‘What-about-ism’ needs to be addressed: China takes first step

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China, the world’s biggest coal user, says that coal will play a “less dominant role” in its energy mix and despite plans to build new coal-fired power stations, the country won’t use it on a wide scale.

Naturally, that’s good news for the climate, but it’s also good news for countries, mainly in the west, that are trying to persuade citizens to ‘be green’.

While we’re being told to use greener vehicles, recycle more and use less energy, there are plenty of cynics who say ‘that’s all very well, but what about…’ citing the pictures of rivers of plastic bottles in Asia, or China ‘building a new power station every day’.

‘What-about-ism’, as it’s called, isn’t new. Indeed it’s as old as debates themselves.

Watch any political debate with low-brow speakers who, in an attempt to deflect arguments about their policy, turn on their opponents and say ‘what about….’ It’s a trick that is used so regularly we tend not to notice it, even when it’s dressed up in the phase: “The real issue here is…” before attacking their opponents.

In a sense, it’s human nature to ‘blame someone else’ for our ills. The trait can be first observed in young children with the ‘it was his/her fault’ or ‘it wasn’t me’ and the classic ‘he/she hit me first’.

As we develop into adults, some people accept responsibility for their own actions, but others do not and try to wriggle out of it, even if it’s in a different way: ‘Everybody else was parked on the pavement, what was I expected to do…’ and similar.

So the comments by Li Gao, Director General of the Department of Climate Change in China’s Environment Ministry, that follow pledges at last week’s climate summit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to work with the USA in cutting emissions, are welcome.

“In the past, coal was the main source of power” Li said at a press conference. “In the future it will play the role of providing flexibility for the power grid.

“And now we still need a certain amount of coal … but we will not develop coal on a wide-scale basis, that’s very clear and that’s strictly regulated,” he added.

While Li acknowledged that China is still building new coal power plants, he emphasised that they are unlike traditional coal plants and would not emit as much pollution as older plants.

China obtains roughly 60% of its power from coal, and is the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gases.

During the Trump administration, the USA used China’s emissions as an excuse not to act, and in the past China pointed to USA historical emissions as a reason to resist action.

In this we saw ‘what-about-ism’ in its most powerful form.

Beijing has set a target for non-fossil fuel energy to account for 20% of the country’s total energy consumption by 2025, which will require further investment in solar and wind energy. It comes after President Xi Jinping announced last year that China would be carbon-neutral by 2060 and aims to reach a peak in its emissions by 2030.

It is time to bury ‘what-about-ism’ in the green agenda, and just get on with it.

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