Resurrecting the Degrowth Debate in China

The 2022 IPCC report said that unless we limit our emission so that it does not exceed a 1.5°C rise in temperature, it is very likely that human and nature will face “additional severe risk (..) and some will be irreversible, even if global warming is reduced” (IPCC, 2022). Some say that degrowth – a call to radically implement a structural change to stop the harmful environmental effect of constant economic growth – might be the only reasonable solution to the current environmental crisis.

China becomes both an interesting and important case study when talking about degrowth. It is interesting because it is one of the world’s largest economies – the second richest country ranked by its GDP — that is still currently growing (Silver, 2021). Degrowth proponents might think that this economic boom will lead to environmental breakdown. However, China is now turning greener faster than other countries and showing a fall in CO2 emissions by 1.4% in the first three months of 2022 (Brown, 2021; Myllyvirta, 2022). Talking about China in the context of degrowth is also important. Aside from being one of the biggest economies, its population of 1.4 billion makes it the world’s most populous country. The size of the population can act as a multiplier of the climate effect. It is not strange, then, to say that China is an important actor in climate progress.

China’s promises, sins, and virtues in climate progress

To truly understand the relevance of the degrowth debate in China, it is essential to ask whether China is doing enough to offset its emission to disregard the degrowth concept completely. It is imperative, then, to see China’s promises, sins, and progress in climate justice to form an informed conclusion.

When it comes to climate progress, China has lofty promises. For example, it promises to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, reach peak emission before 2030, boost forest coverage by around 6 million by 2030, and phase down coal use from 2060 (Maizland, 2021). These ambitious promises, coupled with the fact that China is increasing its climate cooperation internationally, led China to be seen as a “leader in climate change” (ibid). These promises are also not only lip service. It is bearing fruit. China is currently a leader in the global energy transition. It has invested an astounding $89 billion in projects based on renewable energy. Its green energy capacity also surpasses other countries (Koschyck, 2015). Currently, China generates more solar power than any other country, and it has installed triple the amount of wind power than any other country (Brown, 2021). China’s domestic policies and commitment to green energy have led to a promising outcome; its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have fallen by 1,4%, and it is greening at a much faster rate than other countries (Brown, 2021; Myllyvirta, 2022). This progress raises the question of whether we should still implement degrowth in China. If it can achieve rapid economic progress and restore the quality of its environment, is degrowth even necessary?

To answer the question of degrowth’s relevance in China, it is vital to weigh China’s “sins” in the climate movement against its progress. One of the biggest backtrackers of China’s climate progress is its reliance on coal. Ever since 1980, China has become the world’s biggest coal user. Currently, half the coal burned in the world belongs to China (Koschyk, 2015). It is building more coal plants domestically despite its commitment to clean energy; China is currently building 60 new coal sites with a lifespan of 40 to 50 years (Brant, 2021). Not only domestically, China is also building new coal plants abroad. This is apparent in their Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to fund the development of economic corridors and infrastructures from China to countries like Southeast Asia, Central, and South Asia, Russia, Europe, Africa, and South America (Widyanto, 2019). Unfortunately, more than 60% of the projects funded through the BRI scheme are based on non-renewable resources. Quoting the analysis of Nicholas Stern (Pandey, 2020), this investment in non-renewable resources is problematic because the recipients of the BRI funding scheme are “at least two times the population of China, with an income per capita half of China’s.” If recipient countries continue with China’s trajectory, they will likely follow China’s emission track. Consequently, the 1.5°C caps will be surpassed in no time. That is why it seems that even though China is greening domestically and internationally, it is only “dumping” its emission to other countries in the long run.

We can also argue that China’s domestic greening is merely temporary. For example, let us look at the drop in emissions during the 2007 financial crisis. Not long after the crisis, emissions suffered another spike due to economic stimulus programs that fuel development based on non-renewable energy (Myllyvirta, 2022). The same would happen now. China’s 1,4% drop in CO2 emission will likely be temporary as China’s government scrambles to rebuild the economy through coal-based initiatives after the economic drop during the pandemic.

Based on the data mentioned above, it is safe to say that China’s current climate action is nowhere near enough to keep us below the 1.5°C temperature cap. This position is supported by the Climate Action Tracker (2022), who said that if China continues on the current domestic pathway, it is very likely that China will push a 2 to 3°C degree warming by the end of the century. Technically speaking, a radical solution like degrowth should be seriously considered by China.

China’s moral obligation to implement degrowth

Though China is seen by many as the leader in climate progress, the debate on degrowth has so far been neglected in China. Though promising, rural degrowth movements like the New Rural Reconstruction Movement (NRRM) continue to be ignored by the mainstream ideology of China (Alcock, 2019). Instead, a single-minded, capitalistic pursuit of the rise of GDP takes center stage, leading China to grow into the budding power it is today. This tunnel vision on economic growth erases moral consideration on why constant growth is unjust and why China should implement degrowth. Here, a two-level analysis of China’s moral obligation to implement degrowth will be elaborated, both at the domestic and international level.

Domestically, economic progress in China has eliminated absolute poverty throughout the region. However, its benefit can only be felt by a selected few in the urban region (Feng & Yang, 2021). By 2015, the top 10% of the population had increased its share of national income from 27% in 1978 to 41%. The bottom 50% had seen a drop in income from 27% to 15% (London School of Economics, 2019). While only a selected few can enjoy the economic benefits, the environmental impact of China’s coal-based economy also spreads to the rural population. Here is where the concept of degrowth becomes essential. Degrowth seeks to create environmental balance while reducing inequality, two aims that normal economic growth has disregarded completely.

A similar pattern can also be seen in the international scene. Quoting Hickel (2021), inherent in the growth process is unjust in that even though excess consumption is done in rich, developed countries, the developing countries are the disproportionately disadvantaged ones. The Global South experiences an appropriation of the atmospheric commons by the developed countries and a destruction of the ecosystem (Hickel, 2021). China has so far reached a high level of economic growth, and in the process, it has severely impacted the environmental balance of the world, especially the Global South. This colonization of the Global South is not only done by China but also the rest of the Global North in its process of economic progress. In this context, it will be unjust for degrowth or other environmental projects to be campaigned when the one who pollutes the earth the most is not doing anything much to change their ways. China has developed enough. It is time for China to implement degrowth so that economically, the Global South can catch up and environmentally, the balance can be restored.

The way forward

Several disclaimers are needed to end this article. First, that it might be wrong to implement a Western idea in China, which is what scholars have been doing not just in the realm of climate justice but also in analyzing China in general. Second, I have not exhausted every reason why degrowth should be supported, nor have I written in detail how degrowth can be implemented in China. This is an important room to explore to continue the degrowth debate in China. However, despite this article’s shortcomings, this article is clear in its stance that degrowth is a crucial action for China to take. Not only is it technically necessary to offset China’s excessive emission, but it is also a morally justifiable action for China to undertake both at the domestic and international levels.

Ni Made Diah Apsari Dewi
Ni Made Diah Apsari Dewi
Ni Made Diah Apsari Dewi is a political science researcher currently pursuing her International Relations undergraduate degree in Gadjah Mada University. She is majoring in Global Politics and Security Studies with special interest in issues of migrants and global injustice.