Ecological Civilisation/ Shengtai Wenming: Towards a New Wave of Resilience Thinking?

Annesha Bhattacharjee, Research Intern, ICS

China’s resilience has been typically observed from a civilizational and culturist perspective, so far. Resilience as an organized indigenous systemic concept has yet to be defined by China from an ecological slant. Being an ancient civilisation, the idea of nature was restricted to romantic and spiritual ideation – in literature, philosophy and art, as found in the recorded history of cultural resilience. Often invested in learning the ways of nature, Tao(天) is the dreaded god that cradles human life.  China jumped from being an agricultural civilisation into the Anthropocene, spearheaded by industrial revolution. After learning the ways to ‘exploit nature’, it went on to narrowly focus on accumulating ‘economic resilience’. China, by then had realized that it had reaped economic well-being at the cost of nature’s ‘collateral’ devastation leading to continuous events of natural calamities which became evident with the passage of time. As a result of this, modern China initiates a vision of constructing a civilization that promotes ‘harmony’ between ‘man’ and ‘nature’.

“弹性”(Tánxìng) or elasticity, “韧性”(Rènxìng) or toughness, or “恢复力”(Huīfù lì) or the power to recover. These are the direct translations for the word ’resilience’ in Chinese which however lacks any conceptual rendition or indigenous scientific framing, unlike the West. The president of China, Xi Jinping, earlier this year in the 2021 Earth Summit, reiterated the vision of Shengtai Wenming or Ecological civilisation. China’s ‘economic resilience’ during the pandemic has led to several scholarly appraisals. In 2017, the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement increased China’s willingness to lead global environmental governance. Being one of the biggest polluters in a climate hostile world and an economic power has put China in a tight space for international scrutiny. Thus, achieving ‘ecological resilience’ might be the next big thing for China to prevent any major risk of regime shift that will hurt the developmental state of the nation.

The conceptualisation of resilience in IR discourse began in the West during the cold war period, emerging in various social and natural science fields. As a consequence of rising environmentalism after industrial revolution. Ecological resilience, got popularly defined at the time by ecologists such as C.S. Holling as, “the time required for an ecosystem to return to an equilibrium or steady-state following a perturbation.” Around 1980s, environmentalists in Soviet Union were the first to propose the term ‘ecological civilization’ which was later incorporated by China’s CPC party. Scholars in the West were conceptualising resilience around the same time. The 1972, the Stockholm conference resulted in political effectiveness against environmental issues in China. China’s evolution of political ecology has been marked since then. Repercussions of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and economic liberalism was already showing signs of enviornmental issues. Leading Hu Jintao’s regime, to push forth the idea of ‘Beautiful China’, specifically stressing on the ecological degradation factor irrespective of significant industrial growth in the sustainable sector. This unfolded the imbalanced socio-ecological systems that was systematically observed after President Zemin’s leadership who maneuvered China into becoming a major global producer and user of clean and renewable energy technology. China, a developing nation has largely been a reform and transformation-based society than just being induced by any strong ideological standards. Especially after the cultural revolution in the post-Mao phase where the focus was to ‘grow’ in the neocolonialist world, curating a strong labor force with little to no tolerance for traditionalism. Hence, the ‘laws of nature’ that were once preserved in traditional Chinese literature were significantly discouraged until then. As a rectification, Xi Jinping initiated the party’s intention to build a ‘community life’ together that allows man and nature to co-exist based on the political foundation of modern socialism with a brush of Chinese characteristics. This had been surfacing reluctantly in the party’s political agenda for the past two decades.

