"But what about China?" That's one argument often put when Greens sit down to debate the need for dramatic action to cut greenhouse gas output in the West from their opponents. The line runs that since China's economy and greenhouse gas output is growing so fast, and its population is so vast, that there is no point in doing anything in the West, at least until the Middle Kingdom signs up for considerable restrictions on its emissions.
But what is the state of environmental thinking in China? At a London School of Economics Environmental Initiatives Network seminar this week, the editor of the website China Dialogue, Isabel Hilton, attempted to answer that question.
She said that much-touted "new city" of Dongtan was typical of the top-down environmental model now being applied in China. If you spoke to the senior leadership and read the 11th Five-Year Plan you'd feel good about China's moves on sustainable development, she said. That plan represented a substantial change in direction from the 10th, which although it set a few environmental targets, all of these were missed and there were no consequences.
The 11th Plan by contrast represented a rebalancing of growth model – the terminology was of working "towards a harmonius society" At the official level that's fine, and also encouraging is the view on the street. The general view is clearly that the environment needs to be cleaned up.
Where the problem lies is in the middle levels of officialdom. Ms Hilton spoke about Anwei province, which has a huge coal industry that has caused enormous environmental damage about which there is great local concern. But the businessmen who run the companies that run the mines aren't worried, because of course they don't live in Anwei province, and the environmental damage doesn't affect them.
"The 'development first, environment second' Jiang Zemin model is still held very widely across the country," Ms Hilton said. For most Chinese, pollution was the price you have to pay for prosperity. Memories of hunger and deprivation were still strong.
Another aspect of contemporary China was that it didn't really feel comfortable in the world, as a global player. The last time the nation was really engaged with the rest of the world was in the Ming dynasty. Yet the Internet was providing a new and very broad (if still politically limited) window on the world for huge numbers of Chinese people. "For us to engage with China it needs to be across very broad spectrum. Just at official or political levels is not enough."
Ms Hilton said there was a common misconception about China that there were no politics: but there are, just almost all inside the Communist Party. Another misconception was that public opinion didn't count, but this was becoming less and less true. "Protests are embarrassing. If the public get the idea that the price of unsustainable development is too high, the government will change course, as it did in 11th Five-Year-Plan."
The view emerging from China Dialogue was that the environment was high on the list of the people's concerns, particularly obvious observable issues such as particulates and "cancer villages". Climate change is, however, way down on the list of priorities. But, said Ms Hilton: "Think back 10 years and you could have said that of the West."
Asked about Chinese official attitudes towards the "contraction and covergence" philosophy, Ms Hilton said that the Chinese regarded this as writing off the past too easily. But nonetheless, the Chinese had brought down the point at which they were prepared to accept greenhouse gas outputs from 2050 to 2018, and there was a sense that might be shifting a bit more. "A lot of that is going to be determined by the approach of the US. If there is no pressure from the US, China is not going to put pressure on itself."