China’s Capitalism and the Climate

China’s three-decade-old conversion to state capitalism has radically transformed the country. As a result, more than one-half of China’s population now lives in an urban setting versus 26% in 1990, and China has 19 mega cities each with over 10 million population. This vast undertaking has become a way forward for a population of 1.4 billion people (a population larger than the United States, the European Union, and South America combined) to conduct business on the world stage, and the ramifications are felt all across the planet.

As China increasingly adapts to capitalism, conflict arises within its own society as well as beyond its borders. Capitalism’s penchant for conflict goes back as far as the middle of the 19th century when Karl Marx was the first economist in the world to notice how “boom & bust” economic cycles were largely unknown to the world until capitalism hit the scene. These boom & bust cycles may be unique to capitalism, but China, outside of the past three decades, for a thousand years was quiet, pastoral, and self-sufficient, ignoring the outside world. However, nowadays China has come face-to-face with the world like a fire-eating dragon.

China’s Industrial Development

Regarding China’s capitalistic development: “…in the 1980s, ‘The United States of America came to replace the Soviet Union as a role model for China, particularly in the minds of Chinese students.’”1 “…Chinese leaders realized that China could not afford a return to isolation, and that China had too much to learn from the West. On November 28, 1990, at the 10th anniversary of the Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen was hailed as a vanguard in conducting reform and opening up to the outside world.”

The Communist Party of China (CPC) monopolizes political power, but it is no longer driven by ideology. It is driven by pragmatism and money, which fits capitalism’s tenets to a tee, and as sure as practice follows theory, the CPC has celebrated its foray into global capitalism for three decades, and many of the party members of the CPC (maybe CPC should be: Capitalist Party of China) are multimillionaires… capitalism really does work! The richest 70 members of China’s legislature added more to their wealth last year than the combined net worth of all 535 members of the U.S. Congress, the president, his cabinet, and the Supreme Court. But, what are the direct and indirect consequences of Chinese capitalism on societal lifestyles and specifically, on the integrity of the planet?

The answer is: The planet doesn’t know what hit it! But, China’s incursion into the world economy has only just started. “Over the last decade, China’s annual emissions of climate-destabilizing CO2 jumped by 5 billion tons per year, according to Shakeb Afsah, President and CEO of Co2scorecard.org, that’s ‘the highest [increase in annual CO2 output] for a single country in recorded history, representing an average annual emissions increase of almost 12%–more than four times the rate observed [for China] the previous decade’… To put this unprecedented 5 billion ton increase in annual CO2 emissions in context, Mr. Afsah… notes that during the 14-year-long post-war boom period of America, annual output of CO2 jumped by only 2 billion tons from 1959-1973….”2

The Joint Research Center of The European Commission reported, July 2012, that China’s CO2 emissions last year amounted to 29% of the world total, or more than the United States and the European Union combined.

The reasons behind China’s whopping increase in CO2 emissions are: Since 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organization, it has built a manufacturing base ‘second to none’ and has taken control of global supply chains for the world’s most energy-intensive businesses like cement, steel, glass, and chemicals, powered by carbon-intensive coal-burning plants, reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution in England and the United States circa 19th century. Thus, the country’s economic growth skyrockets whilst carbon emissions gush forth by the buckets-full, all of which serves to power an export-driven growth cycle the world has never witnessed before, cushioned and protected by state-control of an undervalued currency, which U.S. politicians say is not fair game. Meanwhile, the Chinese combustible engine of export-driven growth absorbs dollars like a Beverly Hills bar mitzvah.

The net result of China’s contribution to the planet is an economy that expands at double-digit rates year-in-year-out, providing the world economy with basic materials on a K-Mart ‘quick and cheap’ plan, but as a consequence, it is the world’s largest contributor of CO2 emissions.

According to Li Yan, Head of Climate Change Campaign,3 China’s current CO2 emissions are 9 billion tons per year but thankfully, on a per capita basis, China ranks between Italy and France; however, China is opening a new coal power plant every 10 days to meet the power requirements of an urbanization trend that is unprecedented in world history. One hundred million people will move to the cities over the next few years, which correspondingly necessitates much more energy than what is required for peasant villagers. As a result, China’s per capita CO2 emissions are destined to go up!

