Climate action by dictate? Or democracy?

In India’s pledge for net-zero emissions, the world’s largest democracy faces off with the largest dictatorship, China, on which type of governance is best to curb carbon emissions.

Climate activists in the Philippines, a democracy, carry a slogan during a rally outside the Chinese consulate in Makati, Philippines, ahead of the UN Climate Change Summit (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland .

One pleasant surprise at this month’s global climate talks in Scotland was India’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2070. Yet the pledge by the world’s largest democracy came 10 years after one made by China, a dictatorship that also set a more ambitious date of 2060 to achieve neutrality, or 10 years earlier than India’s.

Still, the pledges by the world’s two most populous nations have brought up another comparison, one critical to achieving global climate targets: Which type of government, a top-down authoritarian one or a consensus-building democracy, will succeed in curbing emissions faster and better?

Among some climate activists, a sense of climate emergency has raised frustrations over democracy’s often slow or flip-flopping pace in bringing rapid results on emissions cuts. In a report last year by Deutsche Bank, analyst Eric Heymann wrote, “I know that ‘eco-dictatorship’ is a nasty word. But we may have to ask ourselves the question whether and to what extent we may be willing to accept some kind of eco-dictatorship (in the form of regulatory law) in order to move towards climate neutrality.”

On the other side, Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, tweeted this during the climate talks in Glasgow: “An unaccountable government that disrespects freedom of speech, citizen participation, and other basic human rights is ill-equipped in addressing climate change, even if it wants to.” 

Indeed, the values of democracy that allow grassroots activism to push for tough climate action may be winning, based on a comparison between China and the United States.

The U.S. has exceeded the targets of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol by 11% while China’s emissions have gone up by 43%. Green activists in China have been suppressed as the country keeps building more coal-fired power plants; in the U.S., activists are flourishing, even being elected to office, as coal plants are being shut down.

One country now debating this issue is Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, which pledges climate neutrality by 2045.

After an election there Sept. 26, three political parties – the left-leaning Social Democrats, the business-friendly Free Democrats, and the environmentalist Greens – are currently negotiating to form a new governing coalition. By some media accounts, the talks have stalled because the Greens insist on a super-ministry that would have absolute power to control any decision by other ministries that might affect climate, such as transport, construction, and agriculture. The Greens chairperson, Annalena Baerbock, demands a “binding climate check” on any new laws or policies.

Less than a month after this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference ends, President Joe Biden plans to hold a virtual summit of leaders from the world’s democracies. Climate change is not on the agenda. Perhaps it should be. Governments that rely on transparency, accountability, and equal rights could be the ones that best bring humanity back into equilibrium with the environment. India’s climate pledge could finally help the world settle this debate.

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