Climate disappointment with the 14th Five Year Plan

The havoc of the past twelve months has made all of us that have survived more aware of uncertainty’s omnipresence than we were before the Covid-19 pandemic. If one year could turn over so much, then five years seems like an eternity. With that frame of mind, along with the ticking clock of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere (and especially the IPCC’s 1.5C report), the hopes that China’s 14th Five Year Plan might be a definitive document in the fight against climate change were strong. While the document calls for continuation of the country’s slow march towards decarbonization, it dashed hopes of more ambition (or realism, as some prefer).

The disappointment arises because this is the first major document to emerge out of China since Xi Jinping’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge in September 2020. Some suggested that his pledge was Xi’s effort to save the world.

China Dialogue summarized the climate targets in the plan with this infographic.

These percentages essentially are almost precisely linear projections from the 13th five year plan. No radical move up of the carbon peaking date from 2030 to, say, 2025. No cap on total emissions. Should we have been disappointed? It’s hard not to be, but probably not. First, the five year planning process is an air craft carrier that is hard to pivot at the last minute. Xi’s announcement was a surprise for those inside as well as outside of China and so was not driving negotiations six months ago. Second, plans like this are meant to be not just passed but aced. Perfect score territory. So, the targets that are set are almost always exceeded, which means that we should take the statistics in the plan as minimums rather than best guesses as to where outcomes are going to end up.

The final reason to keep a chin up and avoid being overly disappointed with the 14th Five Year Plan is that Xi Jinping seems to be disappointed in it too, and his disappointment might move mountains. In the wake of the plan’s release and its tepid reception, more and more evidence is coming out of some disconnect between Xi’s notions of where things should be and the plan document itself. The China climate expert Lauri Myllyvirta put it this way last week:

Xi wants more.

Xi’s desires have a way of becoming the policy reality in China today, but not always and not immediately. Numerous organizations are holding meetings and signaling that they’d like to be seen as running to where Xi Jinping’s thoughts (not yet Xi Jinping Thought yet) are pointing. Journalist Liu Hongqiao provided a partial list in this thread:

To be sure, none of these meetings or pledges themselves are overly radical. There are no PetroChina or CNOOC executives swearing off black gold, nor steel plants shuttering after getting climate change religion. But, if they continue to make progress and build on past successes, then the path forward for China and the world seems less uncertain than it might have been.

China, Carbon, and Transformation of the Global Political Economy (Or: OEP, yeah you know me)

I don’t have a dog in the fight of the “relevance” of American international political economy or “open economy politics.” Thomas Oatley penned a strongly worded critique about its irrelevance for contemporary issues, Mark Copelovitch and Henry Farrell debated it a bit in what can only be described as a “twitter exchange.” And while I’m old enough to remember a similar cry of irrelevance for the whole discipline of political science or at least its subfield of international relations that happened in the late great before–a cry that received substantial criticism–my point here is not to take on big question of whether OEP/American IPE scholarship has studied the right topics in the right proportion.

Instead what I want to focus on is a short snippet of Oatley’s piece that Jessica Green posted yesterday that is fascinating.

Provocative take on the trajectory of IPE in the discipline by @thoatley in which he offers a very different interpretation of China’s role in decarbonization. h/t @henryfarrell cc @jonasnahm @thomasnhale @jessicacweiss https://t.co/op6Oe52Jfx pic.twitter.com/ovEmkEt4Rs— Jessica Green (@greenprofgreen) March 16, 2021

This quote from page eight has a lot going on. At the system level, Oatley’s focus on energy systems is fine but underweights both demographics and ideas. To use language more closely aligned with Oatley’s my prior would be to see global political economy as structured by parameters of many kinds, with political, economic, ideational, and energy-related significant in that order.

More strikingly, I see China’s rise as both currently undermining the “existing carbon economy” and constituting a transformation of the global political economy.

China’s massive fossil fuel usage in its rapid growth has highlighted the tremendous cost of urban air pollution, putting it on the front page and above the fold. Just this past week, Beijing experienced a strong sand storm this past week that reminded many of the days of “airpocalypses” tied more closely to coal and gas burning than Gobi desert sand blowing into town.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/mar/15/beijing-skies-turn-orange-as-sandstorm-and-pollution-send-readings-off-the-scale

Those high pollution days are now much rarer because of actions taken by the Chinese government to improve air quality (quantified through Air Quality Indices with interesting political manipulation of statistics but that’s another post). While the particulate issue is in some ways distinct from the climate change issue, movement on the former allowed China to gain some high ground on the latter. More significantly, the massive public health problems of China’s urban air pollution help substantiate the economic case for global decarbonization. That is, separate from the climate change issue (which is big, obviously), not burning fossil fuels — if we can find some clean alternative, i.e. electrified transport and industry powered by renewable energy — makes economic sense purely from the reduced harms to public health. So, China’s rise and ensuing pollution has helped drive global decarbonization by making obvious the toll that burning fossil fuels does to human hearts and lungs.

Additionally, China has invested significantly in electrified transport, battery development, and renewable energy, where it is far and away the global leader in both production and installed capacity. (For more, Jonas Nahm has an excellent chapter on Chinese energy politics.) While it is true that many of China’s electric vehicles are currently powered by coal-fired generation, Xi’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge suggests that coal’s days are numbered. That pledge also spurred Japan and South Korea to make similar pledges, albeit setting themselves an earlier deadline of 2050. If anything, China’s dominance of the solar supply chain is leading to concerns that it might use that power as political leverage in other domains and to others suggesting that the US needs to pursue green industrial policy to ensure corresponding strength in other sectors.

