As China’s economy grows, the environmental problems faced by the country keep pace. Between coal mining, water scarcity, and air pollution, public awareness of environmental issues and desire for a cleaner, healthier world have become more and more amplified. However, the growing middle class is dependent on an expanding economy, one which requires energy to keep the machine running. China has met its energy demand by consuming more fossil fuels, further increasing carbon emissions.
When environmentalists talk about carbon, they are usually referring to how fossil fuel consumption causes climate change. The problem with using “energy” when discussing environmental issues is illustrated by the latest favorite catchphrase for politicians: “energy independence.” It is becoming clear that in an economy-centered world, a truly reliable source of energy is just as good as “independence,” as it strengthens trade relations and effectively binds economic prosperity with energy security.
At Homeshop in Beijing, I co-hosted a discussion with Twist Qu about China’s growing renewable sector in light of their increased coal consumption. He had this to say: “It seems that China is playing both sides. They lead the world in solar panel manufacturing and wind capacity, but also burn more than half of the world’s coal.”
“As we know, energy is needed for economy, so maybe long-term they believe in renewable energy,” he said. “Now they need fossil fuels, and preferably from a secure source like Australia and North America.”
This is where China’s thriving, energy-consuming economy meets Canada’s stable, natural resource-dependent economy.
Stephen Harper was in Beijing this past February, seemingly to secure panda bears for Canadian zoos. With help from his oil delegation, Harper secured two pandas on loan. Apparently, this is great news for the group’s trade aspirations.
In Beijing, Lyn Sun, a social media strategist at ClearWorld Media, a marketing agency for sustainable businesses and NGOs, explains: “Panda diplomacy is a special way for the Chinese government to symbolize good relationship with other countries.”
Since they are not being given to Canada, but on lease for ten years, there is an impression that if certain conditions are fulfilled the pandas could be kept indefinitely. After all, China is at the beginning of their 12th five-year-plan.
With the stalled Keystone XL pipeline that was to export tar sands oil to the United States, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would cross the Rockies to the Pacific coast, appears to be this condition and the true reason why Harper’s delegation went to Beijing. China has already invested over $12 billion CAD in the tar sands. Now they just need this pipeline to actually import the oil directly from Canada.
China’s relationship with Canada has existed for much longer than the recent panda diplomacy. “There has been a Chinese presence in that region of Canada since before confederation, so there is a real connection,” says Raya Yampolsky, community manager at Climate Action in Beijing, a company that trades carbon credits. “It makes perfect sense for China to build upon that stable relationship for their energy needs,” she points out.
In the mid-19th century, the first wave of Chinese immigration arrived in northern British Columbia for a different coveted natural resource: gold.
“The [Northern Gateway] pipeline was very popular on Weibo [Chinese Twitter],” explains Lyn Sun. “China is lacking resources, they import petrol from the Middle East and Africa, and now they see a very good opportunity to find a cheaper price and better security in Canada. The Chinese public supports the pipeline because they want to lower the impact of American influence [on Chinese economic policy], which includes oil in the Middle East.”
Kevin Tu wrote an article for the Carnegie Endowment back in February explaining that the Northern Gateway pipeline is designed to export 525 thousand barrels of crude oil per day, which could be increased to 850 thousand. The Keystone XL pipeline was designed to export 700 thousand barrels per day. “Without Keystone, China will beat the United States to Canada’s oil reserves,” he wrote.
That is not to say that Canada will only build one pipeline and not the other; the country is in an enviable position with the world’s two largest economies in a race to secure its oil. Some worry that environmental concerns are cast aside when dealing with lucrative business. In this case, the main source of Canada’s carbon emissions.
“Greenpeace is not famous in China – people don’t really understand what we’re doing,” says Li Ang, a Greenpeace Campaigner for Climate & Energy. The public has become more aware of the harmful effects that pollution has on health, and the land and water they depend on. Linking this to the larger picture of climate change, however, remains a challenging goal for Greenpeace.
She speaks modestly when comparing Greenpeace with other local NGOs like Friends of Nature and Global Village, who do hands-on community environmental work. “We started our climate energy campaign in 2005.” This coincided with Beijing passing its first renewable energy law in 2006.
Greenpeace’s mission is to effect positive policy change in the central government and to educate the public about climate change. Their main foe is coal, which accounts for over 70 percent of the country’s energy use, and is responsible for China’s status as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
Ang believes that Greenpeace bears witness to how climate change impacts human life. Her examples include: “the glaciers retreating, the drought in northwestern China, and also the typhoons and the flooding in the southern part of China. The people have experienced that the drought is not a normal one, the flood is not; the typhoons are more severe. They can experience the changing themselves.”
“I can see the change in the public regarding environmental issues,” Ang claims. “Before it was not really close to their lives: they focused more on survival, satisfying their life standards. But now people have more resources to live a better life and they care about the environment, their health.”
