Climate Arsonist Xi Jinping: A Carbon-Neutral Economy with a 6% Growth Rate?
With California and Oregon on fire as Climate Week opened in New York on September 21 “climate arsonist” Donald Trump took to the virtual floor of the UN General Assembly and slammed China for its environmental record while ignoring his own efforts to save the coal industry and boost fossil fuel consumption – actions that earned him that sobriquet from Joe Biden.
Barely an hour later, in a speech that could not have been more the opposite of Trump’s, China’s president Xi Jinping gave hope to despairing environmentalists with a stunning announcement to the UN:
Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of Nature and go down the beaten path of extracting resources without investing in conservation, pursuing development at the expense of protection, and exploiting resources without restoration. The Paris Agreement on climate change charts the course for the world to transition to green and low-carbon development. It outlines the minimum steps to be taken to protect the Earth, our shared homeland, and all countries must take decisive steps to honor this agreement. China will scale up its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions by adopting more vigorous policies and measures. We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.
Despite its seeming promise, Xi’s pledge raised more questions than it answered: What did he mean by “carbon neutrality”? How can he keep growing China’s emissions until nearly 2030, and then turn his immense coal-fired dreadnaught around on a dime to force emissions down to zero in just 30 years? China’s CO2 emissions are already more than double those of the United States and currently growing by 4-5% per year. If they keep growing at just 4% per year they will be nearly 50% greater by 2030, triple the level of US emissions today — and enough on their own to bring on climate collapse regardless of what other countries do.
Thus in their race to set the world on fire, Donald Trump is a distant second behind climate arsonist Xi Jinping.
Many observers think Xi is well positioned to force through the transition to renewables. Thus historian Adam Tooze writes: “It is precisely because the Communist Party regime is bent on shaping the next century that its leader takes climate change seriously. In the calculus of the regime, Yangtze river floods are, like Hong Kong rights protestors, a threat to its grip on power. The future for Beijing’s authoritarian China Dream looks far more uncertain in a world of runaway global warming.”
What’s more, like many, Tooze thinks that Xi will be able to impose his will because he’s boss of a police state: “No other state, rich or poor, can match the authoritarian capacity of the Chinese regime to repress dissent among the domestic losers of transition.” 
My argument in brief
I contend that regardless of his stated intentions, Xi cannot meet this carbon-neutral goal because the Communist Party’s overriding priority since Mao’s day has been to “catch up and overtake the United States” by turning China into the world’s leading superpower. To this end Xi has no choice but to maximize the growth of the very industries that are driving China’s emissions off the charts, including coal-fired electricity generation, even if this accelerates global warming, dooming China and the planet too.
I claim that there are both technical and political barriers to decarbonizing electricity generation in China. As regards the political barriers, Xi cannot systematically enforce his will against theoretically subordinate officials — including those putative coal-based “losers”—— because he is not an absolute dictator, but rather the primus inter pares in a collective ruling class in which power is widely dispersed such that local officials can and do defy Beijing with impunity.
Furthermore, I contend that Xi himself is disinclined to force through the transition to renewables even if he could, because this would disrupt and undermine his higher priorities.
Let’s take a closer look.
I. The “hard-to-abate” industries
Start with the fossil fuel-based industries that resist decarbonization and account for about 40% of global greenhouse emissions and most of China’s emissions.
Xi’s first problem is that China is home to the world’s largest concentration of carbon-intensive “hard-to-abate” industries: steel, cement, aluminum, and others. Thermal electricity generation (90% coal, 10% “natural” gas and oil) accounts for around 32% of China’s total CO2 emissions. Thus, replacing coal-fired power plants with solar and wind generators could cut China’s carbon emissions by a third.
But this is the low-hanging fruit of carbon mitigation. The bulk of the rest of China’s GHG emissions come from industries that are inherently carbon intensive and cannot be decarbonized with current or envisioned technology at all or in any timeframe that matters to avert climate collapse. Steel, aluminum, cement, aviation, shipping, chemicals, textiles, plastics, and electronics stand out.
