In his new book, Peter Drahos claims China is best placed to drive the innovation necessary to solve the climate problem
March 22, 2021
Peter Drahos is one of those Australian authors who tackle difficult subjects from a fresh perspective. Now holding a Chair at the European University Institute in Florence and an emeritus professorship at the Australian National University, he has selected the hottest topic of all for his new book: why the current approaches to resolving the climate problem are not working. He believes China’s energy choices favouring renewables and material choices in favour of circular flows (such as reclaiming raw material from spent products and waste) might emerge as the least improbable pathway to success. The book, entitled Survival Governance: Energy and Climate in the Chinese Century, is an extended defence of this proposition.
Drahos made his mark with a 2002 book on intellectual property rights that cut through the prevailing rhetoric on creativity and innovation with the concept of “information feudalism”: we are all copyright serfs paying out royalties on Hollywood and Silicon Valley products. He was also prominent in debates over Australia’s trade posture as the country negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States, eventually resulting in the Trans-Pacific Partnership – famously torn up by Donald Trump on the first day of his ill-fated presidency.
In this new, short book from Oxford University Press, Drahos argues China might prove to be the most effective player in resolving dangerous climate change. He examines whether industrial civilisation will survive in the face of the climate threat. He goes beyond simplistic calls for more international negotiations or for rich countries to respond to climate change as a moral challenge. Instead, he sees countries pursuing their national interests as the only meaningful way forward. He proposes that China, using its power as a vast economy and strong state, is in the “least worst” position to make a serious change. Drahos insists state action is key to providing the exogenous shock needed to force the world off its fossil fuel trajectory. As the world’s largest procurement market, China can provide the impetus to drive new standards.
Like others, Drahos sees innovation as key. Based on his background studying intellectual property rights, he argues that the US is incapable of hastening the necessary global diffusion of technologies. The EU, Japan or India cannot do it either. Rather it is China that has both the capacity and greatest incentive to drive world capitalism in a new, non-fossil fuel direction. If China were to pursue hegemony through fossil fuels, it would face endless frustration from existing US multinationals and networks. But as it looks to build its version of energy and resource security through a new paradigm of renewable energy and circular economy, it might just escape US dominance and carve out a new technological space for itself that delivers survival governance. This is Drahos’ “least improbable” way forward.
How would China provide the governance needed for such an outcome? It might be anticipated that Drahos would locate the source in China’s alleged meritocratic system of politics and the literature surrounding it. He does cite Daniel Bell’s exposition The China Model (2015) but does not really draw on it. Instead, he cites his own work with Australian National University PhD student Wenting Cheng, and her concept of China’s pressure driving mechanism. This is offered as an explanation for how China’s top levels of government exert pressure on the lower levels to deliver on targets. In her thesis, Cheng applies this mechanism to the building of the world’s largest intellectual property rights system in the shortest possible time. The three components of the mechanism – breaking tasks down and assigning responsibility for them, problem-solving, and performance evaluation – may well be critical to China’s journey to a dominant role in patenting and intellectual property issues more generally. But it is a stretch to conclude the same administrative framework accounts for China’s relentless drive to wean itself off fossil fuels and mined resources. One would like to have seen some evidence of general discussion of this concept, and its application beyond the field of intellectual property rights, given the weight it carries in Drahos’ book, but I could find little in the literature or on the internet.
Drahos doesn’t suggest China has made green choices as a result of driving an industrialisation strategy at unprecedented scale. Instead, he argues in terms of China’s demonstrated capacity to engage in urban experimentation (creating new eco-cities by the dozen) and energy innovation in what he calls the “bio-digital energy paradigm”. The latter is a nebulous conceptual framework that mingles bio-innovation with digital advances and locates these as driving energy innovation. The framework is not well attested in the energy literature. There is discussion of it in the recent literature on educational theory by Michael Peters and co-authors, but again this is a flimsy base on which to support an argument concerning how the whole world can move beyond fossil fuel dependence.
As Drahos mounts his case, there are some odd omissions. He has every right to insist on his own argument, but it is unfortunate that he implies (perhaps indirectly) he is the only one mounting such a case in favour of China as a leading developer of climate-friendly policies. There is no mention, for example, of Barbara Finamore and her book Will China Save the Planet? (2018). Finamore goes over much of the ground covered by Drahos, but with less emphasis on the governance innovations employed by China as it meets its energy and resource security challenges. She focuses more on the industrialisation challenges faced, and why greening provides a plausible choice for China in such circumstances. Nor is there any mention of Kelly Sims Gallagher, Xiaowei Xuan and their new book Titans of the Climate: Explaining Policy Processes in the United States and China (2019). Nor for that matter is there reference to Judith Shapiro and Yifei Li’s book China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet (2020). Like Drahos, that book asks whether China with its authoritarian state faces greater prospects of success in driving the world off its fossil fuel dependence than with the market-led mechanisms favoured in the US, EU and India. It is odd that Drahos passes over such works in silence, making no effort to engage with them or to clarify how their approaches might differ from his own.
Leaving these omissions to one side, in the end, how plausible is Drahos’ argument that the best hope for humanity, given the climate crisis, lies with China and its superior state capacity? He is at his best when discussing the implausibility of the alternatives to China – the weaknesses of the US innovation system (and its being hostage to fossil fuels, through the fracking revolution), the EU innovation system (with its fragmented character) and the Indian innovation system (lack of state capacity) along with others like the Japanese system (failure to set global standards). From this perspective, China does emerge as the least bad candidate for global climate leadership – the last candidate standing in the governance stakes.
Drahos is at his weakest, however, when discussing the reasons why China might be expected to emerge as premier energy and circular economy innovator. His reasons do not really draw on the usual arguments like the Chinese meritocratic system, as alternative to western democracy. His focus on the pressure-driving mechanism seems to be a weak foundation for an all-encompassing argument explaining why China might be pursuing green energy and resources options.
My own take on these issues has been to characterise China’s industrial challenges as arising from the unprecedented scale of its industrialisation strategies, requiring it to abandon fossil fuel reliance for reasons of geopolitical limits to growth, and its dependence on a strong state to drive through the policy options selected. From such a perspective, China is more or less compelled to make green choices as it moves to electrify its economy and place its energy and resource flow systems on a manufacturing rather than extractive foundation. Manufacturing choices are linked to innovation and cost reductions resulting from the learning curve associated with each technology (such as wind turbines, solar PV cells and lithium-ion batteries), and they present the advantage that they are under domestic control, thus easing geopolitical tensions. Thus there is a plausible case that China is compelled to adopt a leading position as it greens its economy for entirely nationalistic reasons. And Drahos is surely on the mark when he pinpoints such reasons as being more favourable for driving the world on to a new and more climate-friendly trajectory than dragged-out international negotiations or tort-based legal strategies.
Doubtless there will be long and vigorous discussion of these matters, with an increasing emphasis on the role anticipated to be played by China. Drahos’ book provides an admirable contribution to such discussions.