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China’s authoritarian rule brings short-term gains but long-term pains to its climate policy
Hao Tan, University of Newcastle
2023-01-04
Region : North East Asia, China,
Issue : Politics,
At the recent 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chinese President Xi Jinping secured a precedent-breaking third leadership term. Xi’s power was further consolidated by stacking the CCP’s leadership team with loyalists. While there have been numerous analyses on what an increasingly authoritarian rule in China means for its people and the world, little has been said on the impacts of this tendency on climate policy.
Xi’s re-election may enhance China’s climate policies over the coming years, given his strong personal commitment to environmental protection and green development. As a Party secretary of Zhejiang Province in the mid-2000s, he coined the phrase ‘clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver’, which has become a national slogan since he assumed the presidency.
In September 2020, Xi stunned the world at a United Nations General Assembly meeting by committing China to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. This pledge was ahead of those of several major economies, including the United States, Japan, India, Brazil and Russia. In September 2021, Xi further pledged to stop funding new overseas coal power projects. China’s moves are widely seen as important contributions to global climate action.
Domestically, Xi has ‘personally planned, deployed, and promoted’ a central environmental inspection system that closely links ecological and environmental performance to disciplinary actions and promotion of local officials. This system has significantly enforced the implementation of climate policies in China.
However, the increasing authoritarian rule may undermine China’s climate actions in the longer run, thanks to its difficulties in handling the multitask problem. The growth of China’s energy consumption — a 3.4-fold increase over the past twenty years — has powered its rapid economic development, but also poses significant challenges to the country’s energy supply. As the world’s largest carbon emitter, China faces tremendous pressures to protect both global and local environments. A shift towards a low-carbon energy system also has considerable impacts on energy workers and low-income energy consumers, highlighting the need to consider energy justice as part of the climate transition process. But many of the activities required to achieve these goals are difficult to define or evaluate with quantitative measures.
China faces significant challenges in managing multiple energy and climate-related goals amid the increasingly authoritarian political context. Failures to balance competing economic, political and environmental demands will become major inhibitors to China’s ability to fulfil its climate commitments. Concerning signs have emerged in recent years.
As local officials increasingly focus on boosting performance indicators emphasised by Xi, other less-visible goals are being compromised. The pursuit of efficacy at all costs in a large-scale coal-to-gas heating transition project in rural Northern China resulted in significant energy injustice, leaving millions of residents in energy poverty and without proper heating over winter. The ‘campaign-style‘ carbon reduction efforts have contributed to power blackouts and disrupted economic activities in many regions.
Major policies might also abruptly shift due to changes in senior CCP leadership — or in Xi’s priorities. Soaring coal prices and a shift in focus towards energy supply security have led to changes in China’s coal policy. While the reduction of coal use was emphasised in previous Five-Year Plans, the target to reduce total coal consumption and coal’s contribution to primary energy consumption was removed in the 14th Five-Year Plan. 220 million tonnes of coal mining capacity were added in 2021 and the government confirmed its goal of adding 300 million tons of new coal production capacity in 2022.
Reversing the historical trend, the level of coal production has risen since 2017, reaching an all-time high of 4.1 billion tons in 2021. Further measures to incentivise higher coal production were announced as part of the government’s economic stimulus in May 2022. These include encouraging large coal mines to resume production, simplifying approval procedures and an additional, special re-lending quota of 100 billion RMB (US$15 billion) approved by the central bank to support coal output and reserve capacity.
Balancing economic, political and environmental priorities has proved a formidable challenge for democratic countries too, as evidenced by Europe’s ongoing energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Obstacles to effective energy and climate policy in a democratic process include uncertainties caused by electoral cycles and failures to take fast and decisive actions. These challenges lead to an overwhelming focus on short-term goals at the cost of addressing longer-term problems, such as climate change.
In contrast, the approach to climate and energy under China’s authoritarian political system may result in policies that sacrifice immediate needs for a grand national strategy. Provincial and local governments may have fewer incentives to perform in other areas of development, such as energy equality.
Collective action to implement climate policy may become more difficult due to a lack of stakeholder participation in decision-making and transparent negotiations. It is widely agreed that an effective and just energy transition requires a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches. China can draw on its own experiences with economic reform, such as the tax-sharing reform in the 1990s which established clearer and more rational divisions of spending responsibilities and taxation authorities between the central and provincial governments.
Overreliance on a top-down approach to drive climate-oriented policies may endanger the longevity of these policies. After all, however long Xi stays in power, he is unlikely to lead China through the realisation of the 2060 net-zero goal.
Hao Tan is Associate Professor at Newcastle Business School, University of Newcastle.
This article originally appeared in East Asia Forum
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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