasted. According to Greenpeace, in 2015 and 2016 the percentage of wasted energy rose by 50%; the annual loss in 2016 was equivalent to the total amount of solar energy generated in France in 2015. Meanwhile, “satellite imagery reveals that many coal-fired power projects that were halted by the Chinese government have quietly restarted”, according to ChinaDialogue. CoalSwarm’s Global Coal Plant Tracker has identified ongoing development of additional 25% of the existing supply capacity. To put this into perspective, the development is equivalent to the entire present-day coal-power capacity of the US. On top of that, Beijing has spent $15 billion between 2013 and 2016 building coal plants outside of China, according to The Natural Resources Defense Council.
Why would China invest in renewable energy infrastructure that cannot be utilised in the foreseeable future, while simultaneously expanding its coal-power capacity with unparalleled vigour? Is Beijing’s intention to fudge the statistics just to demonstrate a commitment to renewables, or to fake its economic growth by faking the energy consumption, or simply a case of poor management?
Incompetence and fakery aside, there are two main possibilities remaining. Perhaps Beijing believes that anthropogenic climate change is a sophisticated hoax by the West to contain China’s imperial ambitions, in which case Beijing plays the game in the spirit of Sun Tzu, pretending to accept the threat of climate change and positioning itself as the most proactive nation in terms of investment in renewable energy technologies. These technologies are of course exportable and in no way hurt China economically as long as Beijing continues to burn as much coal as it deems necessary to build the empire. Meanwhile, the West is hurting itself economically by drastically reducing consumption of the cheapest energy sources just to keep up the appearances, essentially cornered by its own ploy. On this hypothetical account, it is only a matter of time before all the posturing about climate action will end in a foreign debt default to… China. The result: China wins.
The second possibility is that Beijing accepts industrial greenhouse gas emissions drive climate change, and that climate change is a genuine environmental threat. Would that be enough to compel China to abandon its imperial aspirations for the sake of the Maldives, for example, widely alleged by AGW aficionados to be drowning in rising seas? Unlikely, especially since the Maldives are not drowning as predicted by the leading climate “scientists”. Ironically, the Maldives seem no longer worried about the rising sea levels despite its population of some 450,000 living only three feet above water; instead, they focus on tourism. Saudi Arabia, for one, isn’t worried that the rising sea levels will erase their recent $10 billion investment in the Maldives, while India and China are jostling for influence in the region.
Do Saudi Arabia, China and India know something that we don’t? But let us assume that these foreign powers are simply hedging their bets. Let us further assume the world will get hotter. Would that stop China from taking the best shot at becoming an empire? Again, Unlikely. Beijing will almost certainly push no matter what; adapt as good as it can and take the heat while maintaining the strongest economic position possible. It won’t be the end of the world, or so the Chinese leadership may believe, in which case they are still likely to emerge from the climate crisis as the next global empire. The result: China suffers climate related stress but still wins the prize.
It is worthwhile remembering the words of President Xi Jinping at the opening of the 19th national congress of the Communist party of China: “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests”. More than a political ornament, this sentiment appears a central tenet of Chinese strategy to accomplish economic and military domination, even if at significant cost.
Michael Kowalik is a philosopher working in the field of normativity, metaethics, value theory and economic reasoning