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China and climate change: an exchange

In the Notes from the Editors to the March 2021 issue of Monthly Review, the MR editors questioned some of the arguments in Richard Smith’s book, China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, as well as replied to Simon Pirani’s related criticisms (writing under his pseudonym of Gabriel Levy) of MR editor John Bellamy Foster on China and the environment. Both Smith and Pirani have written replies to our March editorial, which we are publishing here, along with our own rejoinder.

“China Is a Unique Threat to the Global Environment”

Richard Smith

In the March Notes from the Editors, MR editors said that “Smith claims to utilize a ‘Marxist mode of production theorization’ but instead relies on out-of-date statistics, the charge that China’s leadership is characterized by ‘sociopathic behavior’ and the notion that China is unique in the extent of its accumulation drive.” Allow me to respond.

The editors did not cite which statistics are supposedly outdated. Let me cite one from March 2021: Despite the fact that China has reduced the carbon intensity of its economy as the editors point out, already exceeding its Paris commitment, its carbon dioxide emissions are still growing absolutely and as a share of global emissions: “China’s CO2 emissions surged 4% in the second half of 2020” after dropping 3 percent in the first half due to COVID shutdowns. “In total across 2020, CO2 emissions grew by 1.5% compared with 2019.”1 By contrast, U.S. emissions fell by 11 percent in 2020.2 This extends by another year the pattern I described in my book completed in December 2019, namely that China’s carbon emissions have been relentlessly climbing since 1990 while those of the United States, European Union, and Japan have been declining (though not fast enough to meet their own Paris commitments). By 2019, U.S. emissions had dropped 843 million metric tons (the equivalent of Germany’s total emissions) from their peak in 2007, EU emissions have been declining since 1990, and Japan’s 2019 emissions were down 12 percent from their peak in 2013.3 No doubt U.S. carbon emissions will rise as the economy grows this year, but they are unlikely to reverse their downward trajectory let alone catch up with China. China’s annual carbon emissions account for 30 percent of the global total against the U.S. 15 percent, EU 9 percent, India’s 7 percent, and Japan’s 4 percent.4 In other words, “socialist” or not, China is by far the leading driver of global climate collapse, and indeed the gap between China and the rest of the world widened last year and is likely to widen further this year if China’s growth reaches its target of 6 percent.

China presents a climate crisis paradox: it is the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, and leads the world in installed capacity of both. President Xi Jinping has promised to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and aspires to turn China into an “ecological civilization.” Speaking to the United Nations last September, Xi called on countries to “achieve a green recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID era.”

Yet, instead of prioritizing that green recovery, China is developing fossil fuels as fast as, if not faster than, renewables. The government is ending subsidies for wind and solar, it is ramping up construction of new coal-fired power plants, importing record quantities of oil and natural gas, massively expanding domestic production of oil and gas, and super-polluting coal-to-gas plants.5 In its bid to replace coal with clean energy to heat homes, offices, and factories across smoggy northern China, the government is replacing coal not with solar and wind but with another fossil fuel: natural gas.6 Coal is still growing too. “Last year China’s coal power plant capacity increased by more than three times the rest of the world’s.”7China was building 88 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants in 2020, even as the rest of the world made cuts of 17 gigawatts. China’s coal consumption rose by 1 percent in 2020, while in India, the second largest coal consumer, it declined by 3.4 percent.8 On top of this, China has now become the world’s second largest consumer of oil, third largest consumer of natural gas, and largest importer of both. In short, instead of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, China is boosting production and consumption of “all of the above.”

The editors also claim that “China has achieved world-record reductions in air pollution,” citing Michael Marshall’s “China’s Cuts to Air Pollution May Have Saved 150,000 Lives Each Year.” Given that 1.24 million people died from air pollution in China in 2017, saving 150,000 lives is an improvement.9 But pollution reduction has a long way to go. Lung cancer is the leading cause of death in northern China and air pollution takes five to ten years off lifespans in northern China.

How do we explain these anomalies and contradictions?

I contend that China’s hybrid Stalinist-capitalist mode of production is unique and has its own contradictions, drivers, and tendencies. In this system, China’s rulers must obey three nationalist-statist maximands that are at least as powerful and ecosuicidal, if not more so, than the profit maximization driver of capitalism.

