For too long, many of us in the West have driven our cars, burned our fossil fuel and emitted our greenhouse gases somewhat smug in the belief that whatever we do, we will probably not be contributing to climate change as much as China. On the global stage, China has taken the role of a convenient villain – a polluter so rampant that everyone else’s efforts are negated. But for some years, China has been changing. China is looking towards the future.
In 2013 China led the world in renewable energy investment, spending a total of $56.3 billion on solar, wind and other renewable projects – that’s more than all of Europe combined in the previous year. It’s estimated that by 2030 China will produce more renewable energy than the US produces total energy.
So why is China doing all this? It has a good deal to do with China’s political system. The government has realised that if they continue producing energy the way they are, the country will eventually become unliveable. And if that happened, it would not result in failed re-elections, it would most likely result in civil unrest and eventually revolution.
Compare this to the Western democracies. Broadly speaking, our political discourse revolves around what can be achieved in a four or five year election cycle. We are comfortable with the quality of our lives and think insufficiently about developing countries. There is no political incentive to prioritise climate change policies over more immediate issues like the economy, security, crime or health. And although global warming has entered the debate in many democracies, the sad reality is that the issue will not win elections, yet. However, as China has realised, if we do not seriously plan for our climate’s future now, we may find that when the time comes it is already too late.
So am I suggesting that we surrender our democracies and adopt Chinese-style autocracies? Clearly not. But we do need to be aware of the limitations of our political structures and compensate for them. It’s clear that we cannot sit back and expect that it will all be sorted out by the (or specifically with ‘our’) system, whilst simultaneously wagging our finger at the Chinese. It takes leadership, leadership with vision, to convert long-term challenges into short-term movements that people can get behind – leaders from throughout society who can give clarity to the problems and contribute to their solutions. We don’t need to change our democratic system, but we do need to become more involved in it.