As the United Nations Conference on Climate Change commences this week in Paris, leaders from the world’s most powerful nations are convening to discuss the increasingly damaging impact of climate change. The highly anticipated summit, known as COP21, comes on the heels of horrific acts of terror in France’s capital only two and a half weeks earlier—a symbol of the uncertain times the global community currently faces, both environmentally and socially.
The COP21 talks began Monday morning in Paris with a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which Obama applauded an existing foundation of climate change cooperation and progress between the two nations. As the U.S. and China clash over major issues—including cyber-security, maritime territorial disputes, and currency manipulation—Obama is, rightly, commending both China and his own country for noteworthy bi-partisanship in their climate change negotiations. Just over a year ago at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference held in Beijing, Obama and Xi, leaders of the world’s two largest economies—and highest emitters of greenhouse gases—announced a groundbreaking joint initiative to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Though most experts proclaim that this APEC commitment falls noticeably short of necessary emissions caps, it certainly serves as a positive step.
As the most powerful countries in the world gather to achieve planet-saving agreements by which to uphold future emissions standards, the discussions in Paris represent a significant moment for the future of humanity. However, while this auspicious gathering has great potential value and symbolic importance, the earth’s immediate environmental circumstances appear dire. In fact, as Presidents Obama and Xi convene with Indian Prime Minister Modi, German Chancellor Merkel, British Prime Minister Cameron, and French President Hollande—among many others—alarmingly hazardous pollution levels overwhelm many of COP21’s developing country participants.
Yet, among all the parties represented, no country faces graver challenges than China. Indeed, while President Xi meets with his counterparts to discuss federal-level standards for pollution reduction, Beijing presently sits under a blanket of smog and has shutdown highways, suspended construction, and initiated a warning to residents to remain indoors.
These hazardous pollution levels—literally sky-high on the very day that President Xi joined the COP21 negotiations—are, nevertheless, hardly surprising. Over the past several years, Chinese pollution has increased to egregiously high levels, plaguing the country and its inhabitants. Despite impressive renewable energy investment and development efforts that portend a brighter future, China remains the number one polluter in the world right now, with 16 of the planet’s 20 most polluted cities. Emission levels are almost twice those of the world’s number two polluter, the U.S.—which is taking decisive steps to reduce carbon emissions from power plants under authority of the August 2015 Clean Power Plan. Pollution in Beijing, the Chinese capital and a major international hub, often is so bad that it can be difficult to see objects down the street—a dangerous backdrop in a fast-moving and symbolically important urban setting.
Yet, no place embodies this menacing issue more than Baoding, China’s most polluted city. Located in Hebei province, air quality index (AQI) readings are regularly off the charts—literally. In fact, pollution levels in Baoding are more than double the maximum AQI reading of 500, with a score of over 1,000—ten times the maximum healthy limit. As Baoding residents watch their president journey to France for the climate summit, they remain idly indoors—desperately avoiding exposure to outside air, which burns their eyes, leaves an acidic taste in their mouths, penetrates their lungs and blood streams, and blinds them to their surroundings. Redolent of a setting from a post-apocalyptic film, Baoding serves as a terrifying symbol of China’s critical environmental conditions. Just as daunting, up to 150 Chinese cities reach pollution levels unhealthy for at-risk groups every day—while tens of cities experience hazardous levels.
With endless smog-polluting headlines about China appearing throughout global media, President Xi enters the 12-day Paris summit in dire need of a major solution. Unfortunately, even China’s climate reports—which often lack full disclosure of figures—are looking quite bleak. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology has recently released a new assessment of the effects of global warming on the Chinese environment, and its subsequent impact on society. The report notes that rising sea levels currently overwhelm China’s economically vibrant coastal zones; turbulent rainfall and melting frozen earth hinder major Chinese infrastructure—such as the Three Gorges Dam; receding glaciers evoke dwindling water resources on China’s southwestern borders.
These evolving natural calamities, compounded by constant reports of hazardous air pollution levels, have garnered China significant critical international attention. The report, written by China’s leading climate experts, goes as far as imploring Beijing to show more flexibility than usual while in Paris this month. In past climate summits—such as Copenhagen 2009—China’s minimal emissions cap commitments, motivated by an unwavering rapid development agenda, has caused frequent conflict with the European Union, the U.S., and other major nations, which demand loftier guarantees from China on greenhouse gas reduction.
For years, the Chinese government has played the economic development card in order to justify its atrocious pollution record. Reminding the international community that China is still a poor and growing country—a sentiment that is true by many measures—the government does not wish to abide by the same emissions cap standards held by developed economies. However, increasingly somber reports of irreversible emissions-induced destruction to the planet are prompting many experts—international and Chinese alike—to demand that China accept thorough adjustments at this stage, before conditions worsen further.
The heightening pressure on China is based on concerns that the country’s pollution reduction efforts are not nearly extensive enough to achieve necessary improvements. China is presently committed to goals of reducing CO2 released for each unit of economic growth. In other words, emissions may continue growing as long as the pace is slower than that of the economy—preventing an absolute ceiling for those emissions. With these vague and largely ineffective guidelines in place, experts are pleading with President Xi and his Chinese government to agree to more substantial reduction standards.
Yet, the greatest irony of these current pollution challenges is that, as Chinese development causes increasingly devastating impact on the country’s environment, burgeoning numbers of Chinese are growing impatient with impossible living conditions. China’s unprecedented economic development has served as the fastest period of growth and increased prosperity in human history. However, this development has also ushered in disheartening environmental conditions, in addition to subsequently increased social dysfunction—prompting many Chinese to escape these surroundings by any means possible. This includes a migration of middle class Chinese populations to parts of the country less impacted by environmental degradation. These destinations—though few and far between in a country plagued by geographically comprehensive pollution issues—include Yunnan and Guangxi, southwestern provinces largely protected from major air pollution by mountain ranges.
As for more affluent Chinese, growing numbers are choosing to leave China altogether. This has led to an influx of upper and upper-middle class Chinese nationals permanently relocating to Western destinations, such as the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia. This migration trend, ironically, has prompted a depressing reality:
The 21st century “Chinese Dream”—promoted on the foundation of increased social prosperity through economic development—is quickly shifting to the opportunity to make just enough money to escape an unlivable China altogether.
Whether this trend continues to endure into the future will surely depend on several developmental considerations. However, no factor will take greater precedence than the condition of China’s environment.
With these frightening truths as context, China now has the opportunity to take a significant stand against further damage to the planet. Yet, this will require the Chinese government—led by their likeable and optimistic leader, Xi Jinping—to accept legitimate and significant climate measures in Paris this week and next. While stabilizing the future health of planet Earth will surely be a massive undertaking—dependent upon the will of a committed global population and their respective governments—agreements on serious emissions caps at COP21 will go a remarkably long way in jumpstarting the process. Indeed, when these negotiations are adjourned later this month, the global community will have a stronger sense of the seriousness with which China approaches improving the human condition—as well as how it views itself as a world leader and role model.
About the author:
David Solomon, a 2013 graduate of Skidmore College, lived in China for three years, where he pursued Mandarin language, history, political, and environmental studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Suzhou University. He has also worked in Chinese economic development and has traveled extensively throughout China and other parts of Asia. David currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he works in U.S.-China trade relations.