  1. They must maximize economic growth and self-sufficient industrialization.

As a state-based communist ruling class in a world dominated by more advanced capitalist powers, Mao Zedong and his successors have understood that they must “catch up and overtake the United States” to insure they will not be reconquered by imperialism. Mikhail Gorbachev’s loss of the economic and arms race to the United States doomed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Xi Jinping is keen to avoid that error. But to overtake the United States, he must maximize hypergrowth of fossil fuel-based industries even if this means forsaking his carbon neutral pledge, abandoning his dream of an ecological civilization, and leading the planet to climate collapse. I point out that only a third of China’s carbon emissions come from coal-fired power plants. Most of the rest come from “hard-to-abate” industries like steel, aluminum, cement, aviation, shipping, chemicals, plastics, textiles, and electronics—industries that cannot be significantly abated with current or foreseeable technology, but which are essential to Xi’s mega infrastructure projects and his Made in China 2025 plan for global high-tech supremacy. Ergo, either he gives up the race or he lets the polluters pollute.

  1. They must maximize employment, not because they are socialists but because they fear the workers and need to maintain stability.

Yet keeping China’s hundreds of millions of workers busy with make-work projects means producing superfluous steel, needless industries, needless infrastructure, empty airports, ghost cities, and so on. Maximizing employment is a major driver of overproduction, overconstruction, “blind growth,” “blind demolition,” and profligate waste of energy and resources across the economy.

  1. They must maximize consumerism.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the Chinese communists’ own near-death experience in 1989, the party resolved to create a mass consumer economy and raise incomes in order to focus people’s attention on consumption and take their minds off politics. That is why successive Five-Year Plans have promoted one consumer craze after another: cars, condos, shopping malls, tourism, golf courses, theme parks, cruise boats, food delivery, online shopping, 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 mindless consumerism for the sake of consumerism on the model of capitalism contributes mightily to China’s and the world’s waste and pollution crises.

Lastly, the editors object to my characterization of China’s leadership as “sociopathic.” What would they call political leaders who are sacrificing life on Earth to preserve their power and privilege?

“Chinese Claims to Building an ‘Ecological Civilization’ Are Not Credible”

Simon Pirani

In the March Notes from the Editors, you tell your readers that, in a blog post, I found John Bellamy Foster “insufficiently critical of China” on energy policy. More exactly, it is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders of which he is insufficiently critical, in my view. You protest that he “focus[es] on basic facts.” Fine. But we disagree about interpreting those facts. Four significant divergences are:

  1. Foster thinks Chinese investment in renewables is more significant than its investment in coal; I think the opposite.

In one article about China, Foster pointed to “a growing share of non-fossil-fuel energy consumption” as demonstrative of China’s progress toward “sustainable development”; in another, he argued that “no country seems to be accelerating so rapidly [as China] into the new world of alternative energy.” In neither did he mention the unprecedented expansion of China’s coal production and consumption over the last twenty-five years. Maybe he wrote about it elsewhere, but I could not find anything.

There is no dispute about China’s renewables investment. The dispute is about the significance of its far greater investment in coal. In my view, the Chinese leaders’ decision in the 1990s to go for coal-intensive industrial development was a key step toward potentially disastrous global warming. Those leaders prioritized their understanding of economic development—primarily, industrialization to supply world markets—over the ruinous consequences for future generations of Chinese and other people.

  1. I think that, to understand Chinese policy, the decision to initiate the biggest coal-fired economic boom in world history is central; Foster does not.

Foster considers China’s environmental problems as “the inevitable result of extremely rapid economic growth.” In my view, problems caused by the coal-fired boom were not “inevitable.” (I disagree, too, with your editorial’s emphasis on China “freeing itself from its dependence on coal,” as though that dependence was solely an externally imposed factor.) While coal is in some senses inevitably the go-to fuel for developing nations in Asia, its use at unprecedented scale, for the purpose of export-focused industrialization, was a policy choice.

That choice was implicitly challenged in the 1990s not only by dissident environmentalists whose work was suppressed, but also by the senior CCP economist Deng Yingtao. Were Deng’s proposals, to avoid following what he termed the “Western model of economic growth,” viable? Was it “inevitable” that they were rejected? I offered some comments on this. Perhaps Monthly Review could engage with Deng’s book, published in English in 2017 and, I believe, ignored by the entire left.

  1. I think the Chinese leadership’s current policy, overall, is damaging to the cause of preventing dangerous global warming; Foster does not.

Your editorial, with which I presume Foster agrees, warmly welcomes China’s declaration of its 2060 net zero target, and is encouraged that “China is on track to reach its 2030 goal,” which requires a 60 to 65 percent drop in the economy’s carbon intensity compared to 2005.

