China Power

In China, All Climate Politics Are Local

The central government in Beijing appears serious about reducing pollution and greenhouse gases. Will local leaders listen?

Zachary Keck

The agreement struck by Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping over the weekend on climate change is the latest indication that the new Chinese administration is serious about tackling rising pollution and environmental issues.

Under the agreement, China and the U.S. pledge to support an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that aims to phase down the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are greenhouse gases found in commonly used appliances like refrigerators and air conditioning units. The amendment has been jointly proposed by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico for the past four years and, according to Politico, China had previously joined with Brazil and India in being the major opponents to its adoption.

China’s reversal comes less than a month after it was reported that Beijing is seriously considering capping its greenhouse gas emissions by 2016, raising hopes that Beijing will drop its opposition to international efforts to impose limits on the emissions of developing countries. China has also recently begun experimenting with cap-and-trade schemes in seven localities—Shanghai, Guangdong, Tianjin, Hubei, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Chongqing.

The reason for the central government’s renewed vigor in addressing climate change is not hard to discern—the Communist Party undoubtedly fears that social stability will be threatened if the smog problem engulfing many of China’s cities is allowed to continue unabated.

But just because the central government may now be serious about tackling climate change, doesn’t necessarily mean change will be forthcoming. After all, much of the actual environmental policies will need to be implemented at the local level. In a country as large and diverse as China, translating the central government’s will into concrete actions at the local level has been a reoccurring challenge throughout history.

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The Party uses personnel decisions as one of its primary mechanisms for ensuring compliance at the local levels. Specifically, local leaders are promoted up the Party hierarchy based on how well they adhere to the Politburo’s key concerns in their jurisdiction. Two long-standing Party concerns have been maintaining social stability and achieving high economic growth. Thus, local leaders who are able to prevent or effectively deal with social unrest and preside over economic expansions should theoretically (in reality personal connections are important) be promoted faster than their counterparts who perform poorly in these categories.

If the Party leadership continues to give these two indicators priority over reducing greenhouse gas emissions in making promotions, there is unlikely to be much change on climate change policies. In this scenario, local leaders will likely gamble that they should continue focusing on economic growth regardless of environmental impact. Of course, some will lose this gamble if environmental unfriendly initiatives lead to social unrest as they did in Kunming last month.

Still, if local leaders believe more strident climate policies will constrain economic growth, making this gamble is rational as environmental degradation may not be apparent immediately, and thus the social unrest it creates will not materialize until after the leaders have been reassigned elsewhere in the country.

At the same time, more economically-friendly policies could increase local consumption at least over the longer-term, which is a key goal of the current government and likely to factor into personnel decisions. As Michael Pettis argues convincingly in his most recent book, environmental unfriendly policies can reduce current consumption if households calculate their long-term health care costs will be higher because of the impact of living in eco-unfriendly areas. Logically, then, if consumers believe the government is seriously addressing environmental problems they may decide they will need less for future health care costs, and thus are able to increase their current consumption.

This factor, while likely true, is somewhat abstract and hard to measure. Local leaders, many of whom are reassigned fairly frequently, are unlikely to include it in their calculations in making decisions about how seriously to implement green-friendly policies.

Another way that climate change politics in China is local is in the central government determining which areas suffer from the highest emissions. According to a new study, China’s climate policies are increasingly aimed at “outsourcing” high-emissions production away from the populated coastal areas of China and into the sparsely-populated poorer inner-land regions.

In this way, China is merely tweaking the policies of the developed world; as one of the researchers explained to the BBC: “China is treating its own hinterland just the way the whole world treats China, which is outsourcing its dirty pollution to the poorer regions…. These regions have lower efficiency and less valuable technology, so they create more pollution per unit of output than the richer regions.”

This policy will not ultimately lower overall emissions levels— in fact it could heighten them. At the same time, it could very well reduce the risk of pollution creating large-scale social instability for the Party. After all, the CCP has long shown it can handle local, isolated protests in rural areas even in large numbers. It’s far more concerned about mitigating protests in big cities with more people and media coverage.