Environmental Protection and the China Advantage

by Antonios J. Bokas

Abstract: China has adhered to various types of Emissions Trading Systems since the late 20th century. However, in order to maximize their economic output, China has circumvented emissions restrictions by retaining its status as a developing nation. While China has made substantial progress in reducing intranational pollution, critics contend they are simply exporting pollution to other nations. The US must take charge of its bilateral relationship with China if it desires to maintain its status as the leader of international environmental protection efforts.

In 1982, the United Nations said that climate change could cause the equivalent of a nuclear apocalypse by the year 2020 (Lomborg, 2021). China did not believe such admonitions then, when it adopted initial environmental protection measures, and it does not believe such admonitions now, as it takes the lead in the global economy. China carefully weaved itself into environmental compacts, such as the Kyoto Protocol, in ways that allowed it to bolster its ecological priorities yet avoid wanton destruction of its national goals. While China stands accused of egregious violations, such as forced labor in Xinjiang, internet censorship with the Great Firewall, and human rights violations against protesters in Hong Kong, one thing China has not violated is its agreement to reduce environmental pollution and regulate its carbon emissions through the use of an Emissions Trading System.

One key evidence that illustrates China’s commitment to reducing environmental pollution is its conduct under the Kyoto Protocol environmental treaty. The Kyoto Protocol is considered the most enforceable international environmental treaty because its members can be penalized for violating their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Chan et al., 2008). China ratified and entered the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 as a developing nation. As a developing nation that heavily invests in emissions reduction projects, China is exempt from such requirements per the agreement. Therefore, China can sell Certified Emissions Reduction credits to other developed nations that are bound by emissions restrictions, but that wish to exceed their emissions cap. While this may seem underhanded at first glance, China is actually doing nothing legally wrong. In fact, while China initially sold 73% of all credits worldwide in 2005, their share steadily dropped to 60% in 2006 and 55% in 2011—which indicates that although they are not bound to do so, China has a real interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Chan et al., 2008; Nagle, 2011).

In addition to reducing its sales of Certified Emissions Reduction credits, China has taken the lead globally in investment in pollution prevention and development of environmentally sustainable technology. According to Percival (2011), China was formerly notorious for disregarding and depleting the environment and natural resources during the Mao Zedong era (1949-1976). Such violations included government-encouraged deforestation of woodlands to grow crops, a campaign to create makeshift backyard steel mills, and a homogenous national order that every county in China build a dam in order to create a local water reservoir. Mao was ignorant of environmental science and persecuted scientists who attempted to alter his plans of mass-production.

However, present-day China has lofty environmental goals, such as reforesting 110 million hectares of forest (28% land coverage) by 2050 and protecting 90% of natural wetlands from industrial pollution (Percival, 2011). China has also taken another step forward by becoming a leader in green technology development. They have rapidly expanded business investment in the wind and solar energy industries to such an extent that one American union basically accused China of predation by overzealously promoting green technology. Whether China intends to use green technology as an economic weapon is moot; the bottom line is that China is taking steps to protect its own environment even while gaining an economic advantage over its competitors.

However, competition is one key word that drives Americans to disbelieve in China’s environmentally-friendly efforts. Nagle (2011) explains that China has lauded what it describes as their common but differentiated responsibility per the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. According to Chinese Communist Party spokesmen, their common but differentiated responsibility to protect the environment is justified by that fact that the US, and other western nations, have had the luxury of polluting for two centuries while China has only been industrialized for about 80 years; basically, China “wants other nations to stop polluting so it can pollute instead” (p. 609). And speaking of pollution, American skeptics have rightfully shed light on the fact that China remains the leading emitter of carbon dioxide, the leading producer of coal, and the leading importer of illicit timber—which contributes to deforestation in nations across eastern Asia while protecting China’s own forests. This sentiment logically highlights the question of whether China genuinely seeks to reduce global pollution and environmental harm or simply wishes to leapfrog its industrial competitors.

Perhaps the most damning argument against genuine Chinese intentions of environmental protection is China’s disregard of the rights of its own citizens. In an incredible feat of in-country journalism that lasted for over a year, Stern (2011) interviewed 130 Chinese nationals who were parties to environmental lawsuits. The justice system in China is in disrepair, to say the least. Stern documents that it is common for local judges to refuse to hear environmental lawsuits due to whim or economic protectionism. Judges also sometimes decide to break up collective lawsuits into individual or family-sized suits, thereby forcing each plaintiff to hire his own lawyer. With many plaintiffs being small-scale farmers or workers with little money, this dashes their hopes of receiving compensation for personal injury or crop losses caused by pollution from factories.