I see these facts from a different angle. The projected drop in carbon intensity is less impressive than it sounds, since the carbon intensity of China’s economy in 2005 was, due to the coal-fired boom, nearly twice India’s and more than three times Brazil’s. What is more significant is China’s goal for greenhouse gas emissions: that they will continue to rise until 2030, and only decline after that. The reluctance to cut them in this decade—like the inadequate pledges made by other nations at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference—is widely recognized as ruinous in terms of climate change.

Your editorial sees the Climate Action Tracker assessment that China will meet its 2030 goals as positive. The Climate Action Tracker is less sanguine than Monthly Review, and designates China’s climate policies as “highly insufficient.” To its acknowledgment that the inadequate 2030 target will be met, it adds that China “lacks the policies and direction [for] a low-carbon trajectory”; “China’s coal activities remain a large concern and are inconsistent with the Paris Agreement”; and China would need to phase out coal by 2040 on 1.5°C-compatible pathways, but “appears to be going in the opposite direction.”

  1. Foster sees Chinese leaders’ claims to be moving toward “ecological civilization” as a credible framework for discussion; I do not.

All ruling elites elaborate ideological justifications for their actions. In my view, socialists analyze the actions first, and consider ideologies in that context. The Chinese leaders’ talk of “ecological civilization” is no more a basis for understanding their policy than the Communist in their party’s title.

To avoid confusion: Gabriel Levy, author of articles on the People & Nature blog, is a pseudonym I used.

China and the Challenge of Ecological Civilization

The Editors

In the Notes from the Editors to the March 2021 issue of Monthly Review, we responded to positions on China and the environment taken by two noted ecosocialist analysts, Richard Smith and Simon Pirani (writing under the pseudonym of Gabriel Levy). Both Smith and Pirani have written replies, allowing for a wider exchange.

Smith’s stance toward China is openly accusatory: China is the “engine of environmental collapse”; Xi Jinping is a “climate arsonist”; and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is “an environmental catastrophe” engendering an “environmental rogue state”—all quoted from titles to his recently published works (cited in our March Notes from the Editors), including an article in the establishment, neoliberal, New Cold War journal Foreign Policy.

According to Smith, it is possible to demarcate, in “historical materialist” terms, two forms of capitalism: (1) “normal capitalism,” represented above all by the United States and the other wealthy capitalist states, and (2) the “Stalinist capitalist” system, represented primarily by China. China is said to be unique in its accumulation drive, which is greater than that of today’s “normal capitalist” states, making it a far greater threat to the planet. All of this can be traced to what he calls the “sociopathic” and “suicidal” nature of the CCP leadership, which is to be sharply distinguished from the Western power elite.

The empirical basis of Smith’s argument concentrates on one factor: China’s heavy dependence on coal (a dirtier fossil fuel than oil or natural gas) and the effect that this has on enlarging China’s carbon emissions, given also its high rate of economic growth. Smith’s main argument here is simple and seemingly straightforward: the core capitalist countries of the triad of the United States/Canada, Western Europe, and Japan are all reducing their carbon emissions. In contrast, China’s carbon emissions, we are told, have been rising in recent decades, mainly because of China’s coal dependence, coupled with, as he says in the present piece, the “ecosuicidal drivers of hyper growth” built into its system. China’s “Stalinist capitalist” system thus removes it from the relatively rational path of “normal capitalism,” putting the whole world on a trajectory to climate catastrophe.

This simple story, however, lacks crucial social, historical, and global dimensions. A few basic facts should suffice to indicate that Smith’s argument that China is the “engine of climate catastrophe” falls short and runs into significant contradictions:

