A few years ago, I had a debate with a professor in Norway who argued that authoritarian political systems were better at climate policy than democracies. This was not based on any sound empirical analysis of democratic versus authoritarian outcomes on climate, so much as his belief that China was doing much better than the U.S. or Europe on this front.
For reasons laid out in a recent post, this is not remotely close to reality. China is the world’s largest carbon emitter, not simply because it is a big country, but because its carbon output per unit of GDP is far higher than that of the U.S. and Europe. The Chinese government faces the same incentives as everyone else: as long as jobs and economic growth are strongly correlated with carbon emissions, there will be a powerful disincentive to mitigate the latter. The fact that it is an authoritarian country does not mean that it will thereby prioritize climate mitigation over growth. Indeed, since a lot of the regime’s legitimacy is based on its high growth rate, it may even be less motivated to act than democracies.
There is one respect in which the Chinese system has certain advantages in adapting to climate change: once the government decides to do something like invest in infrastructure, it is able to do so extremely rapidly and cheaply in comparative terms. We see this clearly in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, where Chinese projects are often selected over Western ones because they are cheaper and faster. (In infrastructure investment, cost is inversely correlated with the speed of implementation, so the two are related.) China’s ability to put up new infrastructure was strikingly on display when it constructed new medical facilities to deal with Covid patients in a matter of days, rather than the months and years required in the West.
The fact that China can build things this quickly is in fact related to the authoritarian nature of its government. Liberal democracies impose complex procedures on any major infrastructure project, related to environmental impact, safety, labor rules, anti-corruption, consultation, rights of indigenous communities, and the like. California’s CEQA, covered in a previous post, is but one example. These procedures protect the rights of various stakeholders, but they inevitably raise the costs and delay the implementation of a given project.
Chinese projects, by contrast, are not subject to anything like the same level of protections. While most Western funders long ago ceased backing big hydroelectric projects out of environmental concerns, China continues to build gigantic dams like the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. There have been repeated accusations of China winning projects in developing countries because of its willingness to bribe local officials. Chinese projects do not have to go through anything like the environment reviews to which Western ones are subject, and as a result have been accused of inflicting substantial damage to local ecosystems. The property rights of people affected by a big project are respected to some degree, and displaced owners paid some compensation. But as this photo indicates, the Chinese state gets its way when push comes to shove.
No sensible person would suggest that Western liberal democracies move toward Chinese practices and eliminate the safeguards they impose on infrastructure projects. On the other hand, it is not the case that the existing safeguards regime used by modern democracies or by international organizations controlled by them like the World Bank is some kind of gold standard, or reaches the right balance between the need for public goods and the protection of stakeholder rights. The decision-making systems in many Western countries come perilously close to being “vetocracies” that inhibit any form of collective action. Mike Bennon, Bushra Bataineh, and I argued in a recent paper that Western governments need to streamline their own decision-making systems if they are to compete effectively with China in the developing world.
This is easier said than done. More than a decade ago, the World Bank realized that its safeguards system was causing it to lose out to China around the world, and undertook a review of its safeguards with a view to streamlining them. A decade’s worth of consultations resulted, a couple of years ago, in a revised system that pushed a lot of the problem onto developing countries themselves, but didn’t fundamentally solve the problem.
A similar review could be taken domestically in the United States, and ought to be if President Biden’s infrastructure package ever gets approved. Under NEPA (the National Environmental Protection Act), more than a dozen federal agencies have to study the impacts of a federally-supported project. They do this sequentially rather than simultaneously, with the environmental agencies at the back of the queue. If there are serious objections, the whole process has to start again from the beginning, and only then does the project pass on to the states, which often then perform duplicative reviews. No one should argue that these reviews should not occur, but the process could be substantially streamlined if they were conducted simultaneously and organized under a single executive authority, or if national-level reviews were accepted by state authorities (or vice versa).
The fact that a country is authoritarian provides no guarantee that it will take environmental concerns seriously, or that it will prioritize mitigation of carbon emissions over economic growth. However, once a government decides to take serious action on climate, its governance institutions can make a big difference in its ability to actually implement policy. China and California represent extreme ends of a spectrum in terms of the governance procedures surrounding infrastructure. I’d much rather be closer to the California end of this spectrum, but that doesn’t mean that we’re currently in the right space. California built an incredible system for storing and moving water in the early twentieth century, but since then has piled up rules that make implementation of a new version of such an ambitious project very difficult. Mitigating and adapting to climate change is a collective good that will necessarily involve injury to the interests of particular stakeholders, and it is up to our democratic governance institutions to find the right balance.
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