Minqi Li: “The latest study which suggests that about one-third of China’s greenhouse gas emissions has to do with China’s export industries, which, of course, produce the final products consumed in the Western countries.”

Story Transcript

JESSICA WEATHERUP (VOICEOVER): China is one of the world’s leading economies, but its heavy reliance on coal and an ever demanding need for oil is a matter of ecological concern. China has already surpassed the US as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. To discuss how the Chinese have fared in balancing the struggle between economic development and the realities of the climate change crisis, senior editor Paul Jay spoke with Professor Minqi Li on China and climate change.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to the next part of our interview with Professor Minqi Li, where we’re discussing winners and losers in the new China. Welcome, Minqi.


JAY: Let’s talk today about climate change. I think for quite some time development was everything, and the whole issue of the environment and pollution and all of that received sort of as a Western prejudice, and someday China could deal with it, but the issue of feeding people and industrialization was far more important. Is China really taking the climate change crisis seriously? And if so, what are they doing about it?

LI: Basically, since about 2002, 2003, there has been major change in the discourse of China’s government. Instead of talking about just development, just growth, now you have more and more talk about this harmonious society, what they call scientific development, coordinated development, in term of social, economic, and environmental aspects. The government has paid more lip service to environmental issues, including climate change, and there have also been some efforts to lower the energy consumption in relation to the growth of the economic outputs. So, for example, in China’s current, eleventh five-year plan, there is a goal to lower the energy intensity of the economy by 20 percent from 2005 to 2010, although so far China has been failing to accomplish this objective. Now China basically has overtaken the US to become the largest emitter of the greenhouse gases. China probably will also soon overtake the US to become the largest energy consumer. Despite all of this talk, China continues to consume the energy at a very rapid pace, and moreover, China depends on coal for about 70 percent of its overall energy demand. And so, so long as China’s capital accumulation, industrialization, continue to grow very rapidly, and it’s very difficult to hold down the energy consumption.

JAY: What is the issue here? Does China not believe the climate change science? The UN international agencies involved in this, all the scientific organizations, have all been saying that we’re facing apocalyptic-type consequences as a result of the climate change crisis, and China certainly will be affected by this. Do they not believe it?

LI: Among the Chinese businesses, among the Chinese scholars, it’s remarkable that climate skepticism is still to some degree pervasive. And, you know, in the very recent G8 meeting, after very hard negotiation, the eight industrialized countries finally reached the consensus that we are going to reduce the emissions by 50 percent by 2050, although they failed to reach a consensus on the starting year. And then, when the eight industrialized country meet with the so-called Plus-Five, the five major developing countries, then they even failed to mention the 50 percent deduction goal. So it’s not just about whether the scientific evidence is clear; it’s also about—right now, apparently, the elites of the various capitalist states, especially in the semi-periphery, and primarily respond to their own national capitalist objective. The latest study which suggests that about one-third of China’s greenhouse gas emissions has to do with China’s export industries, which is the final products consumed in the Western countries.

JAY: Of course there was quite a lot of news stories about Beijing leading up to the Olympics and how there was half the traffic stopped going into Beijing, and the air did in fact get much clearer and cleaner over the course of the Olympics.

LI: That’s just about the visible pollution.

JAY: Right, visible pollution. And I guess one’s to assume once the Olympics are over business goes back to usual. Given the strength of the Chinese state, one would think they have the power to intervene on the climate change issues, for example restraining coal and pushing clean-coal technology and other sorts of things; but if anything, it seems more of a free-for-all in China than even in the West.

LI: In the previous segments, we talked about China’s rising inequality, rising sort of conflicts. So China has been depending upon this economic growth to deliver some degree of social stability to offset some of the negative effects of rising inequality. And so China probably will need at least 7 or 8 percent growth a year to accomplish some degree of social stability, to make sure there are not serious social breakdown happening. Right now China typically will have more than 10 percent growth a year. And even yet, if you will just have 7 or 8 percent growth a year, how much do you need to accomplish efficiency improvement without hurting the growth?

JAY: I mean, the Chinese argument, I guess, would be that the United States, which has been for decades the most massive consumer and producer of carbon emissions and a consumer of energy, is still doing next to nothing on the climate-change crisis. In fact, in the current election campaign you can barely hear anything more than mild lip service to dealing with climate change. So from China’s point of view, I assume, if they think, “If the United States isn’t doing anything, how on earth can we, still dealing with so much massive poverty?” And then the Americans use China as their excuse. So they can play a bit of a Punch and Judy show here. But in terms of China’s own interests, one would think that they see the necessity for this.

LI: Well, it’s not just China’s interests; it’s the interest of the entire humanity. I think the scientific evidence now is very clear, and it’s probably already too late to avoid some major catastrophes. But the problem is that we have this global capitalist system, which in turn have this intense competition between the capitalist corporations, between the capitalist nation states. So, so long as they are still pursuing their private profit or pursue their national capitalist growth goals or objectives, it’s not easy to get out of this dilemma within the existing framework of the global capitalism. As I said earlier, they have this five-year goal, and so far China has been accomplishing 2 to 3 percent reduction of the energy intensity a year, but against a background of 11 percent growth. And so that means China’s energy consumption continue to grow 8 or 9 percent a year. And being an economist, I know that that means it will double every decade.

JAY: Thank you, Minqi. In the next segment of our interview, let’s discuss China and the global energy crisis. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Professor Minqi Li.

Watch Part Two
China and Climate Change


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Minqi Li

Minqi Li is an associate professor of economics at the University of Utah. He is the author of The Rise of China and The Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (Pluto Press, 2009) and is the editor of Red China Website (a leading Chinese leftist website).  Minqi Li has published many articles in the field of political economy, the Chinese economy, global capitalist crisis, peak oil, and climate change.