  • The global carbon budget is determined by the cumulative carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, not simply by current emission rates. In terms of cumulative carbon emissions, the United States is more accountable for the rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere above the preindustrial level than is China by a factor of ten.10
  • China is an emerging, not yet a rich or developed, economy, ranking only seventy-second in the world in per capital income. The 1992 Kyoto Protocol and the other initial agreements of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) originally excluded the Global South from carbon dioxide emission reductions, requiring that developed economies (Annex I countries) reduce their emissions on average 5 percent below the 1990 level—with the United States, although never ratifying the agreement, required to reduce its emissions by 7 percent below its 1990 level—by 2008–2012. More than two and a half decades later, in 2019, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, despite reductions from their high point in 2007, were still 2 percent above the 1990 level.11 This continuing failure of the rich capitalist countries to reduce their emissions in accordance with the UNFCC agreement has put additional pressure on emerging economies to pick up the slack.
  • Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United States today are currently more than twice that of China.12Yet, from a Global South perspective, the only meaningful way of addressing climate change is by a process of contraction and convergence, whereby per capita emissions of all countries are equalized.
  • Carbon emissions by the U.S. military (even when excluding the emissions from its hundreds of bases abroad) are greater than the annual carbon emissions of 140 countries, yet are not included in the U.S. carbon emissions count.13
  • While recorded carbon emissions in the United States have been decreasing in recent years, this is mainly the result of the natural gas boom from fracking, and the shifting of much of the industrial production that occurred in the United States and other developed countries to the Global South in general, and China in particular. The attribution of emissions on a consumption rather than production basis would increase total U.S. carbon emissions by about 8 percent while decreasing those of China by around 14 percent.14
  • Although U.S. coal consumption per capita has dropped over the last decade or so due to the fracking boom, as recently as 2010 it was considerably higher than that of China today. Australia has far higher coal consumption per capita than China.15
  • China has large supplies of coal (ranking fourth in the world), while its oil and gas reserves are considerably less, creating an internal fossil-fuel dependence on coal for its economic development. It now has the world’s largest high-efficiency (“clean”) coal power system, with “ultra-low emissions technology” incorporated into 80 percent of its coal-fired plants, which are more efficient in reducing emissions than coal plants in the United States. Although the share of coal in China’s energy mix has dropped by over 10 percentage points in the last decade, its coal consumption has not yet peaked. To reach zero net emissions, China will need to move away from coal and toward alternative energy sources.16

In the face of evidence provided in our March Notes from the Editors that China is flattening out its carbon emissions—together with its 2020 pledge to reach net carbon zero emissions before 2060, relying in part on its strong emphasis on alternative energy technology, where it is the world leader—Smith tries to salvage his thesis that China is the ultimate engine of ecological destruction. He thus points to estimates that China’s carbon emissions went up by 1.5 percent during 2020, while those of the United States fell by 11 percent. But China’s increase, which involved commissioning more coal-fired plants in the context of an attempt to recover quickly from the COVID-19 crisis, is no more likely to reflect the general trend for that country than the U.S. emissions drop of 11 percent, which simply reflected the much deeper economic crisis in the United States, are likely to be representative of the U.S. trend. Indeed, U.S. coal consumption alone is projected to rise by 16 percent in 2021, and by another 3 percent in 2022.17

There is no doubt that China, while experiencing world-record reductions in pollution, remains the world’s biggest polluter by most measures on a year-by-year basis, as well as the leading current source of carbon emissions (though its share of the carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere is small compared to the United States and Europe). China, like the rest of the world, desperately needs an ecological revolution, which must necessarily go beyond mere ecological modernization. This will mean questioning the whole role of economic growth. Nevertheless, as we said in our March Notes from the Editors, we see a “ray of hope” in the Chinese leadership’s increasingly strong commitment to building an ecological civilization. This is occurring in the context of vast ecological struggles taking place in China and the conflict of China’s central leadership with powerful local governments and private business interests.18 In this ongoing struggle in China, Monthly Review identifies most strongly with those forces fighting for ecological civilization.

Simon Pirani’s reply to our March Notes from the Editors continues his earlier criticisms of MR editor John Bellamy Foster. Yet, in contrast to his earlier blog piece where he cited specific passages by Foster—which we demonstrated to be distorted and taken out of context—he chose this time around to present allegations with no pretense of any empirical backing whatsoever, basing his criticisms on his own direct perceptions of Foster’s thoughts.

In his first charge, Pirani writes: “Foster thinks Chinese investment in renewables is more significant than its investment in coal.” Foster, the defendant in this case, however, has never intimated any such thing. What needs to be recognized, though, is that the two energy paths of coal versus alternative energies are obviously related, and a shift to alternative energy technology is the key to China moving away from coal and from fossil fuels in general. As noted above, coal consumption has been diminishing as a portion of China’s energy mix, though it has not yet peaked.

In his second attack on Foster’s thoughts, Pirani declares: “I think that, to understand Chinese policy, the decision to initiate the biggest coal-fired economic boom in world history is central; Foster does not.” With respect to Foster, this is completely unfounded. Indeed, no rational observer would deny the importance of China’s coal-based carbon emissions at present with respect to the earth’s remaining climate budget. But while is true that China initiated the biggest coal boom in history measured in absolute terms (though, from a historical standpoint, British dependence on coal in its Industrial Revolution was obviously much higher than China today), as recently as 2010, China’s per capita coal consumption was still considerably lower than that of the United States. Moreover, China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions overall remain far lower today than those of the United States.19 China’s current attempt to shift away from coal as an energy source, relying more on alternative energy sources, is the main reason that it is flattening its carbon emissions at present.

