Putting People’s Development First Is The Only Effective Climate Strategy: China’s Green Transition as an Example

Belt and Road Institute in Sweden

The ongoing COP 27 Climate Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, has become an interesting arena for a real debate about the relationship between economic development and climate resilience. The fact that the summit is taking place in Africa, which is the least equipped continent in dealing with climate crises, is bringing forth the importance of economic and technological progress as the key aspect in dealing with such challenges.

An interesting article in Foreign Policy took a rational break away from the climate alarmism which considers the human society’s development in the past two centuries as the greatest cause of the global climate crisis. The article titled “Economic development is the only proven path to climate resilience”, states the obvious which has become obscured: “Climate adaptation—the actions that societies take to protect their populations from extreme weather, such as storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, and cold snaps—works”, it argues. It further elaborates that “it includes all the things people in rich countries take for granted: well-constructed buildings that withstand disasters, dikes and dams that protect from floods, air conditioning and cold storage for food and medicines, early warning systems, well-equipped first responders, and evacuation routes along well-paved roads.”

The authors correctly point to the fact that a society’s resilience to climate extremes is closely coupled with economic development, which includes “access to plentiful energy, better technology, improved agriculture, and the ability to pay for better houses and infrastructure. They present data which makes abundantly clear that development has saved millions of lives over the past century. The average resident of Earth today is more than 90 percent less likely to die from floods, droughts, storms, or other extreme climate events today than the 1920s—and that’s almost entirely the result of a phenomenal decline in the number of people living in poverty without access to such things as safe housing, functioning infrastructure, and good institutions.

Case of China

In China, the 1887 Yellow River flood killed as many as 2 million people and the 1931 Yangtze-Huai River floods as many as 4 million, according to the authors of the Foreign Policy article. Today, deaths in China from flooding number fewer than 500 each year. Cyclones across the Indian subcontinent rarely cause even 1,000 deaths. Neither China nor India has suffered a famine in decades.

The reason for this fantastic achievement is the incredible economic development that has taken place in China in recent decades with a globally unprecedented feat of modern infrastructure building. As for the future of this climate resilience capability, China is intending to keep focus on the economic development of the people as the first priority in its “green transition” strategy. As in many other aspects of political economy and governance, China’s definitions, visions, and actions tend to differ significantly from those promoted by Western political leaders and think tanks. Dealing with the climate issues follows the same pattern. While China, like most Western countries, does admit that there is a climate change caused by emissions by human society, its dealing with the effects of that climate change and how to move forward without jeopardizing the livelihood of its people differs in many aspects from the Western policies.

The Belt and Road Institute in Sweden published an extensive review of two major official papers published ahead of the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow in November 2021 and several speeches by China’s President Xi Jinping in recent conferences on the matter. This is an issue that should be of great interest for anyone who is curious about what the Chinese leaders and experts define as China’s “Green Transition” and how to deal with that from the standpoint of the West. As we clarify in the introduction to this review, it is important to realize that China is coming from a different political, historical, economic, social, and even philosophical direction than that we here in the West do. Therefore, it is very important to see this matter in light of China’s recent history and development process.

This is also an important reading for investors, innovators and researcher in Europe and other parts of the world who wish to figure out which fields are of interest for them to interact with their Chinese counterparts on.

We are not attempting to evaluate this green transition policy here but present it in a shorter and more graspable manner.