Steel production requires extreme heat and chemical processes that in current mass production can be supplied only by fossil fuels. China produces 53% of the world’s steel, and its production accounts for more than 10% of China’s CO2 emissions.
Cement production emits CO2 from thermal and chemical processes. China produces three-quarters of the world’s cement—more than the next 19 countries—and this accounts for 8% of the country’s CO2 emissions.
Scientists and engineers are working on technologies to mitigate emissions from steel and cement production. But a November 2019 OECD report states that while new emissions reduction technologies are being tested, none will be commercially available until at least 2030. Then it would take more years or decades for those technologies to be approved by governments and widely adopted. Thus the author of the report concludes, “The most effective way to reduce steel and concrete emissions is to use them only for necessary applications in new products, vehicles, and structures” and “maximize recycling.” In other words, the only way to suppress steel and cement emissions in the near term is to suppress their production and ration them.
Aluminum production releases CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride. While the industry has reduced these greenhouse gases slightly in the past few decades, a recent study concludes that “the target to cut down carbon emissions up to 50% by 2050 cannot be accomplished by just making policies and regulations, but could only be achieved through reduced demand for final goods, and other existing and developing strategies to mitigate carbon emissions.” And that’s just to cut emissions by 50%, the most they hope to gain.
Global aluminum output is expected to fall this year to an annual growth rate of 11.5 percent. At this “reduced” rate, aluminum output (and its emissions) would double every 6.5 years, wiping out any gains of mitigation as it rises. China produces 56% of the world’s aluminum, and the industry there has grown at double-digit annual rates for decades. Thus here too, the only feasible means of drastically cutting this sector’s emissions in the near future is to drastically cut production of aluminum.
Same with Aviation. In 2018 China’s aircraft emissions accounted for 13% of global aviation emissions (and just 0.7% of China’s total CO2 emissions). However, China’s commercial air-travel industry is the fastest growing in the world. From virtually nothing in 1980 it has grown by an annual average of 13% and is now second only to the US. At current growth rates China’s commercial aviation could quadruple by 2050, in which case its aviation CO2 emissions could approach 400 million metric tons annually compared with the 182 million metric tons emitted from the US aviation sector in 2018).
The Aviation Environment Federation warns that growth on the scale expected in China “won’t be compatible with achieving net-zero emissions or limiting global warming to 1.5 or 2C.” In other words, as the Guardian’s George Monbiot writes, “there is no technofix. The growth in aviation and the need to address climate change cannot be reconciled. . . . A 90% cut in emissions requires not only that growth stops, but that most of the planes . . . flying today are grounded. I recognize that this will not be a popular message. But it is hard to see how a different conclusion could be extracted from the available evidence.” 
Shipping faces similar constraints.
Textile production, heavily concentrated in China, “is one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tonnes [910 million tons] of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per year, which is more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping.”  CO2 emissions come not only from the coal-fired electric power running the mills, but even more from the processes of producing synthetic fabrics. Since there’s no tech fix on the horizon for this industry either, again, the only way to suppress the process emissions in the near term is to stop making synthetic fabrics, or at least drastically suppress them – and abolish the “fast fashion” disposable clothes made with them.
Metals, cement, aviation, heavy road transport, textiles, chemicals, plastics, electronics — the list of hard-to-abate industries goes on.
Of course one cannot completely rule the possibility that some unforeseen tech breakthroughs could permit continued growth of one or more of these industries without growing GHG emissions. Right now hydrogen is being hailed as the next tech miracle du jour. We’ll see.
But since no miracles of dematerialization or decarbonization have come along so far, barring such a deus ex machina, I contend that the only way China can suppress emissions in the short time left before it’s too late to bother trying — the next two-three decades — is to drastically suppress production: Shut down and drastically retrench fossil fuel and fossil fuel-dependent industries across the economy.
Even Western-industry-think-tank scenarios for decarbonization concede that production cuts must be the first — and for most industries the biggest — step in suppressing GHG emissions. The most comprehensive multi-industry scenario calls for “demand reductions” in European steel by 38%, aluminum by 40%, cement by 34%, heavy road transportation by 35%, and plastics/chemicals by 56%.
No carbon industries, no Made in China 2025 industrial supremacy, no New Silk Road empire
Yet these industries have been indispensable to China’s rise and underpin Xi’s ambitions to Make China Great Again. Xi has no intention of suppressing any of them.
China’s economy stands on two legs: construction and manufacturing. Construction accounts for about 7.5% of China’s GDP and 30% of its carbon emissions (including embodied emissions from inputs). Manufacturing accounts for 27% of GDP and 58% of CO2 emissions (including embodied emissions).
Xi Jinping’s Made in China 2025 initiative aims to enable China to dominate global high-tech manufacturing across ten fields: IT, high-end machinery and robotics, aerospace and aviation, marine equipment and ships, advanced rail transport, new-energy vehicles, electric power, agricultural machinery, new materials, and biomedical industries — every one of which requires steel and many other carbon-based inputs.
Xi’s infrastructure-heavy Belt and Road initiative (aka New Silk Road) is binge-pouring cement-damming rivers and paving over forests from Southeast Asia to South America, while building at least 240 coal-fired power projects in 25 countries, belching greenhouse gases across three continents.
So this is the first roadblock Xi faces. Even if all of China’s factories were powered with solar and wind, his entire economy, his industrial supremacy drive, and his global expansionist ambitions would all remain massively and inextricably based on fossil fuels, and China’s mighty exports, the largest in the world, would still ship out on bunker fuel and kerosene jet fuel.
II. Technical and systemic political constraints on electricity decarbonization
The second roadblock is decarbonizing power generation itself. In theory, this is the one sector where Xi really should be able to easily suppress emissions. After all, China is the world’s leading producer of photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, and electric cars. Yet this is not happening either.
For all of China’s investments in renewable energy in recent decades, the bulk of the nation’s electricity is still produced with coal. In 2019 thermal produced 5,045 Terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity as compared with hydropower 1,309 TWh, wind 405.7 TWh, nuclear 348.7 TWh, and solar 223.8 TWh. While solar and wind are growing fast, they still accounted for just 8.6% of electricity generation in 2019, according to the government. Including hydropower, renewables accounted for just 26% of generation — though there are good grounds for booting China’s hydropower from the “sustainable energy” category. Thermally-generated electricity grew by just 2.4% from 2018-19. But because this was from such a large base, the increase still amounted to 120 TWh, more than half the growth in electricity output that year and nearly 30% more than the combined increases from solar and wind (85.9 TWh).
Fossil fuels still produced 69% of China’s electricity in 2019 (5,045 of the total 7,325 TWh produced), down from 70% from 2018 and 73% in 2015.
At this pace, coal won’t be eliminated till near the end of the century.
Promoting coal over renewables
Xi told the United Nations that “humankind should launch a green revolution and move faster to create a green way of development and life, preserve the environment, and make Mother Earth a better place for all.”
Yet instead of speeding up his own green revolution by reviving solar and wind power that has slumped since state subsidies were discontinued in 2018, Xi’s government is doing just the opposite — still “going down the beaten path of extracting coal resources” as China’s governments at every level invest yet more billions of dollars building hundreds of new coal-fired power plants while shortchanging renewables.
This year, from January 1 to June 15 alone, central planners permitted an additional 17 GW of new coal-fired capacity for construction, more than the amount permitted in all of 2018 and 2019 combined (12 GW). The amount of capacity under development in 2020 (249.6 GW) is larger than the entire coal fleets of the United States (246.2 GW) or India (229.0 GW).
China already has an estimated 400 gigawatts of excess coal-fired capacity compared with the amount needed to ensure stable power supply.
By contrast, new installations of wind and solar power dropped by 9.3% in the first six months of this year.
At the provincial level, China’s main energy consuming and producing provinces are investing three times as much in new fossil fuel projects as in renewables. Beijing even dropped its planned reduction of CO2 per unit of GDP (commitment #2 of its 2015 Paris NDC pledge) to power its economic reboot with coal. Dropping the target shows that “economic considerations clearly trumped all other issues,” said Li Shuo of Greenpeace Beijing.