In his third charge directed at Foster’s inner thoughts, Pirani says: “I think the Chinese leadership’s current policy, overall, is damaging to the cause of preventing dangerous global warming; Foster does not.” This too is false where Foster is concerned, precisely because it lacks nuance. As indicated in the March Notes from the Editors, the Chinese leadership has provided the world with a “ray of hope” in its incorporation of the goal of an ecological civilization into its five-year plans, its shift of China’s energy mix toward alternative energy sources, and its commitment to reach zero net carbon emissions before 2060. But there is still a long way to go, and clearly China is still at present contributing massively to planetary ecological destruction. We agree with Pirani that it would have been much better if the Chinese leadership had listened to the advice of Deng Yingtao in his A New Development Model in China (1991). While conditions have dramatically changed since then, much of his analysis remains vital in any attempt to carry out an ecological revolution in China.20

Finally, in his fourth charge leveled against Foster, Pirani says that “Foster sees Chinese leaders’ claims to be moving toward ‘ecological civilization’ as a credible framework for discussion; I do not.” Here, Pirani is correct in his criticisms. Foster, and all of us on the MR editorial committee, believe, in contradistinction to Pirani, that the Chinese leadership’s commitment to creating an ecological civilization is a framework well worth discussion. The future of humanity may very well weigh in the balance.21


  1. Lauri Myllyvirta, “Analysis: China’s CO2 Emissions Surged 4% in Second Half of 2020,” CarbonBrief, March 3, 2021.
  2. EIA Expects U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions to Fall 11% in 2020,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, December 9, 2020.
  3. Countries,” Climate Action Tracker, accessed March 28, 2021.
  4. Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 28, 2021.
  5. Tsvetana Paraskova, “China Aims to Boost Its Oil and Gas Production in 2020,” OilPrice, June 22, 2020; Chen-Wei Yap and Chieko Tsuneoka, “China’s Pursuit of Natural Gas Jolts Markets and Drains Neighbors,” Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2021.
  6. Eric Yep and Cindy Liang, “China Proposal to Replace Coal in Over 7 Million Homes May Boost Winter LNG Demand,” S&P Global Platts, September 30, 2020.
  7. David Stanway, “China’s New Coal Power Plant Capacity in 2020 More Than Three Times Rest of World’s: Study,” Reuters,February 2, 2021.
  8. Coal and Lignite Domestic Consumption,” in Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2020, Enerdata, accessed March 28, 2021.
  9. Peng Yin et al., “The Effect of Air Pollution on Deaths, Disease Burden, and Life Expectancy Across China and Its Provinces, 1990–2017: An Analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017,” Lancet, August 17, 2020.
  10. James Hansen et al., “Young Peoples’ Burden: Requirements of Negative CO2 Emissions,” Earth System Dynamics 8 (2017): 578; James Hansen, “China and the Barbarians, Part 1,” Columbia University, November 24, 2010.
  11. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Draft Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2019 (Washington DC: EPA, 2021), ES-4; John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 13–14.
  12. Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions,” Union of Concerned Scientists, August 12, 2020.
  13. Neta C. Crawford, “Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Cost of War” (Watson Institute, Brown University, November 13, 2019); “The U.S. Military Produces More Greenhouse Gas Emissions than Up to 140 Countries Combined,” Newsweek, June 25, 2019; “Pentagon to Lose Emissions Exemption Under Paris Climate Deal,” Guardian, December 14, 2015.
  14. Hannah Ritchie, “How Do CO2 Emissions Compare When We Adjust for Trade,” Our World in Data, October 7, 2019.
  15. Per Capita Energy Emissions from Coal, 2019,” Our World in Data, accessed April 7, 2021.
  16. China Power Team, “How Is China’s Energy Footprint Changing?,” China Power, January 30, 2021; “Everything You Think You Know About Coal in China is Wrong,” Center for American Progress, May 15, 2017; “China’s Coal Share of Energy Consumption Falls in 2020 but Overall Coal Use Is Up,” Reuters, February 28, 2021.
  17. “World’s Three Biggest Coal Users Get Ready to Burn Even More,” Bloomberg, March 19, 2021.
  18. “The Rock Standing in the Way of Climate Ambitions: Coal,” New York Times, March 16, 2021.
  19. “Per Capita Energy Emissions from Coal.”
  20. Deng Yingtao, A New Development Model and China’s Future (London: Routledge, 2014).
  21. On the history and significance of the concept of ecological civilization from a historical materialist standpoint, see John Bellamy Foster, “The Earth-System Crisis and Ecological Civilization,” International Critical Thought 7, no. 4 (2017): 439–58.