Remembering as David Easton once quoted that ‘scientism’ is good, but the ‘mad craze’ for the same is bad that should be avoided. In the past four decades, China had similar bout of lessons  from impelling an intensive industry built on the foundations of capitalism and growth-based sustainability. Thus, choking the boundaries of the biosphere and opening alternatives for energy-based industries. The Western  resilience system has been ‘empirically’ based on typical rational consciousness and minimal ‘value’ inclusiveness. China recognized it’s failure to balance the ecological sphere along with its economic growth despite taking the best developmental lessons from the West. Coercing them to think about creating a balance between being less ‘yang’ and more ‘yin’ until a state of equilibrium is reached, referring to an anti-waste-based society caused by intense globalisation. The Chinese scholars thus, argues that the situation can be altered by imbibing a socialist modern culture coupled with Chinese characteristics while acknowledging the fall of communism in Soviet Russia. China has been striving to defend its integration of a constantly transforming domestic socio-ecological system against the West-inspired, ‘universalism’. Their value system is predominantly based on Confusion philosophy. It promotes the idea of ‘relational self’ in a way where one does not limit oneself to evolve just as an individual entity but transcend that very evolving-self to the extended  virtues of the community. “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others?”, quoted Confucius. Only then one can achieve a harmonious community life together. Thus, trying to align with the traits of socialism by building communal responsibility along with the self.  This ideation of China’s ‘harmony’ towards establishing a political nation based on eco-socialism certainly signals a new wave of resilience thinking that diverges from the existing trends of liberal environmentalism governmentality.

Internationally many critics are however, skeptical of how China is likely to achieve the ambitious dream of stable economic growth as well as an Eco-civilization, simultaneously. As they argue that continuous growth is detrimental to the ecological crisis.  To which, Xi remains hopeful especially after observing its ‘triumphant’ pandemic situation in comparison to the rest of the world, further encouraging growth over 6%, in the post-pandemic phase. Green development (one of Xi’s 6 developmental policies), is likely to induce a possible alternative including green economic reform that shall be introduced along with several other structural changes to suit the 2050 vision of ‘ecological civilization’. Chinese scholars, meanwhile are speculating about the possible challenges the government will have to tackle with the emergence of the upcoming reforms.  Uncertain outcomes might spark social contestations and disruptions – to which, however, the government prefers authority and not democracy.  Successive transformation in the past couple of decades has been slowed down and stalled due to various challenges of such kind. The risks looming around in the post pandemic world will thwart China’s growth in the long term if it does not adapt to the situation and take control while it can. Especially as the industries experience a paradigm shift. Irrespective of Xi’s ability to achieve the ambitious political agenda, it will be refreshing to see how China brings about a new holistic system of green transformation that might stimulate a lot of other developing countries in the future while adhering to the international and domestic standards and stresses.

Re-emerging importance of South Pacific Islands

Ms. Prarthana Basu, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

At the Pacific Islands Forum in September this year, Nauru, a ‘small’ island country, accused China of heavy-handed behaviour in its attempts to ‘buy’ its way through the region. This brings into sharp focus the increasing centrality of the South Pacific region in the tumultuous geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific. The South  Pacific islands have come into prominence owing to two main factors: climate change, and several layers of power tussles, the most significant of which is between China and the US.

Climate change has had a devastating impact on several island countries of the region, including but not limited to flooding and tsunamis, which has also fuelled fears about its future consequences. On the strategic tussle front, China has invested heavily in these islands to counter Taiwan’s growing relationships in the region, such as with Nauru, Continue reading “Re-emerging importance of South Pacific Islands”

National Carbon Market: China’s Response to Climate change

Ms. Shristi Singh, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

For a very long time, China believed that climate change is a myth propagated by western countries to contain the growth of developing countries, especially of China. With time, China has realised that climate change is a reality and has decided to stop adhering to the concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’. In the past few decades, the economic growth of China had been impressive. It is the world’s second largest economy and most likely to supersede the United States (US) in coming years. The pace of China’s economic growth has put its environment under increasing stresses. Historically, it has been reluctant in cutting its emissions off, fearing that it could hinder its economic growth. At present, China is the world’s largest energy consumer and carbon emitter, but there are positive signs that it is shifting its position.

