Can China stop climate change?

In a political science course and new book, Director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives Scott Moore unfurls the layers of China’s approach to sustainability and technology.

Scott Moore sitting on a bench
Scott Moore, director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives, pictured along Locust Walk.

Though he’s been a scholar of international relations, sustainability, and China for the better part of two decades, Scott Moore’s path was not an obvious one. 

At 16, he left Kentucky to attend an international boarding school in Hong Kong, one of a series of “fortuitous accidents,” he says, that led him to study China. Because of his Kentucky background leading up to that experience, he explains, he was interested in environmental issues: His soccer coach as a kid was one of the state’s few environmental lawyers, and he absorbed numerous stories about coal, pollution, and other energy issues that sparked his interest in the subject. His mother, too, was interested in the environment: As a professor of education at the University of Louisville, she attended teacher trainings throughout Appalachia, and by traveling with her he’d see the effects of coal mining. 

“My career basically ended up combining those two things,” Moore says. 

In his career as a civil servant, he’d go on to work at the State Department during the year leading up to the Paris Agreement, immersing himself in world policy debates. He also joined the World Bank to work on sustainable development projects in China before coming to Penn in 2018. He now serves as director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives as part of Penn Global and teaches the course Can China Stop Climate Change? in the Political Science Department in the School of Arts & Sciences. In July, he’ll publish his new book, “China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future.”

Here, Moore discusses Penn Global’s efforts to include the study of China in departments across the University, why he created his course on China and sustainability, and the urgency in which China appears to be approaching the issue of climate change.

China's Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China's Rise and the World's Future
Image: Oxford University Press

You’ve mentioned a broader effort to incorporate China into more courses across the University. Can you tell me a little about that?

When I joined Penn Global, my role was focused on supporting China programs. Back in 2015 the University opened a center in Beijing, the Penn Wharton China Center (PWCC). And at the same time, Penn created a special fund to support faculty research and engagement related to China. And so, when I first came to Penn Global, that was my main role—to support those China-focused programs.

In the case of PWCC, working with the Wharton School and other stakeholders, that was really a main part of the role. As time has gone on, we’ve turned to other more innovative ways of building out that China engagement strategy. For example, the China Education Initiative is a new program designed to respond to what we have seen a lot of interest in, even during the pandemic, which is shorter-term exposure to China. And so, the idea behind the China Education Initiative is you have undergraduate courses with an immersive travel component that aim to provide concentrated exposure in the context of a class that explores an important aspect of contemporary China.

Why did you decide to create this class, on this topic?

The idea came from the most recent UN-sponsored climate conference, held in Glasgow, Scotland, last December, which was very significant for a number of reasons, not least because China has emerged as a really critical player. And as in past climate conferences, China has been the arguably single most important player, so I really created the class because there’s so much to explore just on China’s role in climate change, how it’s evolved, and how we can expect to see it evolve over time. And obviously the implications that has for what will happen to our climate.

What are China’s climate commitments and how are they unique?

The single biggest one is a pledge that China’s top leader Xi Jinping announced pretty unexpectedly in September 2020—there weren’t many people in the outside world anticipating it ahead of time. The occasion, the UN General Assembly session, is a very high-level platform and that’s significant because this pledge was issued in this extremely high-profile global perch. It’s one of the most significant platforms that any leader from any country can have, in terms of visibility and pomp and circumstance surrounding the whole thing. 

So, Xi used a lot of his time at the podium at this high-profile event to announce that China would decarbonize or reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060, and it can’t be overstated how drastic a change that would be. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and many other greenhouse gases, has been since the mid-2000s, and is even more so than other large economies very heavily dependent on coal and oil for its economy. 

So, to make this high-profile announcement and pledge was a big deal. That made China by far the largest and most diversified economy to make a similar type of commitment or pledge. That pledge later was extended to include all greenhouse gases, not just CO2, and so it’s a big deal and it surpasses the pledges the U.S. has made and most other economies have made.

To take a temperature check: How is China faring with this since then? And do you think that was a good-faith commitment? 

I think in most ways it is. The way I came to talk about it, including to my students, is I think there are several ways, at least four main ways to think about what it means to meet that type of commitment or similar commitment that the U.S. or EU might make. There’s a political level, on which the main question is just how committed the decision makers are to making this happen, and I think on that score it is a very credible commitment. All the signs that we have are that Xi Jinping does take climate change very seriously. He appears to have a personal interest in environmental issue to some degree; whether that’s something that would outweigh all the other competing things he has to think about is a question mark. But it does appear he has some serious personal commitment to environmental issues beyond the more selfish or pragmatic ones he might have for paying attention to climate or energy issues.

A second way to think about that type of credibility is in terms of economics. Is there a commercially or economically feasible way to do that, to meet those commitments? And there you get a more tentative answer. Certainly, there is a pathway, several pathways, for China and other large economies to decarbonize by late this century, and some of the cost estimates are—they’re significant but surprisingly affordable when you average it over that many decades. The problem is, in the short run, there are lots of competing economic priorities. There’s energy security, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become a pressing issue among a lot of countries, including China. So, trying to make sure you have enough energy at reasonable cost to continue to keep the lights on and factories humming.