For Chinese stricken by poverty, caring for health and environment standards is harder, especially in rural China. These individuals suffer the harshest effects of droughts, typhoons and floods, yet lack the information to identify the causes and place their experiences in a global context.
As Li Ang points out, “Energy structure, for the people who are struggling to survive – that is not the same level of discussion.”
“[The Chinese] are suffering because of climate change – no matter urban or rural; especially, the remote areas,” she claims. “We did a report, the first to establish the link between poverty and climate change. You can see that the areas that are weak and fragile because of climate change are where there are lots of poor people living.”
China’s expanding desertification, and more intense droughts, sandstorms, floods and landslides are attributed to the increased burning of fossil fuels, alongside unpredictable seasonal changes in Canada.
“China’s developmental model is not sustainable,” continues Li Ang. “People’s health will be badly affected by this type of energy structure.”
Much like Canada’s, China’s coal is subsidized and the price is incongruent with the market. In their 2008 report entitled The True Cost of Coal, Greenpeace is trying to “indicate that the external cost of burning coal is much higher than the coal price. Which means the pricing system of coal should be reformed to take environmental and climate change impacts into consideration.”
Like the water-intensive tar sands or natural gas fracking, coal use also results in the poisoning of the water supply. This has associated costs that should be accounted for financially in the price of the commodity.
The First Nations of Canada are all too aware of the potential external costs imposed by the Enbridge pipeline, both on the environment and on their way of life. They are vocal and active about their absolute refusal to have oil transported across their lands of pristine Rocky Mountain wilderness and coastal temperate rainforest. They wrote an open letter to China’s president expressing their concerns.
They also presented China with an opportunity to challenge Canada on human rights issues. After all, Canada has in the past criticized China for its treatment of Tibetans.
“I posted the open letter from the Aboriginals on Weibo,” says Lyn Sun of ClearWorld Media. “There is not much interest. People say ‘sorry,’ but it is not an apology.”
Yampolsky of Climate Action agrees, saying “the people who are making those energy decisions – you cannot say that the Chinese public does not care about the First Nations – but these [energy] decisions precede those rights issues for government.”
Both countries seem mentally removed from the impacts of each other’s environmental decisions because of geographical distance.
Ang warns about the world’s fossil fuel addiction. “It is not sustainable, but they want another choice, they want you to answer. And it is not easy for us to answer, for everyone to answer. China has too much demand for energy. If there is a low-carbon development pathway – not just for China but for developed countries – do you have a low-carbon pathway? Maybe not.”
Ang’s warning comes in light of Canada bowing out of Kyoto, something she disapprovingly acknowledges.
When excluding controversial projects such as China’s nuclear plants and massive hydro projects like the Three Gorges Dam, the country’s actual renewable energy production is quite low, accounting for about two percent of its overall energy production. However, renewable energy ambitions are high and are at least progressing.
“China has to have a long term perspective on the environment and their energy policy,” Twist Qu adds. “Today, they face many environmental catastrophes. Everyday you see the coal pollution in the air; this cannot go on. With renewables, they see a solution, but also an economic opportunity if they become the world leader in this industry.”
Where the environmentalist movement in China is slowly beginning to influence policy change, environmentalists believe that Canada’s Conservative government is blatantly ignoring their concerns.
On March 29th, Canada proposed legislation that aims to reduce the maximum amount of time environmental assessments can be reviewed for major projects. If passed, it would be applied retroactively. This could be viewed as an attempt to speed up the process for approving the Northern Gateway project.
The lack of sufficient review time was the exact reason behind Obama’s dismissal of the Keystone XL pipeline.
In contrast, back in September 2011 Greenpeace applauded China’s ban of the commercialization of genetically engineered rice after seven years of campaigning.
There is also interest in doing something about climate change on the provincial level. “They are developing their own carbon trading scheme with their own standards,” Yampolsky states. “They are starting in five pilot cities. But how this will affect the international carbon trading scheme remains to be seen.”
Greenpeace is optimistic, as if the worse is behind them. Ang exclaims, “We can create and invest and invent a new pathway for the whole world. What China does will contribute to global climate change and energy use. I think we are enjoying this challenge. For us, it is motivation, not pressure.”
The motivation for Canada is simple enough: to become the sturdy backbone of China’s energy needs, and to diversify Canada’s exports of the world’s most demanded resource to include the two largest economies in the world.
Meanwhile, China is investing heavily in renewable energy, and at the same time burning more coal than the rest of the world combined. For the present, they will continue to rely on fossil fuels. Within decades, it is entirely probable that green energy in China will become the country’s main energy source in a bid to save the devastated environment, while at the same time securing energy independence.
Originally published for Dispatches International