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China's Green Gambit: Environmental Policy as a Bargaining Chip

China's Green Gambit: Environmental Policy as a Bargaining Chip
 Karl Hallding
Senior Research Fellow, SEI

The 2015 Paris Agreement sealed an unparalleled success in reaching global consensus, not only for climate action, but also for the broader sustainability goals laid out in the 2030 Agenda. As climate negotiators, world leaders, media and advocacy groups reunite at the COP26 in Glasgow, however, the 2015 euphoria has been replaced by an eerie feeling of mounting conflict. In particular, the urgency to deal with climate and sustainability is increasingly being pitted against global norms based on civil liberties, a legacy of the post-WWII era. 

China’s commitments under the global climate negotiations are generally regarded as insufficient for the world to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C threshold. With 27% of global emissions, China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Since 2000, it has been responsible for over 60% of the increase in global CO2 emissions. In 2019, China even surpassed the total emissions of all OECD countries combined. Within the scope of China’s Paris commitments, these emissions are projected to rise even further, from 13.4Gt CO2  in 2018 to a 2030 peak of 14.5Gt.

It may sound odd that despite a looming climate catastrophe, the country responsible for well over half of the increase in global CO2 emissions over the past two decades now, would maintain its course of action. However, the explanation can be found within the architecture of the global climate negotiations under the climate convention (UNFCCC), where China positions itself as a leading advocate for maintaining the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities". The principle affirms that while all countries are responsible for putting forward solutions to climate change, they must each do so in accordance with their individual level of capacities and capabilities. Claiming to still be a developing country with limited capabilities, China has managed to avoid taking on absolute targets. As a result, it has maintained the right to flexibility that is given to developing countries on a range of topics, including absolute emission levels, monitoring, reporting and verification of emissions.

A normative power play at the center of China’s greening

Instead of stepping up climate ambitions, President Xi Jinping has launched the concept of "a community of shared destiny for mankind". Underpinning this vision is China’s challenge to the Western human rights hegemony, where national sovereignty is absolute, where differences in political systems must not be challenged, and where states should seek "win-win cooperation". These are circumstances under which China may offer to take on more ambitious climate targets or engage in other mutually beneficial low-carbon cooperation, while expecting concessions on Chinese core values and interests in return.

Should we be prepared to compromise human rights, democracy, security, open trade and freedom of expression, with the hope that it will increase the climate ambitions of the CCP? And if we do, would that really work in favor of solving the climate crisis and achieving a more sustainable development? Is there any foundation at all for this concept of cooperation on a "shared destiny of mankind", if fundamental liberal norms cannot be maintained at the international level?

Energy cooperation is a core Chinese interest and constitutes by far the largest sector of outgoing Chinese investments over the past decade. 

The fact is that, under Xi Jinping's leadership, China has transformed into a class of its own, a leading international financier and supplier of brown - fossil based and environmentally harmful - infrastructure. In contrast to the pious hopes that many of us shared that open trade and international cooperation would gradually turn China into an advocate of the international system, the Chinese regime has begun to successfully reshape international organizations within the UN system to serve its own purposes. As such, China's global interests have increasingly become dictated by the Chinese Communist Party's ambitions.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a key instance. It is presented by President Xi as a Chinese offer for "green, healthy, intelligent and peaceful" cooperation with countries along the new Silk Roads. But what does that mean in reality? To put it simply, the BRI is about Chinese investments abroad aiming to strengthen China's global interests. Energy cooperation is a core Chinese interest and constitutes by far the largest sector of outgoing Chinese investments over the past decade. Yet, despite Xi Jinping's promises of green development, data shows that the absolute majority of these investments cannot be labeled "green". On the contrary, most of China's outgoing financing in the electric power sector goes to coal power and other fossil sources, while wind and solar - sectors where China is arguably a leading producer - have barely reached 10% of total investments through the 2010s.

More than inaction, climate hypocrisy 

This reality stands in stark contrast to the narrative that the Chinese regime promotes, where China is presented as a responsible global partner. An overwhelming proportion of regime-controlled articles published since 2013 on China's outgoing investments in the power sector - in Chinese and English-language Chinese media - presents these as environmentally sustainable, efficient and development-promoting. A corresponding review of international anglophone media paints a different picture. Here, the same investments are described as leading to an increase in emissions, causing local and regional conflicts, and being motivated by a need for China to export overcapacity.

If "green development" means large-scale investments in coal power, then what does President Xi's commitments on "climate neutrality by 2060" or the promise to "stop building new coal power abroad" mean? In the Orwellian newspeak that is being promoted under President Xi’s leadership, it is not only "green development" that has taken on a new and counter-intuitive meaning. Many of the fundamental civil liberties have been given entirely new definitions. The Communist Party's new language is now finding its way into the international system.

A leader in renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies, China could become a major force for a green transition at the international level. 

Last summer, China succeeded in passing a resolution through the UN Human Rights Council stating that the international human rights system should be based on cooperation between states, rather than on making them accountable on the basis of universal individual rights.

Together with global health, Internet governance and development finance, climate constitutes one of the cornerstones of the Chinese regime's strategy to advance and strengthen its interests in the development of global governance. For the Communist Party, it is a proven strategy to attract international support and goodwill with vague promises to be fulfilled in the future, in exchange for concrete concessions to China's current core interests. Beijing was granted the 2008 Olympics on the grounds that it would promote human rights and the rule of law. China was accepted as a member of the WTO on the premise that it would reach market economy status. Hong Kong was handed over to China on the precondition that its "One country, two systems" model would prevail for 50 years. 

The Climate Action Tracker - an independent scientific analysis that tracks government climate action against the Paris Agreement - rates China’s climate action as "highly insufficient". As such, the international community must demand that China steps up its ambitions drastically. A leader in renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies, China could become a major force for a green transition at the international level. But such cooperation has to be built without compromising the norms and values of civil liberties.

Being the world’s largest emitter by far, and having reached the level of a moderately prosperous society, China now needs to step up its ambitions and shoulder the responsibility that comes with being both big and prosperous. To immediately stop all funding and construction of new coal power in China and overseas would be a first important step in that direction.


Copyright: WANG ZHAO / AFP

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