The planet’s biggest polluter is investing big in renewable energy and forest regeneration, but without changing its economic and political models.

Renewable Energy

“In order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord,” Donald Trump announced on June 1 from the White House Rose Garden. The axe fell quickly in Beijing.

“China will replace the US from now on,” proclaimed the Chinese economic journal Caixin. “The world’s biggest polluter is now the country everyone looks to to combat climate change!” wrote the South China Morning Post, emphasizing that the primary producer and consumer of carbon in the world was about to become the leader of renewable energy. “Beijing is poised to take a leadership role on the issue. In 2016, China invested $90 billion. No other country invested more.”

Credits: Jialiang Gao

By 2020, China will have invested $409 billion in the sector, according to its Energy Department. That would create 13 million jobs and boost non-fossil fuel energies from 12% of its current energy economy to 15%. “We should always question what Chinese leaders say, but their new ecological awareness is real,” says Matthieu Timmerman, author of the book “Pourquoi Pékin nous enfume? La question environnementale en Chine.” (“Why does Beijing smoke us out? The environmental question of China.”)

“They’re finally convinced of the fact that the question of climate affects them, too,” says Hervé Kempf, editor-in-chief of the environmental site Reporterre. “And they understood that it could help improve their image worldwide.”

China already produces 20% of its electricity using renewable energy. Between 2005 and 2015, it alone accounted for more than one-third of global wind energy growth. It’s even overtaken Germany in solar. At the site of a former mine in the Chinese province of Anhui sits the largest floating photovoltaic park in the world: 160,000 solar panels on the surface of a lake that can generate 40 megawatts. The country also has a 20-megawatt floating installation, as well as an immense photovoltaic terrestrial park in the Qinghai province.

This province, located in the northwest corner of the country, has more than 5.6 million people, enough to fill Finland or Denmark. Over the course of an entire week, from June 17-23, it ran solely on renewable energy. In all, 1.1 billion kilowatts per hour (kWh) of electricity was drawn through solar, wind, and hydroelectric—an amount that would’ve used up 535,000 tons of carbon. It’s “the first trial of this kind in the country and a major step in the transformation of energy supply,” said Qinghai Electric Power Corporation General Manager Quan Shenming in a press conference. “It will be of great importance in promoting the use of clean energy in China in a sustainable and effective way.”

At 2015’s Paris climate accords, in an attempt to halt the rise in global temperature at 2°C, Beijing committed to “reach the peak of its carbon emissions by 2030.” In 2017, it stopped construction of 100 thermal power plants, and for the third consecutive year, its carbon consumption lowered. At this rate, Beijing hopes to reach its “climate objectives” earlier than predicted. So much so that it’s also leading an ambitious plan for reforestation.

The Forest City

A study appearing in the journal Nature Climate Change in March 2015 showed that, in the last 12 years, the amount of carbon absorbed by plant life around the world had risen by 4 billion tons. “The increase in vegetation primarily came from a lucky combination of environmental and economic factors and massive tree-planting projects in China,” explains one of its authors, Yi Liu, on the University of New South Wales’ website. “Vegetation increased on the savannas in Australia, Africa and South America as a result of increasing rainfall, while in Russia and former Soviet republics we have seen the regrowth of forests on abandoned farmland. China was the only country to intentionally increase its vegetation with tree planting projects.”

All of this reforestation allows China to lower its CO2 emissions, but also to preserve its national animal, the giant panda, whose diet consists 99% of bamboo. The country has created no less than 67 natural reserves for the black and white mammal, and the government pours huge subsidies into farmers living nearby them. In return, these farmers don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. As a result, the number of wild pandas has risen today to 1,864, a 17% increase from 2003. The panda is no longer classified as “endangered,” now joining those that are “vulnerable.” A small victory for the animal that the World Wildlife Federation chose as its symbol and standard bearer in the fight for biodiversity.

Reforestation also furthers the fight against desertification, a phenomenon linked to climate change that affects 27% of Chinese land. Indeed, as early as 1978, the government imagined that a vast line of plant life would be able to put the brakes on the Gobi Desert’s advance in the north part of the country. It launched the largest tree-planting program in the world. Called the “Great Green Wall,” this barrier is supposed to stretch 2,800 miles by 2074. One ambition that speaks to the size of the stakes: in addition to reducing the amount of farmable land, desertification causes violent sandstorms that regularly reach Beijing. It also contributes to massive floods, as the Yangtze River did in 1998.

In the southern prefecture of Liuzhou, it’s not a green wall but a green city that’s getting started. Or rather a “forest city,” to use the words of its designer, the Italian architecture firm Stefano Boeri Architetti, which develops these kinds of projects all over the world (notably in Milan and Marseille). This city, which is set to be opened in 2020, will only house 30,000 people, but will include around 1 million plants of more than 100 different species, including 40,000 trees. Together, they’ll absorb about 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 57 tons of polluting agents annually, all while breathing out 900 tons of oxygen. The “forest city” will help lower the regional average temperature and improve local air quality, which is already concerning.

The forest-city of Liuzhou
Credits: Stefano Boeri Architetti

The Pinch

Air pollution, which kills 4,000 Chinese citizens each year, is making more and more enemies in the country. Year after year, the number of protests increase. In July 2016, millions marched across several cities for several days. In Qianjiang, they protested against plans for a pesticide factory. In Zhaoqing and in Xiantao, against a trash incineration plan. In Hunan province as well. And each time, local authorities ended the projects—proof that the Chinese government fears an uprising of the middle class, according to Matthieu Timmerman:

“Only the part of the Chinese population that has already profited from economic development and who now has enough income can afford not to pay attention, starting with the air the children are breathing. That’s about 400 million people. On a European scale, that seems like a lot. But that’s not much for China. The rest of the population is still waiting to harvest any fruit of economic development. And for them, it’s out of the question to slow environmental progress. So the government is pinched between these two demands.”

For him, the fact that China has invested big in renewable energy and replanted entire forests does not change the fact that it’s failed to invent an original model for economic development. “It has replicated all the follies of the West, particularly in mode of traveling, in developing residential neighborhoods and business neighborhoods that require you to drive everywhere. And yet the car is a disaster for air quality. In France, we are trying to get rid of it, but there it’s a symbol of wealth and modernity.”

Beijing assaulted by the smog
Credits : ChinaFotoPress

And it’s not just the air in China. “There are also the rivers and the soil,” says Hervé Kempf. “The biggest polluter in the world is the most polluted in the world. And as well as it plays the greenhouse gas reduction game, it still exerts plenty of environmentally destructive pressures on other countries. When it buys African ore, when it imports Siberian and Indonesian forests, when it overfishes the world’s seas…” The editor-in-chief of Reporterre believes that China has too much on its plate at present and that the Scandinavians are better suited to the title of the most environmentally countries in the world. Europe, in any case, remains the most advanced continent.

“Technical and economic visions of environmentalism prevail in China, but ecology is also a question of politics, which implies a democratic and concerted management, and that’s where it fails,” Matthieu Timmerman says. “When Donald Trump decides to withdraw from the Paris accord, the state of California can contest it. When the Chinese government makes a decision that goes against its environmental rhetoric, there’s no real counterbalance to oppose it. If China’s green revolution doesn’t come paired with a democratic one, it won’t be able to brag about being any kind of environmental power.”