In the end, China’s rise until 2010 surely supported the carbon economy, but the past decade has seen a decisive shift in transforming it.

More broadly, Oatley’s claim that China has not transformed the global political economy is hard to fathom. Admittedly, as a China scholar, I’m sure that my vantage point is distorted. To relax sometime last week (the week before? time remains hazy in pandemic-land), I took a New Yorker off the top of the pile to edutain myself with nicely written prose and hilarious punctuation. There’s an article about aquaculture in Gambia, and I think, “I eat fish, this will be interesting.” But the fourth paragraph has “illegally dumped waste from a Chinese fish-processing plant called Golden Lead,” and the next one includes words that I’ve come to dread: the Belt and Road Initiative.

Materially, Chinese-made goods are ubiquitous, Chinese investments are everywhere. Chinese consumer preferences shape the movies we watch and the relative prices of different chicken parts.

Ideationally, Chinese economic development has reshaped narratives about economic divergence of the “global north and global south” into one of convergence and reduced global inequality. Chinese economic reforms helped chip away at the intellectual basis for communism as an alternative to a neoliberal capitalism that was ascendant in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The profit possibilities of offshoring production–cost advantages in domestic competition as well as dreams of extracting profits from China–became difficult for corporations to argue against and helped deepen the idea that firms duty was to focus narrowly on quantitative metrics of share prices than take a more holistic view of supporting all of their relevant stakeholders. And then this offshoring leads to political undermining of the very system of neoliberalism that it helped occasion and strengthen. The China Shock has led to more than a disruption of industrial employment but concerns about globalization in all forms, reactionary anti-immigrant politics, etc.

Finally, China’s economic development and its consistent use of industrial policy has undermined neoliberal capitalism away from it’s all markets all the time to being more accepting of government intervention in the economy. For every Venezuela mention by Fox News, there is a counterpoint to be made that … well, didn’t that work in China?

In the end, political science as a discipline and IPE as a sub-subfield in particular seems much more engaged in the messy real world of politics in 2021 than it did when I started off in this profession … two decades ago. Is it perfect, of course not, but we iterate and continue.

Resiliency, Vaccines, and Renewables

Vaccine Development – 101 | FDA
Preparing for the future

If the Covid crisis is a window into our climate change future as billionaire Bill Gates and journalist Emily Atkin have suggested, then it’s worth digging into this comparison. Deaths from the pandemic are down 1/3 from just a month ago as vaccines have become available and administered. In vaccine rollout’s early days, concerns centered on prioritization and difficulties in the last mile (getting shots into people). Now, however, the limiting factor in the United States and especially globally is clearly supply. Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker puts the US as likely to hit the 75% vaccinated benchmark in around 7 months, but at the current pace, its global estimate is that it will take fully 4.5 years (as of 2 March 2021).

Scientists and companies, with government support, produced amazing vaccines in record time. But we did not do—and are not doing—everything possible to ramp up their production. More factories could be built, and even if the best time to build them was months ago, the second best time is now. Additionally, the ability to ramp up production quickly would be deeply appreciated if a variant arrived that escaped our current vaccine regimen and required another round of global inoculation. The “historic partnership” between Merck and Johnson & Johnson that Biden announced today goes a long way towards focusing on making more shots as soon as possible.

The climate change analogue to vaccines is renewable energy. The good news is that the wind and solar technology already works and is affordable. Like with vaccines, there are lots of issues related to the last mile—difficulties in siting wind farms and utility-scale solar plants, zoning rules preventing distributed rooftop solar installation, Kafka-esque bureaucratic processes needed to improve the distribution and transmission grids to deal with wind and solar’s variable production. But what is less obvious is that there is a massive need to scale up the production capacity of the renewable industry globally.

During the campaign, Biden ran on building a 100% clean power sector by 2035. But achieving our climate goals involves not only replacing all fossil electricity production with renewables, but to electrify everything else—cars, industrial processes, heating, cooking—that currently runs on burning fossil fuels. This transition creates even more need for renewables and demand for adequate production facilities. Internationally, pledges under the Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are falling far short of what is needed.

While the wind sector is globally competitive and diversified, increasingly Chinese manufacturers have come to dominate the solar supply chain. A new joint CSIS/BloombergNEF report on the solar photovoltaic (PV) sector shows both the polysilicon and wafer (95%) stages almost completely controlled by Chinese firms while cells and modules remain more diversified. Geopolitical reasons to diversity alone could counsel subsidies to support domestic manufacturing, but so too do issues related to human rights as almost half of all polysilicon production is located in Xinjiang as well as the fact that they are located there do to cheap coal-based electricity as electricity represents roughly 40% of the costs of producing polysilicon. Further, these intense industrial processes can fail, and do so catastrophically, as happened at a GCL-Poly production facility in Xinjiang when explosions on 21 July 2020 took it offline. Floods and fires took other facilities offline in 2020, and climate change is only like to increase the chances of weather calamities leading to shutdowns and price increases.

Since Xi Jinping’s surprise 2060 carbon neutrality pledge in September, markets have pushed GCL-Poly’s stock up dramatically and the fortune of founder, Zhu Gongshan, into the multiple billions. The world needs more solar power, and more production facilities to build it. Resiliency, not efficiency, needs to be the watchword.