A positive aspect of environmental law in China is that the burden of proof is on the defendants; they must prove their industry did not cause pollution for the plaintiff (Stern, 2011). However, this benefit is undercut by the fact that judges typically overvalue governmental evidence of pollution—evidence that is difficult to obtain due to scarce equipment and the high cost of hiring independent environmental practitioners to conduct land or water analysis. Another major barrier to environmental litigation is the effect of media coverage on cases. Local media may not cover national stories, while national media may cover any story, but not if it implicates country officials. This illustrates how national forces in China push for environmental protectionism, but not at the cost of economic development. The net benefit of local lawsuits, collective lawsuits, the defendant’s burden of proof, and media attention is reduced by the ineffective centralized communist government structure; it is good at enacting national environmental policies, but the varied efficacy of provincial and local judiciaries impairs policy implementation.

Americans who wish to understand the conundrum of whether or not the Chinese government is exploiting the US must view the problem in a new way: China is simply following its own guidance and joining the international environmental protection arena as it sees fit. Of course, there is much to be researched and said about the intelligence, political, and diplomatic apparatuses of China. It is logical to assume that China would use such capabilities to disrupt the US in its climate efforts, when possible. It is also feasible that China would attempt to influence and distort the environmental beliefs of the average American, thereby leading him to fear outrageous cataclysmic Earth events as described by Lomborg (2021) or depicted in Hollywood films. But such debates are better left for a formal discussion of military affairs and information operations.

In closing, the lackadaisical track record of China in the realms of human rights and censorship have led Americans to doubt the authenticity of China’s environmental protection efforts. When China entered the Kyoto Protocol and began benefiting from its status as a developing nation, to the detriment of the environment in some ways, this distrust solidified. But the bottom line is that the US is ultimately responsible for its own environmental destiny, not China. It is difficult to disagree with the conclusions of Nagle (2011), which are that the US “must at least match China’s efforts to address climate change” and that the US and China should “enter into bilateral agreements respecting climate change” (pp. 628, 632). In other words, it is not enough for the US to reject international environmental pacts in protest of China’s conduct, as it did with the Kyoto Protocol and (initially) the Paris Agreement. If China threatens the US, then it should proactively hinder China’s bilateral influence using diplomatic and economic levers of power.

As Lomborg (2021) states, “despite the shrill alarms, not all of society’s problems are caused by climate change—and the current climate change hammer costs a fortune but doesn’t pack much of a wallop” (para. 14). The US is spending its political and economic energy pointing fingers about climate change, but China is actually taking steps to alleviate it. China is not even effectively doing so; its politics are hindering their efforts and may lead to more national unrest. But the Chinese mentality, that of survival, necessarily developed since the time of Mao Zedong, is driving their effort. The US has similar authoritative problems between its states and federal government, but it also has a relatively free press, a longer history of environmental consciousness, and a head start economically. Hopefully, Americans will soon realize their true position in the environmental fight and regain their lead on the global stage before it is lost forever to a nation like China, which is not yet fit to lead the free world.


Chan, G., Lee, P., & Chan, L. (2008). China’s environmental governance: The domestic-international nexus. Third World Quarterly, 29(2), 291-314. Retrieved July 22, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20455041

Lomborg, B. (2021, May 20). Pressing pause in climate alarmism in favor of smarter solutions. Forbes. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/bjornlomborg/2021/05/20/pressing-pause-in-climate-alarmism-in-favor-of-smarter-solutions/?sh=3f9a961529a2

Nagle, J. (2011). How much should China pollute? Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, 12(3), 591-632. Retrieved July 22, 2021, from doi:10.2307/vermjenvilaw.12.3.591

Percival, R. (2011). China’s “green leap forward” toward global environmental leadership. Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, 12(3), 633-657. Retrieved July 22, 2021, from doi:10.2307/vermjenvilaw.12.3.633

Stern, R. (2011). From dispute to decision: Suing polluters in China. The China Quarterly, (206), 294-312. Retrieved July 22, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41305220

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s