'Rio+20' follow-up conference. Much of it seems to have been spent trying to explain the inadequate implementation of earlier commitments on global warming and environnmental protection in the intervening period. It was larger but also less ambitious than previous summits, establishing a process to agree on the definition of contested terms.
I am not going to discuss the details of the summit in this post. Instead I want to explore the history of China's participation in international environmental summits. It is often heard that China's involvement in these negotiations promotes democracy within China because it makes the central government dependent on (relatively) independent environmental NGOs and civil society groups exposing local officials who violate China's robust body of environmental protection laws.
That is true. However, the Communist Party has also used certain discourses of environmental summitry to expand the reach of the state into the lives of its people. In particular, these summits have often strengthened the technocrats in the CPC vis-a-vis the liberals, by creating the impression that national governments have less agency than they had in the past and thus making the ability to choose between governments seem less relevant to the problems society faces.
But before that, we need to go back to a time before climate change became a permanent item on the international agenda.
In the 1950s, the slogan Ren Ding Sheng Tian was proclaimed throughout China - it means "man must conquer nature" and it embodied Mao's confrontational stance towards the natural world.
Another prominent slogan of the period was Ren Duo, Lilang Da ("with many people, strength is great"), which reflected Mao's view that a large and growing population was a net benefit for the PRC. But many academics in China who feared the environmental consquences of promoting large families. Chief among them was an economist named Ma Yinchu.
In 1957 Ma went public with his 'New Population Theory', which argued that the government should adopt policies to control fertility and reduce the high rates of population growth. Politically, his timing could not have been worse, coming as it did at the start of the Great Leap. Over the next three years he was attacked as a "Malthusian" undermining socialism, before being purged from his post as President of Peking University.
It would be another twenty years until Ma's - and Malthus' - arguments were accepted by the Party.
In 1972 the UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm. It was the first major meeting of governments from around the world to discuss the environmental damage caused by modern economic growth and the need for international solutions.
In the same year, a seminal book was published by a group known as the Club of Rome that received a great deal of attention and publicity because it seemed to capture the spirit of the conference. It was called The Limits to Growth, and it captured headlines by claiming that, on present trends, the world was headed for general and catastrophic environmental collapse. It did this by running twelve different statistical models of industrial society on computers.
The graph below shows the "standard" projection:
As the video below illustrates, the urgency this vision of pending collapse gave to the environmental movement chimed with the themes of the conference, with its emphasis on the need to go beyond national sovereignty and adopt a global system-level perspective.
A year later, in pursuit of better international relations, Premier Zhou oversaw the first National Conference on the Environment in Beijing. As in the international arena, the Beijing conference was followed by a flurry of small leadership groups, follow-up meetings and policy frameworks over the next few years. In his article on the environmental legacies of Mao and Deng, Richard Sanders writes that at this time:
One of the luminaries of aeronautical research who had benefited from state protection and largesse was a scientist named Song Jian. Song was an expert in 'control theory' - controlling the behaviour of dynamic systems, which in his case meant controlling how missiles moved in the sky.
The book had been co-written by engineers and adopted a systems-analysis approach to the problems of sustainability and demography, which saw the world as an interconnected system in need of management and control. It is full of block diagrams of "vital" social variables, like this:
To Song, this was exactly what China needed to solve its socioeconomic problems: more plain, hard scientific facts and less sociology and economics, which always led to arguments and political instability. He had studied cybernetics in the Soviet Union, which was closely related to system dynamics; the great Russian cybernetician A. N. Kolmogorov defined his field as "the study of systems which are capable of receiving, storing and processing information so as to use it for control." Here he is at work:
Song told his colleagues that he was astonished when he first began studying graphs of demographic trends, because they reminded him of the trajectory of a missile. And this was the insight that guided him in designing China's population policy - it was essentially the same as guiding a missile smoothly to its target.
