China is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. Responsible for almost 30% of global emissions, the Chinese population of 1.4 billion (also the world’s largest) emits magnitudes more CO2 than the rest of the top ten emitting countries.
The pollution problem China poses has coincided with their rapid economic growth over the past few decades, an economy upon which much of the world now relies on.
“China’s development and climate change are deeply and increasingly intertwined,” stated the World Bank in their recent climate development report on China, adding that whilst being one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis, China is also “severely affected” by its impacts.
It is abundantly clear that global climate problems cannot be resolved without China’s help, but given the country’s vulnerabilities, it is also in its best interest to do so.
Yet despite the urgency the escalating climate crisis bestows, many climate advocates have raised concerns that China’s aggressive approach to containing Covid-19 with their “Zero-Covid” policy may leave them left behind and left out of the international climate conversation.
Widespread lockdowns, strict travel restrictions, mandatory daily mass-testing, lengthy and expensive quarantine hotel stays, and even deprivation of food and medical treatment in some cases, have all been relentlessly enforced as part of the zero-tolerance policy which has instilled fear, frustration and anger in the confined citizens of many major cities like Shanghai.
— 247ChinaNews (@247ChinaNews) November 30, 2022
As a result, widespread protests broke out across the country earlier this week, marking the first large-scale civil challenge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has faced since the infamous Tiananmen Square student demonstration massacre in 1989.
But as well as unrest, the lockdowns have left China largely isolated from the rest of the world, which some warn may be suppressing more than just contagion or civil liberties in the short term, but also climate prosperity for China and the rest of the world in the long term.
Though Xi Jin Ping’s hardline confinement has proved successful in keeping Covid-related deaths to a minimum in China (only 6,000 reported to date), the strict measures themselves have led to a number of other tragedies associated with the policy’s obstruction of emergency services, civil support and healthcare.
Most recently, a fire in a building in the western Chinese city of Urumqi killed 10 people as firefighters were unable to overcome Covid restrictions in time to rescue them.
This is just one of many incidents that the emotionally exhausted and isolated people of China are angry about. After years (if not decades) of suppression, their anger has once again finally bubbled over into open unrest in the streets.
What a brave girl. A real freedom fighter. Shame on the Chinese lockdown authoritarianism that caused this. But unlike our media, let’s not forget that scenes like this also occurred in many other countries around the world. #ChinaProtests pic.twitter.com/Gx03ID6Ed6
— James Melville (@JamesMelville) November 30, 2022
The recent protests have largely been led in major cities and on college campuses by bold young Chinese citizens in their twenties and thirties, using social media as a means to rapidly rally dissidents and organize mass displays of defiance against strict “Zero-Covid” restrictions.
Disobedience against Beijing’s regime of this kind is punishable by prison sentence or worse under Chinese law, and has been met by the authorities with widespread censorship of pro-protest content on social platforms.
chinese foreign ministry spokesperson zhao lijian censoring himself before the ccp can
w/ incredibly awkward silence when asked about xi’s zero covid policy + protests in china pic.twitter.com/VrGOe3MfDi
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) November 29, 2022
Some have denoted the young protesters’ bravery as a blind product of the government’s burial of all traces of China’s history of brutality against dissent. But whether carried out naively or not, yesterday these young protesters achieved an unprecedented win as Chinese authorities signaled they would ease “Zero-Covid” restrictions in some cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou.
As restrictions are eased, Chinese citizens can breathe a cautious sigh of relief that some semblance of normality may return to their daily lives.
The same cannot be said however for China’s climate scientists, who are gravely concerned that both the CCP’s “Zero-Covid” policy and their short-term political priorities may still press pause on climate action for the foreseeable future.
The policy that’s halting progress
Conferences and international collaboration are the lifeblood of scientific development, because innovation and progress both rely on the interactive brainstorming between peers of the global research community.
This of course extends to all disciplines of science, but in the wake of last month’s COP27, as well as the escalating crises the world now witnesses on a daily basis, one field that requires urgent unified global attention is climate change. Reducing emissions to avoid adding more fossil fuel to the already raging planetary fire is an urgent global priority.
With #COP27 now in the rearview mirror, every milestone on the road ahead matters.
Our Executive Secretary @simonstiell urges countries to keep their eye on 2030 – by then, the world needs to have cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% in order to limit warming to 1.5°C. pic.twitter.com/hTTrCQ8HSK
— UN Climate Change (@UNFCCC) November 24, 2022
But with China’s strict Covid lockdowns making travel difficult and expensive (if not impossible), many of China’s leading climate scientists have been stuck at home for the past three years. The vital climate conversations between experts have been moved from in-person across borders, to online across time zones – scientific breakthrough is possible, but less effective, over Zoom at 2 a.m.
Aside from the travel and quarantine-related costs and complications of China’s Covid policies, the repercussions for Chinese nationals or foreign visitors in breaking them mean that many are also simply too scared to make the trip to connect. It’s no coincidence that the majority of accounts from Chinese climate advocates that criticize the “Zero-Covid” policy are reported anonymously.
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This lack of movement has led to a reduced flow of information and perspective from the international community into China, and vice versa.
A senior researcher at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, and specialist in China’s energy and climate policy, Barbara Finamore, warns that despite its renewable energy efforts, China is “not going to meet its net zero goal without international collaboration and acceleration.”
A poignant manifestation of these concerns is in the relocation of next week’s in-person UN Biodiversity Conference, COP15. The conference was originally supposed to be held in Kunming, China, but due to insurmountable “Zero-Covid” policy hurdles, the UN resorted to hosting the proceedings in Canada instead.
