January 27, 2021
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ColumnsWorld View

China’s leadership grab on climate change

With most news this year eclipsed by the global pandemic, it was easy to miss China’s declaration in September of carbon neutrality by 2060. Although there was little offered to the public in terms of details, China nonetheless has revealed a surprising pivot toward environmental sustainability and away from its singular emphasis on economic growth. The significance of the decision is clear. In 2016, The European Union accounted for 7.8% of global carbon dioxide emissions. In comparison, China accounted for 26%, making it key to any global progress.

The announcement makes me question if China has recognized the severity of the global climate change problem and determined a viable approach to the issue without hampering a booming Chinese economy. It is worth noting that Beijing’s commitment to completely transform its energy sector without any international obligation helps China brand itself as a global team player. Politically, the move is an attempt to deflect recent international criticism of its untenable cultural genocide of Uighurs, an ethnic minority in Northwest China. Since 2017, China has continued the construction of statesponsored “re-education” centers where millions of women and children are detained. Testimonials highlight numerous human rights violations, including religious suppression and forced contraception and sterilization. 

The argument made in the U.S. — particularly by Republicans — claims that anything approaching restrictions for environmental ends laid out in the Green New Deal is economically irrational and will act as a drag on American businesses. As an economic rival to the U.S., China is clearly indicating that reining in carbon dioxide emissions is possible without hurting its economy. It must be said, a country’s economic growth would certainly be greater in the short run by not having to transition to renewable energy, but future costs due to climate change will likely outweigh the cost of shifting to renewable energy now.

The fossil fuel industry has Congress in its pocket. If you look at the subsidies made to the sector, it received an estimated $20 billion, with 20% allocated to coal, the dirtiest of all energy sources. The current U.S. political system is influenced by big money. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case in 2010, U.S. law now recognizes corporations as individuals. This means corporations can provide unrestricted campaign financing to local, state and federal elections. Corporations obviously have deeper pockets than individuals, so policy decisions like subsidies often take corporate interest into account. 

 President-elect Joe Biden has inherited the responsibility of the U.S.’s leadership role on climate change. Currently, the U.S. position has been characterized by the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement under the pretense that it was unfair. President Donald Trump’s decision to ignore the existential threat posed by climate change is an impulsive way to look tough to his base, a common rationale in Trump’s decision-making over the past four years. 

 China’s announcement poses a problem for Biden. Addressing climate change was central to his campaign platform, but, facing the prospect of a Republican-majority Senate and a maximum of eight years in office, Biden will be lucky to pass a few meager green infrastructure projects. The idea of the Senate allowing Biden to make a U.S. commitment to carbon neutrality is laughable.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has consistently blocked environmental regulation. Astonishingly, Grand Old Party leadership even continues to deny climate change while the U.S. accounts for 13% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The idea of subsidizing fossil fuels in 2020 is absolutely detached from reality, but it’s the reality we live in.

The 26th annual United Nations climate conference, known as COP26, has been delayed until November 2021, when nations will discuss strategies to face the impending climate crisis. A likely Republicancontrolled Senate will have to show its colors then. Hopefully they’re green.