China launched its much awaited ‘National Carbon Market’ on 19 December 2017 as its biggest initiative to combat climate change. The foundation of carbon market was laid down in 2013 when local markets were launched in five cities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chongqing) and two provinces (Hubei and Guangdong) to reduce carbon emission. It included sectors like power, cement, metals, textiles and others. These markets were also included in 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) and current 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20). The motive was to experiment the pilot projects in these polluting cities and provinces before commencing the mechanism nationwide. The countdown began when President Xi Jinping visited his US counterpart President Barack Obama in 2015 and promised to launch national carbon market in 2017. This commitment was then included in China’s pledge to Paris Climate Agreement and is also known as ‘Nationally Determined Contribution’ or NDC to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon Market in China

Carbon market can be defined as a marketplace where carbon emissions can be traded. The government sets limit on carbon emissions to ensure that industries cannot pass the environmental costs to the public. There are many ways of implementing the carbon market and the most popular approach is ‘cap-and-trade’ system where the government sets the cap on the emissions based on factors like ‘type’ of the industry and the ‘ease’ with which companies could feasibly reduce their emissions. If the company successfully beats the government’s target it can sell additional ‘saved’ carbon emissions in the market and earn profit whereas other companies that fails, will buy those saved emissions to reach their target.

Carbon market can be seen as China’s response to pressure at home and abroad to clean up its act and achieve target of clean environment. The domestic public is highly concerned about China’s increasingly deteriorating environmental conditions like rising sea level, soil pollution, deteriorating water quality, urban smog and poor air quality and others. The government has responded to these challenges by introducing ‘green technologies’ such as electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines and other eco-friendly technologies.

It was expected that China will upgrade existing local markets into national emission trading system covering eight high-energy intensive sectors such as power generation, iron and steel, paper-making, chemicals, non-ferrous metals, construction materials, aviation and petrochemicals. Instead, the government chose to cover the emission from power sector only, which emits one-third of China’s total greenhouse gases and makes China’s carbon market – the world’s largest carbon market or Emission Trading System (ETS). China has been the world’s leading investor in renewable energy sources for years but its power sector still depends upon high-carbon sources such as coal. Thus, carbon market starting with the power sector will be helpful in reducing coal burning and thereby boost the growth of clean energy industry.

Under the mechanism, the government will set a limit on total carbon emission and within that limit, polluting power generating industries that fails to reach the target will have to buy ‘carbon credits’ from less-polluting industries. This will impose financial burden on the polluters and will grant rewards to the cleaner entities. This way the renewable energy sector would be able to earn extra revenue from selling carbon credits to those that emit more than their allowed quota. For the first time power plants will undergo a rigorous verification process and there will be a continuous check by the government on accurate measure of emissions coming from them.

Environmental or Political Strategy?

China has vied for the role of a global leader on climate action after the withdrawal of the United States from Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017 under the Trump administration. However, carbon market as an idea is not new to the world, but coming from the world’s largest emitter is startling. China has promised that its carbon dioxide emission will peak by 2030 and the market may not produce a reduction in emissions immediately but in a way has been successful in sending signal to the world about China’s seriousness in dealing with the catastrophic climate change.

China has respected the timeline for announcing its carbon market but is being criticised for drifting from its original plan of covering all the eight broad industries to confining it to the power generation sector. At present, there is no hard cap emission on power sector, which can be pointed as China’s conservative approach to cushion the power sector and economy from sudden carbon shock. It can also be seen as ‘image-building’ process initiated by China to improve its image internationally from biggest emitter to one championing the carbon markets and also among its own people to restore their faith in new project as government’s action in dealing with broad environmental issue.

China’s carbon market would dwarf all the existing markets in the world. No official date has been announced for the actual start of the ETS but if successful, it could incentivize other nations to adopt emission-trading system and take a firmer stand on climate change and if it fails, it will dent China’s image and might impact many climate policies in different parts of the world.

China and the US Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement

Diki Sherpa, Research Assistant, Institute of Chinese Studies

After months of prevarication, United States President Donald Trump on 1 June 2017, pulled his country out of the historic Paris agreement on climate change – despite pressure from world leaders at the G7 summit. The agreement was adopted in 2015 by 195 nations, with 147 ratifying it—including the US, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China. It was an initial bilateral agreement between the US and China that became a template for the Paris agreement.[1] It was built on the idea that by 2050, coal-fired power plants that contribute to half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions would be replaced by renewable energy.[2]

Being a non-binding deal, India pledged to cut its emissions by 30-35 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.[3] India, like other developing countries, is also meant to receive funds in order to switch to clean energy production. However, with America’s withdrawal,all these appear a distant dream. Continue reading “China and the US Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement”