From Brexit to Chintervention: Opportunity for China as Global Green Leader

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

Brexit was only the beginning of a domino effect of events that cast a dark cloud over Britain’s—and Europe’s, and the whole world’s—future. This week Theresa May became the new Prime Minister, and swiftly arranged a new cabinet that only heightened many British residents’ anxiety about the future. May erased the climate change department and merged it with the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Then, she appointed Andrea Leadsom as the new environmental secretary. In addition to being in favor of fox hunting and selling off British forests, Leadsom has a track record of contesting programs that mitigate climate change.

The past chaotic few weeks in Britain have overshadowed the ongoing unsettling presidential race in the United States, the results of which are still uncertain as Trump and Clinton seem neck and neck in some polls.

With two of the world’s leading nations crumbling into political disorder and societal violence, it seems a new leading nation may need to emerge, at least to advance the global climate change mitigation agenda.

10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, no one would think that China could be that leader. I think the country can, should, and will take the lead, since progress in the UK and the US will most likely be hindered by untangling political and societal messes. The World Economic Forum recently published an article showing how in 2015, China has invested more in renewable energy sources than all of Europe. The UN Secretary General’s special envoy for Cities and Climate Change, Michael Bloomberg, commended China’s goals of peaking national carbon emissions by 2030, stating that such leadership made the Paris agreement possible. China’s plan to build a global wind and solar power grid by 2050 also shows the nation’s ambition.

The Chinese government has initiated more programs addressing specific issues for environmental change, allowing space for public participation. And citizens and NGOs are finding new ways to hold the government accountable by voicing their concerns online or in protest.

There are still several concerning issues that may affect China’s green growth, like the recent limits on international NGOs and increasing meat consumption. Enforcement of environmental regulations is always an issue in countries as large and complexly bureaucratic as China. In addition, many plans for sustainable urban growth are closely linked to financing from the US, which has an uncertain financial future given the possibility that Trump may be elected.

But, despite these potential obstacles, China may still be in an excellent position to take the lead in fighting climate change, while some US and UK political leaders are still squabbling about whether climate change is real, US GOP politicians claim coal is clean, and the new UK environment secretary approves of fox hunting for “animal welfare” reasons. China at least has acknowledged some of its faults and recognizes the high bar of achievement needed to resolve these mistakes. As maintaining social harmony (维稳) is one of the nation’s major priorities, it serves China’s interests to resolve environmental problems and prevent further eco-protests. And China’s dominating the market for affordable solar panels shows the country’s taking advantage of the economic opportunity that renewables provide. Lastly, from a PR standpoint, taking the lead in global green governance can boost the country’s reputation, and perhaps compensate for more questionable international actions.

China’s path to environmental progress may take a while, but its path to leadership and action has been swift. So while the leadership door of the West seems to be closing, let’s look East for potential future environmental stewards.

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