Reading between the media lines of the China climate story
In which I reflect on the most-important-least-covered aspect of the climate battle
I made my first trip to China since the pandemic in mid-September. Beijing, which I called home from 2007 to 2012, felt much the same as I remembered it—the sprawling cityscape, the grinding traffic, the contrast between the deeply historical and garishly new. Overall, it was nice to reconnect with some old friends still living there, although at this point, a few days in such a livability-challenged place feels like enough.
What struck me most was the empty scene I witnessed in Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital Airport. Sunday afternoon arrivals should be teeming. But international travel remains depressed coming out of the pandemic. The confluence of factors includes souring relations with the US and other Western countries, fewer Chinese nationals going abroad (and hence returning) and a subdued Chinese economy overall.
This last factor has been firehose-sprayed across Western media in recent months. The intensity of coverage feels a bit like schadenfreude, although it’s hard to fault major news outlets for highlighting a jarring turnaround in one of the world’s major growth engines.
What does feel unfair is the relative lack of coverage of a big asterisk to this slump: China’s overwhelming dominance of renewable energy. This includes installed capacity, in which China is far and away the world leader, claiming 36% of the global total as of end-2022. According to official statistics, clean sources now comprise over half of China’s total electricity generation capacity.
This stunning factoid earned crickets from most mainstream media, with little more than a tiny piece in Reuters. Is the China doom-and-gloom narrative simply too formidable to permit a sideways glance into a truly promising slice of its economy?
What does garner more headlines is China’s leading role in next-generation energy supply chains. This Financial Times piece is a good example: deeply reported, well-sourced, packed with stats. Unfortunately, it also reinforces the well-trod narrative of competition between the West and China.
It’s true, everyone loves a horse race. But it’s nearly impossible to find a clearheaded analysis of how China’s leading position in clean-energy supply chains is helping or harming the green transition at a global level. The prevailing wisdom is that China’s cornering of solar supply chains is one of the main reasons why prices have dropped so dramatically across the board. Outlets like The Economist have decried the protectionism-self-sufficiency argument that the Biden administration, among others, push as a means to liberate the US from China’s solar hegemony. Without an us-versus-them framing, Western media do little reporting of China’s green revolution as a story in and of itself.
The China story is a climate one
I left in mainland China over ten years ago and greater China in 2019. It was only after I moved the US that I started my own climate journey. But I’m more and more convinced that the myopia of Western climate watchers calls for greater efforts to fill this gap—to do whatever can be done to contextualize the climate battle as one in which the most important single player is China, both the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and its biggest single mover of green technologies from the workshop into widespread commercialization.
Unfortunately, this gap is unlikely to be filled anytime soon. I was particularly sad to read about the recent closure of The China Project, an excellent English-language source of the types of “niche” China news that rarely make it into mainstream outlets. I hope something or someone can play the role of balanced, authoritative arbiter amid the geopolitical deterioration.
Similarly, just as there’s no climate story without China, China’s future economic story is fundamentally a climate one, especially as previously high-flying sectors like real estate sputter. China is not going to allow its leverage in this space to wither away. This is an exciting—if nerve-wracking, given that geopolitical tensions show no sign of abating—position for the globally climate-conscious to be in.
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