Why is Xi Jinping derailing his own green ambitions and leading China — and the world — to climate collapse?
The Communist Party’s “3 must dos”
The answer, as I argued in my book, China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse (Pluto Press, 2020) is that Xi has no choice because his first priority, like Mao, Deng, and other leaders before him, must be to maintain the power and security of Communist Party.
To do that he relies on three levers to drive his economy:
First, as a state-based ruling class-and-communist nation in a world dominated by more advanced and powerful capitalist nations, Xi, like his predecessors, understands that China must “catch up and overtake the United States.” That’s the only guarantee that it will not be overwhelmed by global capitalism.
And the way to do that is to build a relatively self-sufficient high-tech superpower economy shielded from Western takeover.
In April, Xi called for the indigenous development of “killer technologies” to survive foreign blockades, and in October at the Central Fifth Plenum meeting reiterated the theme of self-sufficiency.
Xi has repeatedly reminded his comrades that the Soviets’ failure to win the economic and arms race with the United States doomed the Soviet Communist Party, and he is determined to avoid that error. That’s the main driver of economic growth in China — the Communist Party’s Holy Grail.
Second, the Party must maximize employment. In capitalist economies employers have no obligation to the unemployed. But because the CCP was once a workers party, and because it derives its legitimacy from its status as the self-appointed representative of the working class, it can’t completely ignore the workers. That’s why Five-Year Plans regularly include job creation targets.
Yet keeping China’s hundreds of millions of workers working often means producing superfluous steel, needless infrastructure, ghost cities, and so on. Maximizing employment is a major driver of overproduction, over-construction, and profligate waste of energy and resources across the economy.
Third, China must maximize consumption and consumerism. In the wake of the Chinese Communists’ near-death experience with the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party in 1991, the party leadership resolved to create a mass consumer economy and raise incomes so as to focus people’s attention on consumption and take their minds off politics.
That’s why since the early 1990s Five-Year Plans have prioritized new consumer industries and promoted one consumer craze after another: cars, condos, shopping malls, package tourism, cruise boats, golf courses, theme parks, videogames, online shopping, food delivery, and more.
No doubt after centuries of privation and decades of Maoist austerity, China’s masses were overdue for some creature comforts. But the promotion of consumerism for the sake of consumerism at the expense of the environment — on the model of Western capitalism — contradicts Xi’s call for “conserving resources and protecting nature.” Instead it contributes mightily to China’s growing waste and pollution crises and its planet-suicidal CO2 emissions.
Given the need to maximize growth, employment, and consumerism, China’s leaders find they have no choice but to let the polluters pollute. There’s just no way around that. This tendency is further exacerbated in China’s case because as nationalists, concerned to be as self-reliant as possible, the government strives to rely mainly on its own energy resources, which in China’s case is chiefly coal.
Surplus extraction and intrabureaucratic competition advantage coal
Thus the political problem: For all the market reforms of the past four decades, China’s state-controlled economy remains highly compartmentalized with limited market exchange. As one official I quoted in the book said: “Every locality acts like a separate country.”
In the case of electricity generation, producer prices are fixed by the central government. As one grid analyst explains, “Grid operators set generation and transmission schedules up to one month in advance, and they program coal power plants to operate continuously for a week or longer. . . This limits their ability to accommodate hourly or daily fluctuations in renewable output. Flexibility is further limited by utilization quotas that guarantee coal plants a certain number of operating hours per year.” As a result, “cross-province electricity trading and transmission face obstacle[s] . . . The provincial electricity market . . . is characterized by the self-contained system and self-balance, making the relatively closed provincial market not conducive to optimizing national electricity system planning, power source structural adjustment, cross-province power grid operation, and electricity trading.”
