Finally, what we are witnessing is a competition of economic systems. The fight against global warming is also a competition between the social market economy and state capitalism and their associated political system-liberal democracy for the former and autocracy for the latter. This fight resembles a race against time to see which one will succeed more quickly and more effectively in defining and guiding the necessary transformation processes.
Climate protection: potential conflicts
The competition with China over climate technologies will also increase competition for access to critical raw materials. The demand for cobalt, lithium and rare earths, for example, will skyrocket. While China has been pursuing an aggressive foreign economic policy and expanding its hold on many foreign mines, it also holds many of these critical raw materials, such as rare earths, within its own borders. What’s more, many countries are dependent on Chinese resources, a geopolitical lever which Beijing is not opposed to using. In 2010, during a diplomatic crisis with Japan over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands, which are claimed by both countries, Beijing made use of this tool to suspend exports to its rival. As such, climate policy is bound to lead to trade disputes. A first obstacle is the carbon border adjustment mechanism that Europe is planning to introduce, which will require foreign companies exporting to the EU to pay a tax based on the carbon footprint of their products. Beijing has already declared itself hostile to this measure.
The two faces of Chinese climate policy
In the geopolitical arena, China is also using its climate actions to broaden its appeal and gain international recognition. Last year at the UN General Assembly, Xi Jinping’s statement that China wanted to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 caused a stir. The EU was particularly proud to have recommended such a target to Beijing shortly before. However, Xi Jinping’s announcement was not simply a publicity stunt for climate policy; it was also a clever geopolitical maneuver that enabled China to eclipse denunciations leveled against the situation in Hong Kong. Moreover, it sent a signal to the international community that China intends to play an international leadership role in this area.
Unfortunately, there is a massive gap between these announcements and the reality of the situation. While Beijing claims the title of supreme climate defender, half of the world’s planned coal-fired power plants are being built on its territory. Similarly, China’s post-pandemic recovery program has thus far been very timid in terms of sustainable development. China has been pursuing a fossil fuel policy, especially outside its borders. The Belt and Road Initiative-formerly known as the New Silk Roads-a Chinese infrastructure-building offensive involving over 60 countries, mostly in Africa, virtually ignores climate imperatives. Outside China, 70% of all coal-fired power plants are financed by Chinese banks. And in the Beijing-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), more than half of the investments in the energy sector benefit fossil fuels.
Confronting Beijing: establishing a "climate realpolitik"
There is no doubt that China is and will remain a key player in the fight against global warming. But the systemic competition that characterizes the current world order is no less relevant. Indeed, China is using its climate efforts for hegemonic purposes-to gain economic and technological leadership, to create dependencies and to secure international influence.