Surprisingly, the state-run media in China concedes that manmade climate change is proven science, but according to Ms. Yan, its media does not discuss coal, which is the source. Nevertheless, in stark contrast to some of the major media outlets in America, China’s media is supportive that proven science explains manmade climate change. Consequently, the government of China has serious plans under consideration to control and/or reduce CO2 emissions.

China’s (and SE Asia’s) Threatened Water Supply

According to Li Yan, the biggest concern with climate change in Asia is losing the “Water Tower of Asia,” which consists of the glaciers in the Tibetan mountains. Yan believes that within 30-40 years the entire basin area, comprising hundreds of millions of people, will experience a severe water shortage because of the loss of melting glaciers.

The Tibetan plateau and adjoining mountain ranges, including the Himalayas, the Karakoram, Pamir, and the Qilian consist of a vast mountainous terrain known as the Third Pole, containing 100,000 square kilometers of glaciers supplying water to more than one billion people. According to an article in Nature magazine, July 2012, Yao Tandong, a glaciologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Tibetan Research in Beijing: “The majority of the glaciers have been shrinking rapidly across the studied area in the past 30 years.” This analysis is based upon satellite surveys as well field measurements, which are much more accurate than satellite surveys alone.

The status of glaciers in the Tibetan region has been a point of contention ever since a survey by GRACE (The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite) earlier this year indicated that high-altitude glaciers on the whole were only losing ice at 1/10th the rate previously estimated and that the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau were actually growing. But, such is not the case according to Tandong’s studies, for example, a large variation in measurements in different parts of the Third Pole has been discovered where Himalayas’ glaciers are retreating faster than the Karakoram glaciers, depending upon the prevailing wind patterns, whether it’s the westerlies or the influence of the monsoons. Additionally, GRACE cannot distinguish between ice and liquid water. Therefore, by measuring glacier melt lakes, a clearer picture emerges, which methodology shows the glacial lakes have increased by 26% over the past 30 years. John Wahr, University of Colorado says, “This is an important weakness of GRACE for any non-polar glacier study.”

The key take away from these more detailed Third Polar studies is that the Tibetan glaciers are shrinking rapidly, and this becomes evident once the inconsistencies and weaknesses of GRACE are discounted.

Furthermore, according to Cheng Haining, senior engineer at Qinghai Province’s Surveying and Mapping Bureau, seventy percent (70%) of the glaciers in the headwaters of the Lancang River (one of SE Asia’s most important rivers, known as the “Danube of the East”) have disappeared. Another study by the province shows 80 glaciers that provide water for the Yellow River (the “mother river” and the cradle of Chinese civilization) are shrinking, and the Yangtze River (responsible for 20% of China’s economy) is threatened as well. Meteorological stations in the area show temperatures are at 50-year highs. “The melting of the glaciers could lead to a water shortage and even a dry-up of the rivers in the long run, and consequent ecological disasters like wetland retreat and desertification,” according to Xin Yuanhong, an engineer with the Qinghai Hydrography and Geology Study Center.

“In the long run, glaciers are vital lifelines for Asian rivers such as the Indus and the Ganges… Once they vanish, water supplies in those regions will be in peril,” says Qin Dahe, a researcher at Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The 1980s is proving to be a major milestone for climate change, whether it is the North Pole’s ice sheet which is 1/3rd its thickness of 30 years ago, or the Columbia Glacier in Alaska that has retreated 10 miles up the fjord the past 30 years, or the complete loss of one-half of the Andes’ glaciers over the past 30 years, threatening the water supply for over 100 million people; everywhere on a worldwide basis the past 30 years appears to be shaping up as the acceleration phase of global climate change. Coincidentally, it is 30 years now that China has become a major player in a capitalist world.