The Chinese business magazine Caixin reports that “local governments are undermining the central government’s efforts to develop greener sources of electricity by squeezing production quotas for renewables and slapping extra levies on wind companies to prop up ailing coal-fired plants in their region.” These tendencies have been reinforced by the economic slowdown since 2014. Southeastern provinces report that they “have little incentive to buy power from the north when they have . . . their own generation to keep local power facilities in business in the economic downturn and avoid potential losses of jobs and tax revenue.”
This is why China’s coastal industrial zones prefer to build their own captive (zibei, or “self-provided”) coal-fired power plants. Since coal is readily available, cheap, and burns 24/7, local officials find this the safer alternative to relying on uncertain supplies of wind and solar power from distant power plants, most of which are located out in China’s sunny and windy far west and north.
Local governments across northern China also prefer coal because they use the heat from coal boilers to heat homes and businesses in the winter. In theory, electric boilers could replace those too. But there again, without effective electricity storage and without trans-provincial electricity trading, they could not guarantee consistent heating when wind or solar are insufficient.
Then there is the jobs issue. Xi may prefer solar and wind, but keeping workers employed is, as noted above, among the CCP’s highest priorities — not because they’re socialists, far from it! — but because they fear the workers they claim to represent. Coal mining and washing alone employ about 3.5 million people. Millions more work in related industries. Replacing coal with solar and wind would eliminate millions of jobs at a time when unemployment is already high because of the economic slowdown, the trade war, and the coronavirus.
In sum, the combination of significant technical barriers plus the systemic bureaucratic barriers of compartmentalism, market closure, and intrabureaucratic competition heavily advantage coal power. In my view, these pose formidable if not insurmountable impediments to transitioning to solar and wind renewable energy in China.
What’s it all for?
Yet even if Xi were able to entirely replace fossil fuels with solar and wind, if he were to use this renewable energy to convert still more of nature into disposable products, needless consumerism, superfluous infrastructure, ghost cities, dammed rivers, and paved-over forests, the result would be the same: runaway global warming and planetary ecocide.
When all is said and done, there is simply no way that Xi can, as he said in his UN speech, “peak China’s emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060” while also maintaining annual growth rates of 6-8%. He can “pursue development at the expense of protection and exploiting resources without restoration” or he can “transition to green and low-carbon development. . . take the minimum steps to protect the Earth, our shared homeland.” He can’t do both.
III. Managed deindustrialization — or extinction?
The time for half measures is past. From their respective inceptions, Western capitalism and China’s hybrid bureaucratic collectivist-capitalism have operated on the fatal assumption that growth can continue virtually forever. But exponential growth on a finite planet can end only in collective eco-suicide.
There are no tech solutions and no market solutions to this crisis. And there are no jobs and no profits on a dead planet.
The only way to meet the climate emergency we face is to slam the brakes on growth, declare a climate emergency, and enforce the shutdown of fossil fuel based industries from China and Japan to the United States and Europe — and simultaneously provide new low-to-no–carbon jobs for the hundreds of millions of workers whose jobs must be sacrificed to save our future.
Since neither system can tolerate degrowth, this will require us to cashier capitalism and China’s communist-capitalism and replace them with some form of democratically planned and managed ecosocialism.
This alternative may sound utopian, even crazy, not to say improbable. But given the science, I don’t see any other way to avoid climate and civilizational collapse.
Either way, we face an extreme future: collapse or revolution.
On the positive side, since so much of China’s production, construction, and overconsumption is a staggering waste of resources, energy, and human talent (as with capitalism in the West), what sounds like a recipe for economic collapse and extreme austerity would be just the opposite. It would mean liberation from profit-driven exploitation of people and planet, and an opportunity for China’s people to build the “ecological civilization” that Xi Jinping is always talking about but sabotages every day with his policies and practices.
Richard Smith wrote his UCLA PhD thesis on the contradictions of market reform in China and is the author of China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse (Pluto 2020) and Green Capitalism: The God That Failed (2016).
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 This essay is a condensed version of “Climate arsonist Xi Jiinping: a carbon-neutral China with a 6% growth rate?, Real-World Economics Review, December 2020, and draws from my new book, China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse (Pluto Press, 2020).
