China’s old dominant discourse was one that prioritised the economy over the environment. Under President Xi Jinping this has shifted to a discourse centred on the concept of an “ecological civilisation”. This means new policy and diplomatic opportunities for China, and a brighter future for the Chinese environment.
China is transitioning from a high to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) economy. The government of China has variously described this transition as a “new economic model”, “new development model”, “new economic strategy”, “the new normal”, “structural change”, “supply-side reform”, “better quality growth” and “ecological civilisation”.
Given this range of mostly opaque descriptors, economists and political scientists increasingly ask: How can China’s lower pollution transition be understood?
To date, economic analysis has dominated understandings. This approach highlights structural shifts in China’s economy such as reduced coal usage and energy intensity of growth, then points to specific policy shifts as providing evidence of these broader shifts.
Our research approach deploys the tools of political science, such as analysing changes in discourse and language, to understand China’s transition.
Through this lens, we find that China’s old dominant discourse, existing from 1978 until 2011, was one about industrial civilisation. This had a core principle of economy over environment, or an obsession with GDP over the relative neglect of ecological impact.
By contrast, after first appearing in 2007, “ecological civilisation” has developed into the primary discourse since 2012. It is a term that encompasses the core principle of harmony between the economy and environment, the balance between economic development and nature conservation.
This discursive transition has altered permissible policies and diplomatic options for China and has determined which climate-related policies and international positions are acceptable and achievable, and which aren’t.
From industrial to ecological civilisation
In the late 1970s—in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution—the Chinese economy was close to collapse. The economic gap between China and developed countries was growing and more than 250 million people in rural China were living in poverty—most on less than a dollar a day.
To solve these problems, the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Third Plenary, held in December 1978, launched a new strategy for rapid economic growth. The strategy sought to gradually expose the Chinese economy to market forces and integrate China with the global economy. President Deng Xiaoping’s (1978-89) famous maxim “to get rich is glorious” appropriately captured China’s new economic direction.
Almost 35 years later, by the end of 2011, China’s had become the world’s second largest economy. The country’s GDP per capita had reached more than US$6,400 or 41,908 yuan and more than 200 million people had been lifted out of poverty.
However, new problems have emerged. China is now the largest source of GHG pollution, 16 cities across China have air quality five times above the World Health Organization’s recommendations for particulate matter, and many waterways and soils are highly polluted.
How can China solve these problems while continuing to develop?
The concept of ecological civilisation first appeared in official government documents at the 17th CPC in October 2007. In his report to the CPC, President Hu Jintao proposed China “build an ecological civilisation and a model of growth and consumption, as well as industries, which are frugal in their use of energy and resources and protect the environment”.
Eco-civilisation under Xi Jinping
The Xi administration (2012– ) has strongly promoted the eco-civilisation discourse and balanced model of growth. Its application is deep and broad and strongly suggests China’s GHG mitigation ambitions will increase over time.
Below are some key examples since Xi’s election as leader:
|2012||18th CPC First Plenary||The term was added to the Party’s constitution and overall development plan: “The Congress stressed that the development of ecological civilisation should be integrated into all aspects and the whole process of economic development, political development, cultural development and social development.”|
|2013||CPC’s Third Plenary||The CPC continued to consolidate this concept in the central government’s development plans, declaring that: “We should accelerate system building to promote ecological progress…conserve resources and protect the ecological environment and promote modernisation featuring harmonious development between Man and Nature.”|
|2014||Premier Li Keqiang’s annual Report on the Work of Government||The report explained that China’s old growth model of “inefficient and blind development” had delivered negative consequences for the urban environment and needed to change. Soon after, China’s first official plan on urbanisation committed to “integrate ecological civilisation into the entire urbanisation processes”. Also in 2014, coal production and consumption in China fell for the first time in 14 years.|
|2015 (June)||China’s submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change||China’s intended Nationally Determined Contributions outlined a suite of policy actions to “promote green and low-carbon development as important components of the ecological civilisation processes”, including increases in wind and solar power generation, lower CO2 emissions per unit of GDP, as well as promoting the use of low pollution vehicles, fuels and transportation systems.|
|2015 (September)||US-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change||The statement asserted: “China is making great efforts to advance ecological civilisation and promote green, low-carbon, climate resilient and sustainable development through accelerating institutional innovation and enhancing policies and actions.” Soon after, Xi announced a nationwide emissions-trading scheme would be up and running by 2017.|
|2015 (November)||President Xi Jinping at Paris Climate Change Conference||The president declared in a speech at the Paris Climate Change Conference: “In the past few decades, China has seen rapid economic growth and significant improvement in people’s lives. However, this has taken a toll on the environment and resources. Having learned the lesson, China is vigorously making ecological endeavours to promote green, circular [reuse and recycling], and low-carbon growth. [China’s suite of low pollution policies] will foster a new pattern of modernisation featuring harmony between man and nature”|
|2016 (January)||China’s National Energy Administration||The agency announced that more than 1,000 existing coal mines would be closed over the coming year. Also, China’s transport ministry announced that “the nation’s transportation industry will thoroughly implement the concept of ecological civilisation”.|
|2016 (March)||China’s 13th Five Year Plan||The plan was described as the “greenest FYP yet”. Premier Li Keqiang’s speech accompanying the plan explained that “we need to protect the environment while pursuing development”.|
Economic and political analysis
While economic analysis argues that Xi’s climate policies and climate diplomacy are the result of changes in the structure of the economy, we argue that they are the result of changes in the discourses that dominate discussion of economic growth.
This is not to argue that economic analysis is wrong—undeniably there are structural changes occurring in China’s economy—rather, that it is incomplete because it neglects other perhaps less visible discursive changes occurring.
Both analytical approaches find that China’s high to lower GHG pollution transition is underway.
Dr Ben Parr is a research fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and works with the domestic branches of The Climate Reality Project.
Professor Don Henry is based in the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute as the Melbourne Enterprise Professor of Environmentalism. Don is an international board member of The Climate Reality Project and is the strategy advisor to its chair, Al Gore, former vice president of the United States.
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