And just like in the U.S., or other large economies, there is a concern, in some ways legitimate, that totally changing where you get your energy from will have significant costs when it comes to employment disruption and things like that.

The third way to think of it is technologically: Do we have the technology to make this happen? Again, a little more of a question mark. Strictly speaking, the answer is yes, but it comes back to that commercial feasibility question. And there, we really don’t have the technology at a mature and commercially deployable stage now that we would need to decarbonize, and that’s true of China as well as other countries.

The fourth and final thing is just to think about that commitment in terms of international relations, and there I think that’s the most pessimistic picture of all, because for China to meet its objectives almost certainly would require some level of exchange, trade, and cooperation with the U.S. and other economies. And there are headwinds to that for a lot of different reasons.

You invited a lot of guest speakers for your course about China and climate change. What were some takeaways or highlights from them?

I think the biggest takeaway is climate change is almost the only area where there is something approaching high-level cooperation between Chinese and American governments right now; there are very few other areas where that’s true. And I think it’s a sign of how seriously both countries take it. There are a lot of questions, I think, about how that high-level cooperation—strong though it is—matches the severity of the climate crisis, in terms of concrete gains. We spent a lot of time with guest speakers asking that question.

Another thing we talked quite a bit about is the preferences of Chinese consumers and how they’ve changed when it comes to sustainability. The ESG sector in China, for example, and how that’s evolving. We try not to talk just about what’s happening between governments, but also what’s happening in the corporate world, private sector, in consumer behavior, and with NGOs.

How does this all connect to your new book?

The book was really inspired by the previous two versions of this class. Those two classes were a little bit broader than the current one, so they looked at a broad range of environmental issues when it came to China, and we also talked about public health in light of the pandemic, and I thought of those classes as covering newer or emerging issues when it comes to China’s role in the world. Traditionally, those had been things like trade, geopolitics, military affairs, human rights, and I was interested in exploring this newer set of issues like environment, public health, and technology issues. And so, the previous two versions of the class focused on those in addition to climate change. Teaching on those issues inspired me to write the book because I found there were not a lot of academic books that addressed those issues in depth when it came to China, in some ways very understandably. Because they are relatively new. And they are very technical, and it’s hard to think about that as a piece. 

That’s what the book tries to do: To look at the many ways these newer issues, which I divide into two main categories of sustainability and technology, are really becoming more central to China’s politics, economic development strategy, and even to its foreign relations. And that is having a lot of implications and effects on everyone far outside China itself.

What is the technology side of how you approach the book?

The technology side is particularly around emerging technologies: artificial intelligence is the best example, but there are several others I look at in the book, too, especially in biotech and robotics. The reason I think it’s important to look at these issues in their own right and as a sort of counterpoint, or comparison to climate change and other environmental issues, is China is a little unusual among developing countries in the number of resources and policy attention it has given to investing in these emerging technologies. The basic idea here is that China’s leaders see them as being critical to propelling future growth, to delivering outcomes for its citizens, and to avoiding problems like slowing population growth, and there’s an attempt to leapfrog ahead of where the U.S. and other developed countries are and skip a few phases of development both economically and ecologically. Hence, this very large-scale investment. 

At the same time, China’s leadership has been hit with a series of ecological disruptions, and climate change is a good example. Another thing we talk a lot about in the class is China is probably the most exposed large country to climate risk and extreme weather. You’ve seen over the last couple years a really intensifying burden from extreme drought and flooding, and obviously you’ve had COVID-19 and other public health disasters. 

So, at the same time China is trying to leapfrog other countries in advanced technology, there’s a whole set of costs and drags on China’s growth that have come from the same set of emerging issue areas. I think it’s very important to look at those in combination. When it comes to how China’s leaders see the world, it’s this mix of threat and opportunity that comes from new issue areas that shapes their thinking.

Who is the book for?

I’d like to think it’s for anyone—at least anyone who is curious about what is happening in the world, but I wrote it particularly to be of value and use to people who have some background or familiarity in China. People whose businesses involve some China-centric supply chains, or who—at least in pre-COVID times—might have traveled for business or may have studied some Chinese. Or have some familiarity with China-related issues, whether trade or security, but who aren’t necessarily China specialists.

I wanted to write it for an audience familiar with and curious about China but isn’t necessarily an expert. And I hope it’s reasonably accessible. I’ve personally always loved historical narratives and storytelling, so I try in the book to motivate a lot of issues and discussion through historical anecdotes. And I try to use those to tell a story about some of what I think are the most important issues in China and the world.

After writing this book, do you feel more or less optimistic about China’s role in mitigating climate change?

I feel more hopeful about some aspects of it. Certainly, one thing I talk about in the book and in the class is I do think China’s commitments in the climate area will continue to make parts of the clean energy ecosystem more cost-effective. The most obvious is solar and wind power, but increasingly also battery storage. Hopefully also in carbon capture, which is a way of taking carbon dioxide emissions and storing them underground where they can’t escape into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. So, I think China will continue to have a role and important effect in making those technologies cost-effective. I think a remaining question is if all that can happen quickly enough to keep up with the science and what’s happening to the world’s climate. That’s a big question mark that continues to lend a lot of urgency to the policies that China undertakes, the U.S. undertakes, and other countries undertake, to cut emissions as quickly and deeply as possible.