In 1975 Song travelled with a delegation of scientists and mathematicians to Twente University. On arrival there was an administrative error and he was left with a young mathematics professor called Geert Jan Olsder to keep him company. They went to a bar and chatted over beers, and at last Olsder revealed that he had published a paper earlier in the year entitled 'Population Planning: A Distributed Time-Optimal Control Problem.' To Song's delight, the paper tried to mathematically derive a solution to the same problem he had been studying, even using the same metaphor: "Given a certain initial age profile the population must be "steered" as quickly as possible to another, prescribed, final age profile by means of a suitable chosen birth rate."
a fascinating narrative, Song was able to persuade the Party leadership that drastic action had to be taken immediately in the form of state-imposed one-child policy because he was able to ride the tide of "scientism" prevalent in the PRC at that time and he used his credentials to outmanouevre strong opposition from the "humanistic" disciplines:
In early 1980 he reframed it as not just an environmental issue, but an "extremely urgent strategic duty":
As with Mao's Cold War-fuelled dash for modernity, China adopted the one-child policy out of a belief that it confronted an imminent threat to its security - this time emanating from environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. But whilst the CPC in the '50s and '60s had seen the temporal constraints of the Cold War as amenable to change through politics - as it had tried to do by "exporting revolution" - by endorsing all of the Malthusian assumptions in Limits to Growth in the '70s and '80s the Party effected a subtle but hugely significant shift in its ideological position.
A feeling of underachievement still hung over the 'Earth Summit', which led the delegates to try to achieve something bolder. Among the outcomes were the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (which is still the forum for GHG reductions negotiations today), a landmark convention on biodiversity, the 'Rio Declaration' of 27 shared principles and priorities and Agenda 21, a non-binding action plan for implementing "sustainable development." But it lacked quantitative targets and timetables.
2002 Johannesburg Summit
And in each of the follow-up meetings over the last two decades the failure to agree on a division of the costs, and to implement the sharing of "clean" technologies amongst developing and developed countries, has obstructed progress on other fronts. The failure of national governments to implement serious sustainable development initiatives - let alone finding a detailed balance between development, equity and environmental protection they could all agree on - has made negotiations over binding targets for GHG emissions reductions into a proxy war. In 1997 - year of the 'World Summit II' - the General Assembly of the UN declared that: "Much remains to be done to active the means of implementation...in particular in the areas of finance and technology transfer."
These tensions reached a dramatic high point in the closing session of the 2007 Bali Climate Change Conference, where the organisers were blasted by the Chinese delegation and the U.S. representative appeared to make an astonishing u-turn after criticism from developing countries:
Against this backdrop, China's recent environmental record presents us with some stark contrasts. On the one hand, it is a world leader in producing renewable power sources and low-carbon technologies; on the other hand, it is the world's largest aggregate (but not yet per capita) emitter of greenhouse gases with extreme hotspots of air and water pollution and degraded land.
Here is a video of an informative talk on China's environmental strengths and weaknesses by Jonathan Watts, who was until recently the Guardian's environmental correspondent in China and is the author of When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind - or Destroy It. (There are also interesting talks on this subject by Elizabeth Economy and Orville Schell.)
China has set itself ambitious targets to get 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and prior to the 2009 Copenhagen Summit it committed to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 40 to 45% from its 2005 level by 2020. In a recent article, Watts summarised the Chinese government's main environmental achievements:
Below is a graph showing the downwards trend in China's energy intensity or, seen another way, the increase in its energy efficiency:
This would still mean that China's overall GHG emissions will continue rising: they aren't predicted to peak until 2030, by which time they may have doubled - the rate of economic growth is projected to outstrip the rate at which carbon intensity falls. When the U.S. called on China to make a binding commitment to reduce the rate of growth of its emissions, the PRC responds by pointing to its relatively low per capita emissions and the failure of the industrialised nations to come good on existing commitments to fund and share green technology. Many of the voluntary programmes to reduce GHG emissions are due to expire in 2020.
For those of us who believe in anthropogenic climate change, there seems to be one unarguable proposition: China cannot take the same path to prosperity that the West did. In the first Industrial Revolution per capita energy use increased proportionally with the population, but because China is industrialising later, with a larger population, taking the same path would likely cause catastrophic climate change. Similarly, China can't clean up its environment in the same way that Western countries did, by outsourcing its dirty industries, because the world is running out of buck-passing destinations (or, at least, viable and affordable ones).
Indeed, the trend is towards "insourcing" polluting industries to far inland provinces, as illustrated by the map below (carbon monoxide concentrations indicating hotspots of GHG emissions):
So those who see a link between the alienation of man from his environment, and from his fellows, are correct in a sense. I just think it is wrong to see that alienation as a feature of nature rather than as an aspect of a contingent political arrangement. Malthusianism and technocracy will not solve our problems - we ought not to abandon our confidence in technology and innovation just because those principles have been abused in the past.