Department of Law - European University Institute

Survival Governance: An interview with Law Professor Peter Drahos

Peter Drahos, Professor of Law and Governance at the EUI, discusses his new book 'Survival Governance', examining how China can help drive ecological innovation around the world and potentially save the planet.

20/04/2021 | News - Research

“The story of renewable energy and climate has been a history of lost opportunities”, says Peter Drahos, “At every stage when we could have done more, we didn’t.”

In his new book, Survival Governance: Energy and Climate in the Chinese Century, published by Oxford University Press, Drahos argues that China can actually help spearhead an ecological rejuvenation of world capitalism into low-carbon, cheap and clean bio-digital energy.

Drahos, a Professor of Law and Governance at the EUI, and formerly the Head of Program of the Regulatory Institutions Network at the Australian National University, said he was drawn to write about climate change after reading depressing books on the topic that, “tended to be pessimistic and emphasized how we’re in a prisoner’s dilemma”. Instead, Professor Drahos compares the current state of the ecological crisis to, "a chess match versus a vastly superior opponent. While the situation might look hopeless, there's still a chance. Sometimes, one can get an unexpected victory.”

In Survival Governance, he states that such an unexpected victory is only likely to arise if large state actors, such as China, the United States, the EU and India, can generate paradigm shifts in the trajectory of the world economy.

Survival Governance details why, of the four aforementioned states, China is probably the only one capable of triggering such an exogenous shock. According to Drahos, the US is locked into being a fossil fuel export superpower for the time being, India is too busy “following China’s footsteps” and while the EU has made lots of progress in the right direction, especially in proposals to develop a ‘Circular Economy’, its efforts are unfortunately hampered by a complicated and inefficient governing structure.

In comparison, Survival Governance presents economic evidence suggesting that China has already begun changing its economy to emphasise services and technological innovation, and is moving away from factory manufacturing.

“China is investing in green financial systems and building experimental eco-cities on a monumental scale (…) In the next ten years, China plans to move 300 million people into cities. It has the potential to create 50 new ‘Singapores’” says Drahos. China’s internal government structure also enables it to quickly implement such plans in ways that the EU and US simply cannot.

Furthermore, Drahos explains in the book that China’s internal struggles with worrisome quantities of water and air pollution already incentivise it to pursue these infrastructure changes. “[Climate change] has added more urgency to China’s mission to try and re-orient its economy,” says Drahos. He also believes that if the country can succeed at developing such a ‘new’ and ‘green’ China, “it will then have the capacity to export its green technologies, its know-how, through the vehicle of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which can potentially create an even bigger internal market.”

While Survival Governance stresses how state actors can help combat climate change, Professor Drahos explains that we as individuals, the ‘little people’, still have a role to play in the fight to save our planet. “We have to become urban climate gorillas, we have to create demands for life and climate-saving technologies in our cities. We have to begin the fight (…).”

As the author reminds us, “China's experimentation with cities is a response to the demands from citizens in China who want a better life for their children and themselves, and want to be able to breathe clean air… This is a lesson we should all be absorbing as consumers, as citizens and as activists.”

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