How Credible Are China's Environmental Promises?

A commentary by Wang Dan
Email story
Comment on this story
Print story
Smoke rising from a power plant near Hengshui in China's Hebei province.
Smoke rising from a power plant near Hengshui in China's Hebei province.

There may have been an increase in conflicts and disputes between China and the United States in recent years as China grows more powerful, but there are also valuable areas of cooperation related to commitments on climate change.

Both countries issued a joint statement on Nov. 11, 2014. The United States pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 26-28 percent in 2015, levels last seen in 2005.

China, for its part, estimated that its carbon emissions would peak in 2030, and hoped to make that earlier still. It also pledged to boost its use of nonfossil fuels to 20 percent of total energy consumption.

These promises sounded very exciting, and they prompted 146 other countries ... to reach an unprecedented agreement on climate change at the Paris summit at the end of 2015. It was a very positive example of China's involvement in international cooperation and of developments in Sino-U.S. relations.

But were these promises made by China really credible?

Pledges hard to keep

I have no doubt that the Chinese leadership takes environmental issues very seriously. After all, they have to breathe the air too, and they have no reason to deliberately undermine progress.

But when it comes to actually implementing its pledges on the ground, the check is still very much in the mail.

In 2009, the Dalian Fujia PX plant began operation, the brainchild of the State Development and Reform Commission. However, damage caused by seawater led to an emergency situation at the plant, which in turn led to an uprising of local residents in protest.

The Dalian municipal government promised to shut the plant down and demolish it. But what actually happened was that it just started up again a while later. And when another accident occurred at the plant in January 2013, it didn't halt production at all.

A similar thing happened in Kunming in May 2013. Following huge local protests against a planned PX plant in the city, the authorities once more promised to respect the will of the people. But the authorities actually increased the planned production output [by more than tenfold].

The project is now close to completion, and no environmental impact assessment has yet been carried out.

Local governments are quick to promise to delay construction, halt construction, or cancel construction, when faced with a wave of popular anger. But then they just quietly carry on with a product when the wave has passed.

Problems getting worse

China has been focusing on environmental issues for a very long time, and yet the problems seem to get worse and worse.

There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the duplicitous attitudes of local governments.

What credibility do China's promises to the rest of the world have, if Beijing can't even rein in its local governments?

The real problem doesn't lie with the political will in Beijing. Of course they want to deliver on their promises. They just can't.

Economic growth at the local level doesn't just mean jobs; it also contributes to social stability and boosts tax revenues, all of which lines the pockets of local officials.

So local governments will always find a way to subtly resist central government directives about stricter observation of environmental regulations, while nodding along with them in public.

Until these structural problems in China's political system are resolved, there can be no confidence in any of China's environmental commitments.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

Wang Dan, a former leader of the 1989 pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square, lectures on the history of the People's Republic of China at Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University.

Comments (1)


from NH

The CCP promises & claims many things which aren't true. The CCP claims to protect human rights, to respect the rights of Tibetans/Uighurs, to promote rule of law & due process of law, to stop torturing prisoners, to clean up the environment, to punish corrupt officials, to punish officials who violate civil rights, and to respect the sovereignty of other nations. But the CCP never delivers on its promises and its claims have been proven false time & time again.

Jul 08, 2016 10:13 AM





More Listening Options

View Full Site