Red China, green China?

Red China, green China?
© Getty Images

Deep in the forested mountains of Sumatra, scientists identified a new species of great ape in 2017 — the Tapanuli orangutan. It was the first time since 1929 that a new species of great ape had been identified. But from the moment of discovery, it became the most endangered great ape in the world, with only 800 individuals left. The primary threat to their survival comes from a planned dam that will irreparably fragment their habitat.

This massive dam is backed by Chinese finance, and is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure project just celebrated at the second annual Belt and Road forum in Beijing. But in recent weeks, something surprising has happened: In response to international outcry, China’s flagship state-owned Bank of China has announced it will reevaluate its participation in the project. Senior executives have treated the issue with rare urgency, going out of their way to meet with experts and activists.

Until now, this kind of responsiveness from a Chinese state-owned institution was extraordinarily rare. Chinese investors were seen as purely short-term and transactional, more focused on extracting gain than building economies and societies for the long-term. Chinese state-backed investment was seen as a means of locking desperate developing world countries into a permanent state of geopolitical dependency. 

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Indeed, Chinese markets and investors have long been safe havens for governments and rogue companies evading basic international environmental or human rights standards. In our own work to clean up global agricultural supply chains, resistant companies have often said they can just turn around and sell an environmentally inferior project to China — everything from meat to coal — or turn to unscrupulous Chinese banks for financing. 

But in the last year, we have seen signs that China’s engagement model has shifted. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge to create an “ecological civilization” seems to be having a significant effect. Just recently, he told the Belt and Road forum that the BRI projects must consider environmental impacts to “protect the common home we live in.”

Perhaps the most significant signal is the Chinese state-owned food company COFCO’s ambitious efforts to eliminate deforestation in its South American meat supply chain, where deforestation for beef production and soy for animal feed has destroyed millions of acres of rainforest and some of the world’s last remaining large, intact savannah. COFCO’s policies and on-the-ground practices are significantly stronger than those of its American competitors, Cargill and Bunge, and COFCO is determined to improve in coming months (Europe-based Louis Dreyfus has gone even further).

The same phenomenon is at work in clean energy. China is the undisputed global leader in wind power, according to the World Wind Energy Association, with more than 221 gigawatts of installed capacity (the equivalent of over 200 large nuclear plants and more than double the US wind total). The US has seen plenty of wind installed in recent years — 7.6 new gigawatts in 2018 — but it pales in comparison to China, which added 26 new gigawatts in the same year. China had also, as of 2017, installed 130 GW of solar photovoltaic power — nearly six times the generation power of the Three Gorges Dam.

We shouldn’t be naïve about China. There is self-interest involved: climate change threatens one of the country’s agricultural heartlands, the North China Plain. China wants to sign more deals like the one it just finalized with Italy to extend its flagship Belt and Road infrastructure initiative into the heart of Europe. It’ task that will be difficult if it is seen as careless about the environment or a faithless financial partner.

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And COFCO’s action on deforestation is likely to snag it more business from customers that have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020. China still has major environmental and human rights issues.

The world is waiting to see what China will do next. There are still major tests that will show whether China is committed to combining its emerging economic power with responsible global leadership.

In Guinea, China’s state-owned hydropower company is planning to build a dam that will inundate large parts of the newly-created Moyen-Bafing Park, the habitat of hundreds of endangered Western chimpanzees.

In South Africa, a country with huge solar potential and already choking in haze, China plans to build a massive new coal-fired power plant. And the dam project threatening the Tapanuli is still unresolved.

We should hope that China continues to move away from projects like these, and instead makes its action on deforestation in South America the template for its global engagement. We should celebrate that the world’s largest polluter is taking real steps to lighten its footprint. If it continues, China can help jumpstart the race to provide the environmentally responsible products and investments that the world increasingly demands.

Glenn Hurowitz is the CEO of environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth, a nonprofit that works to conserve threatened landscapes.