This isn’t the only example of climate action being curbed by strict Chinese lockdowns. Although China had a sizable delegate presence at COP27, many of the nation’s civil climate advocates were unable to make it, citing, despite fundraising, the hefty cost of mandatory quarantine meant “they couldn’t afford it.”
A Chinese climate scientist in Shanghai, who does not wish to be named in fear of state punishment, stated that as a result of “”Zero-Covid”” lockdowns, his frequent overseas lab visits have completely ground to a halt. He also noted that at least five of his collaborative climate initiatives have been either postponed or abandoned, and his crucial climate experiments planned for three years ago have still not even started due to continued restrictions.
He warned that some of these canceled collaborations were with European experts who could have enormously helped Chinese agricultural emissions reduction.
China’s contrasting climate pledges
In contrast to these concerning accounts, China has historically shown commitment to tackling climate issues, pledging to reach carbon-neutral by 2060 and recently reinforcing its climate dedication at the CCP’s five-yearly congress in October, where Xi Jin Ping stated to his party and nation:
“We’ll boost low carbon industries and promote low carbon ways of life. We’ll intensify pollution control. We’ll work to eliminate all serious pollution.”
What’s more, in parallel with the COP27 talks in Sharm-El Sheikh and the G20 talks in Bali – after several years of frosty stalemate – a landmark in-person meeting was held between the American and Chinese Presidents Biden and Xi, where the pair discussed the much-needed revival of US-China climate collaboration.
President Xi Jinping and I have a responsibility to work together on urgent global challenges and to continue the open and honest dialogue we’ve always shared. pic.twitter.com/KWO7YSsyuo
— President Biden (@POTUS) November 14, 2022
This meeting was long-overdue both for the international community who exist at the mercy of the world’s two biggest emitters, and for China, as it’s in their national best interests to be climate collaborative. As the World Bank stated in their 2022 China report, “Climate change poses a significant threat to China’s long-term growth and prosperity.”
Flooding, erosion and storms threaten large portions of China’s low-lying coastal regions, and heat waves, droughts, and the resultant water security severely impede agriculture in the northern and western regions. Both of these areas of China most at risk from the climate crisis account for large proportions of China’s national income, and are therefore lucrative assets worth the CCP’s while in long-term investment and protection.
After recently reigniting friendly collaboration with the US, and reaffirming pledges to curb emissions, China maintains that its climate priorities are intact and pertinent, but many international onlookers and anonymous civil voices disagree.
Climate talks in China have also often been seemingly deprioritised, or possibly even leveraged, during times of geopolitical tension with the west. Earlier this year after US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan, all lines of climate communication were severed, and did not resume again until the meeting of Presidents Biden and Xi last month.
I led a Congressional delegation to Taiwan to make crystal clear that America stands with the people of Taiwan – and all those committed to Democracy and human rights.
Check out this video of our historic visit to Taipei. pic.twitter.com/TON6zB3x4s
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) August 3, 2022
Another symptom of China’s “Zero-Covid” policy is its struggling economy, which will almost certainly play a part in hindering concrete climate action. Though the economic slowdown has resulted in an initial reduction in China’s emissions, like we’ve seen in Europe and many other parts of the world – this grace period does not last long.
Many fear the economic decline will push China to make short-sighted decisions to bolster national income, without much consideration for meeting climate targets. Some of these fears were confirmed recently, when emissions milestones originally set for 2025 were pushed back to 2030.
Under the strain of uncontrollable Covid-19 outbreaks and fragile political pride, some suggest the Chinese government may have lost sight of climate clarity. This could result in China beginning to fade from climate conversations, and in turn paints a bleak future for Chinese people as well as the rest of the world given China’s impact on the environment.
The planet should come before politics or pride
Trust is a thread that’s severely lacking throughout China’s narrative and action on Covid, climate change and beyond. Trust from Chinese citizens that their government will prioritise their safety and prosperity today and tomorrow, but also trust from the international community that China is willing to work together to limit global warming to 1.5°C and ensure a prosperous future for all.
In light of this lack of trust, and in facing the isolation of the present-day “Zero-Covid” crisis, the daily essentials of food, medicine and freedom are of course top priority for many people in China, taking precedence over proactive effort to mitigate the climate crisis fallout of the future.
On the other hand, for the CCP off the back of Xi Jin Ping’s recent reelection, it seems that power, politics and pride may be the privileges that have pushed climate problems to the bottom of China’s list of national priorities.
Perhaps one pride-induced flaw of Xi Jin Ping’s autocratic approach to leadership, is that the prestige he places on his own punitive policies and predominance over the nation, weighs heavily on his perspective, distorts national prerogatives, and jeopardizes the future of not just China, but the entire world.
As his own personal mission objective, the success or failure of the “Zero-Covid” policy seems to be directly linked to how Xi Jin Ping measures his own success as commander of China. But, as the CCP’s energy is redirected from the horizon to the here-and-now, a nation which has historically kept its eyes locked on long-term strategy is now at risk of falling victim to the short-term chaos disrupting its streets.
It is therefore imperative that China not only focuses on taking pole position in the race against climate change, but that it boldly pushes forward, leading the way for the rest of the world in climate mitigation, adaptation and action. Not only for the prosperity of China, but for the prosperous future of the planet.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Person walking in hazmat suit. Featured Photo Credit: Xiangkun ZHU/Unsplash