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Fuel to the fire— Beijing

Preface

About 1.3 billion people sitting around the mother of all fires: that’s how I see China in the great climate debate.

China, Climate, Mining

8 December 2009

About 1.3 billion people sitting around the mother of all fires: that’s how I see China in the great climate debate. It is a fire that roars more fiercely every year, yet one that China – no matter how much extra fuel it pours on – aims to keep on stoking.

The closed-door politics of China’s rulers can be difficult to penetrate, but when it comes to the climate change summit in Copenhagen their calculus could hardly be simpler. The Communist Party has just one very bald aim – to remain in power – and it knows one bankable way to make it happen: delivering a consistently high rate of economic growth. Moreover, that growth rate must be steep enough to keep millions of aspiring Chinese dazzled by their exciting new world of consumer choice, and thereby distracted from the various inconveniences and injustices of their authoritarian system.

What is fuelling China’s breakneck growth is, essentially, coal and oil. Coal is any climate crusader’s worst nightmare, and the frenzied pace at which Chinese miners are pulling the stuff out of the ground – about 5,000 of them dying every year in the country’s lethal pits – hardly sets China apart as a nation fretting over carbon quotas. In fact, China also imports huge quantities (over 100m tonnes this year), despite having the world’s largest coal reserves. It just can’t dig it up fast enough.

Then there’s the oil. China imported more oil than it produced domestically for the first time in 2008; by 2025 it expects to import three quarters of its oil needs, even though its own production will have risen to meet ballooning demand.

China’s defence policy is an important signpost in terms of reading how Beijing views the trade-off between economic growth and the environment. Demolition blueprints for Taiwan aside, China’s defence strategy is increasingly focused on protecting these lifeblood imports (not just fuel – Beijing also shops overseas for all manner of raw materials for its sprawling industries). The Party’s strategic planners realised a long time ago that the country could be brought to its knees in days if a hostile nation decided to blockade its convoys of oil tankers and coal ships. Hence the single-mindedness with which China is constructing a powerful fleet of nuclear submarines and blue-water warships, including aircraft carriers, while fostering a network of reliable allies all the way from Pakistan to Africa. The Chinese don’t want to invade anybody – they want to safeguard their supply of fossil fuels.

All of which, you could argue, leaves Copenhagen choking on some pretty nasty, sulphurous fumes. China has pledged to reduce its carbon intensity by up to 45 per cent before 2020 by becoming more efficient, and that is something. But Beijing doesn’t expect its carbon emissions to peak until 2030 at the very earliest: a grim forecast, because climate experts insist that total world emissions must peak before 2020 if we’re to manage the crisis.

None of this is late-developing China’s fault. It still only emits 4.5 tonnes of carbon per head – a modest tally compared with the USA’s gross 19 tonnes. The Chinese clearly occupy the moral high ground on this issue, which is fine, until the planet warms by five degrees and the high ground disappears below sea level.

The hope is that the economic arguments will persuade China to do more. Environmental damage costs the country about a tenth of its GDP – a figure that will rise as the desertification of the north continues to spread and rivers in the rice-growing south run dry. All this will soon be too much for Beijing to ignore. Climate chaos in Africa – now a crucial supplier – would be a further drag on China’s affluence. Moreover, it is Chinese technology companies – already leaders in solar power generation – that stand to reap the benefits of the green economy, so long as their government gives them enough backing.

To the Communist Party, however, sustained growth means a pliant population munching peaceably on Kentucky Fried Chicken – and, from that, the furtherance of its own power. And if that means using more fossil fuels to stoke our own pyre, then so be it.

Monocle 24

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