Further first-hand proof of disappearing Tibetan glaciers is provided by David Breashears, Founder and Project Leader of the Glacier Research Imaging Project (“GRIP”), Melting Glaciers on the Roof of the World, (in a 2007 video.) Breashers climbed to 19.000 feet to photograph the exact spot that George Mallory photographed in 1921, which photo displayed an enormous glacier immediately below Mt. Everest. Breashear’s 2007 photo, when compared to Mallory’s of 86 years ago, shows the glacier has completely disappeared. In Breashears’ words, “The glacier is gone.”

The possibility of disappearing water resources is a multi-faceted problem because not only will people lack adequate supplies of drinking water, and a large part of China’s economy depends upon its rivers, but also 80% of China’s grain harvest comes from irrigated land that depends upon glacial water resources, and 60% of India’s grain harvest is dependent upon irrigated land of glacial water. If the glaciers melt, people will not have water or food, businesses that are dependent upon the rivers will wither, and the countryside will morph into a remake of the film Mad Max, the story of a breakdown of society as people flock together in itinerant groupings in opposition to other tribes, fighting over control of scarce natural resources.

The question is: Where will a billion, or more, people go for food and water? They will be forced to travel the planet in tribal fashion in search of sustenance, a reversion to the Age of Cro-Magnon 40,000-50,000 years ago, hunting with spears as nomads who pierce bones, shells, and teeth to make body ornaments, which interestingly enough is reflected by today’s tattoo-crazed society.

China’s discovery of the benefits of capitalism, enriching the population of hundreds of millions of people by adopting a westernized middle class lifestyle is all for the good, and it is the most remarkable transformation of a society in history. But, unfortunately, it is happening in concert with CO2 emissions at the highest level in millions of years, similar to the Miocene Age when Antarctica’s coastlines turned green with stunted trees and when carbon dioxide levels were around 400 to 600 parts per million (ppm). In 2012, carbon dioxide levels have climbed to 393 ppm, the highest they’ve been in the past several million years.

A Solution- Maybe, Maybe Not

According to Jonathan Watts,4 “China tripled its solar energy generating capacity last year and notched up major increases in wind and hydropower… but officials are still struggling to cap the growth in coal burning, which is the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. The latest evidence of China’s promotion of renewable energy has been welcomed by climate activists, but they warn that the benefits are being wiped out by the surge in coal consumption. After burning an extra 95m tonnes last year, China will soon account for half the coal burned on the planet.”

The solution is obviously not to burn coal, and in this regard, China’s investment in renewables has been remarkable within seven years of the government throwing its weight behind a renewable-energy law.5 China leads the international market in manufacture of solar photovoltaics and wind turbines. The country has the necessary manufacturing infrastructure, trained engineers, and a firm commitment. China has more installed wind power than any other country and has targeted doubling this resource by 2020. Additionally, there are expectations that solar will take off in the near future because the government is instituting policies to encourage this. The new standards force power companies to generate a mandatory proportion of energy from renewables, and there are penalties for failure to comply.

According to Nature magazine, China’s government is solidly behind the renewables industry. Nevertheless, the country continues to pump more coal-generated CO2 emissions at a higher rate than any other country. The government has not turned away from its coal-induced prolific source of national income as reflected by its stupendous reserve of U.S. dollars, which may be the ‘maybe not’ part of a solution to CO2 emissions. In today’s world, money is idolized. The planet is used.

It is only too obvious that the world has the capability to convert from fossil fuel power to 100% renewables, and to a very limited extent this is already happening, but whether it happens soon enough is the question that determines the prospect of either: (1) a difficult itinerant tribal lifestyle or (2) a thriving and comfortable urbanized lifestyle.

But… when is it too late?

  1. “How China Became Capitalist,” Nick Schulz, The American, Nov. 24, 2012 []
  2. Source: Jesse Jenkins, MIT- Production in the Innovation Economy Project, March 2011. []
  3. Greenpeace/Beijing, Dec. 12, 2012, Ecoshock Radio – An Interview []
  4. “China’s Renewables Surge Dampened by Growth in Coal Consumption,” The Guardian, Jan. 12, 2012 []
  5. “China’s Slumping Renewable-Energy Industry Should be Learnt From, Not Dismissed,” Nature magazine, Oct. 3, 2012 []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.