Was it Confucius who said it’s a funny old world? If he didn’t he might well do so now. Having spent part of the last couple of weeks trying to breathe in Beijing, one can’t help but be struck by the remarkable contradictions – as the Marxists used to say – that characterise global politics these days.
Despite the dangerous levels of pollution that are currently affecting some of China’s most important cities, its government is currently enjoying unaccustomed praise in Paris for its more constructive-looking approach to the international climate talks. Without wanting to add too greatly to the inflated rhetoric that surrounds these discussions, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that our collective fate really does hang in the balance.
That’s why China is so important. As it demonstrated in Copenhagen, little of consequence will happen if China is not on board. Not only is China famously the biggest contributor to the problem, but it’s also actually doing the most about it – despite all the unbreathable evidence to the contrary. Few governments can command policy change in quite the way China can if that’s what its authoritarian leaders decide to actually do.
And yet when I put it to a group of smart, well-informed Chinese scholars that Australia’s greatest contribution to the problem of global warming (and pollution) might be to simply stop exporting coal, they smirked knowingly at my naivety. China would simply replace Australia’s “clean” coal with its own dirty variety or source their seemingly insatiable demand from some less scrupulous supplier.
This is not to say that China is not making an effort. On the contrary it is. China is collectively (and encouragingly) the largest investor in renewables in the world. And yet its citizens frequently live in a noxious cloud of poisonous gasses that are condemning them to an early grave. At times like this I wonder why I ever bothered to give up smoking.
Rather alarmingly, China is not the worst offender. India – the other economy that sends the “international investment community” giddy with anticipation at the thought of all those development opportunities – has just announced that its use of coal will actually double by 2030.
Thanks to China’s much-criticised one-child policy, India is also about to overtake the Middle Kingdom as the world’s most populous polity. Providing jobs and energy for a rapidly expanding workforce is likely to take precedence over concerns about the long-term impact of C₀2 emissions and any notion of international responsibility and solidarity.
Despite the apparent evolution in China’s thinking about the possible impact and importance of climate change and pollution, therefore, it is far from clear that this will be enough to achieve the sort of immediate, rapid action that is required to stabilise global warming. The divisions between north and south, rich and poor that proved such obstacles at Copenhagen may not be easily overcome this time around either.
No doubt the coal lobby will cry foul about demonising a single commodity that undoubtedly provides cheap energy for developing countries. But the fact is that coal epitomises all of the challenges and – yes – contradictions that threaten to make the planet unlivable.
If we can’t do something about the most egregious and visible forces that are poisoning the planet, what hope is there?
Despite the uplifting and thoughtful commentary from some of the brightest minds in the country on these pages, the answer increasingly looks like: not a lot. There really is an implacable logic about significant population growth, especially when symbiotically linked to a developmental and social model that continues to rely on economic growth.
It is generally considered rather poor form and defeatist to be negative and pessimistic about our collective prospects. Believe me, I would much rather be writing some optimism-inducing commentary on the ability of our leaders to transcend narrow national interests in pursuit of the common good.
Sadly, I fear the message has to be: don’t hold your breath – unless you’re in Beijing, of course.