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 Eg. Bing Zhu, et al., “CO2 emissions and reduction potential in China’s chemical industry,” Energy, 35, 2010, 4663-4670; Katherine Derbyshire, “More than just carbon dioxide,” Semiconductor Engineering, December 14, 2016, https://semiengineering.com/more-than-just-carbon-dioxide/.
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 That’s because China’s dam building causes so much environmental destruction, imperiling the livelihoods of hundreds of millions across South and Southeast Asia. What’s more, dam building in China has actually increased the number of coal-fired power plants, built as backups and to compensate for diminishing river flows from the Himalayas due to global warming led by . . . China. See Brian Eyler, “Science shows Chinese dams are devastating the Mekong,” Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/science-shows-chinese-dams-devastating-mekong-river/; and Smith, China’s Engine, 82-86 and sources cited therein.
 Lauri Myllyvirta, “A new coal boom in China,” CREA, June 2020, https://globalenergymonitor.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/A-New-Coal-Boom-in-China_English.pdf.
 Yuki Yu, “China’s wind & solar market 2020 half-year review,” Renewable Energy World, October 8, 2020, https://www.renewableenergyworld.com/2020/08/10/chinas-wind-solar-market-2020-half-year-review/#gref.
 Guest authors, “Analysis: China’s Covid stimulus plans for fossil fuels three times larger than low-carbon,” Carbon Brief, September, 23, 2020, https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-chinas-covid-stimulus-plans-for-fossil-fuels-three-times-larger-than-low-carbon.
 Bloomberg, “China drops key environmental targets as Coronavirus hits growth,” May 22, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-22/china-drops-key-environmental-target-as-coronavirus-hits-growth?sref=4KuSK5Q1; Bloomberg, “China seen adding new wave of coal plants after lifting curbs,” June 10, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-10/china-seen-adding-new-wave-of-coal-plants-after-lifting-curbs?sref=4KuSK5Q1.
 Keith Bradsher and Paul Mozur, “China’s plan to build its own high-tech industries worries Western businesses,” New York Times, March 7, 2017; Bloomberg, “China’s got a new plan to overtake the US in tech,” May 20, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-20/china-has-a-new-1-4-trillion-plan-to-overtake-the-u-s-in-tech?sref=4KuSK5Q1; and again, Smith, China’s Engine, chapter 5.
 “China must develop ‘killer technologies’ to survive foreign blockades: Xi,” Apple Daily, October 31, 2020, https://hk.appledaily.com/news/20201101/ZXKTHTLO4RAPPPFCBH3KN7UVFI/; Staff reporter, “China’s leaders look to boost self-reliance as country turns inward,” Guardian, October 26, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/26/chinas-leaders-look-to-boost-self-reliance-as-country-turns-inward.
 Smith, China’s Engine, chapter 2.
 Sheng Yulei, “Consumption upgrading infuses impetus into China’s economic growth,” People’s Daily, July 21, 2020, http://en.people.cn/n3/2020/0721/c90000-9712803.html.
 Eg. Chen Ronggang, “The mountains of takeout trash choking China’s cities,” Sixth Tone, October 15, 2017, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1001003/the-mountains-of-takeout-trash-choking-chinas-cities; Niu Yue, “China no. 1 dumper of plastic into ocean,” China Daily, February 19, 2015, https://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2015-02/19/content_19623390.htm.
 See Smith, China’s Engine and the sources cited therein, pp. 76-79.
 Bloomberg, “China wants to be carbon neutral by 2060. Is that possible?” September 23, 2020, https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/sites/default/files/rpt_1609_carbontax_web17011.pdf.
 For what it’s worth, I outlined what I think would be a plausible path for the United States to suppress its CO2 emissions in “An ecosocialist path to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C,” Real-World Economics Review, no. 87, 2019, http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue87/Smith87.pdf, and I listed and briefly described what I think would have to be the basic elements of a democratic ecosocialism in my “Six theses on saving the humans,” in The Next System Project, https://thenextsystem.org/sites/default/files/2018-10/RichardSmith-2.pdf.