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The current status of Chinese climate policy:
China demonstrated its continued commitment to combating climate change in September 2020. President Xi Jinping states that he aims to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030, as well as achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 (Wang, 2021). His proclamation in September reaffirmed the importance of environmentalism in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, where China encouraged countries to pursue coordinated, green and open development. This was a stark difference from the previous pledges to combat climate change. For this, the weight of the role China plays in green development needs to be revisited.
How and why is it important that China participates in green development?
China is a country which is responsible for around 28% of the world’s CO2 emissions (Anon, 2020). It is the most populated country in the world. Which is why when comparing it with other countries in terms of per capita, their per capita emissions are lower than countries like the United States or Saudi Arabia. However, the reason why total emissions are high is because of its strong export market. The Chinese powerhouse produces most exports in the world, and the high CO2 emissions are best explained by its continual efforts to maintain low costs for these exports (Wang, 2021).
Previously in 2009, the UN climate summit in Copenhagen saw China stubbornly refuse to accept emission reduction policies (Cai, 2021). China allegedly cited reasons relating to taking care of its economy and people’s livelihoods. Certainly, scaling down emissions would mean lower productivity, people would have to take job cuts. Alternatively, it could also result in less profits, as the use of renewable energy to substitute for fossil fuels would be expensive. Rather than seeing China’s stance in 2009 as having self-serving undertones, this stance is best explained by the tragedy of the commons. Challenges to effective international cooperation are characterized by the tragedy of the commons, where it is difficult for one to see the purpose of their sacrifice for benefit (Schmidtz et al, 2002). For China, they would be sacrificing their economic output for green development. However, if that green development does not flourish, or show direct results in the form of a lower global temperature, then it has little worth.
China’s gradual change in stance over the last 10 years is attributed to its smog crisis back in 2010, which spurred action as it brought its heavy use of coal into question (Cai, 2021). Their initial idea of achieving this was through the concept of a green financial system, as it aims to attract offshore investment into renewable energy (Xie, 2021). By doing so, they aim to completely remove carbon from China’s financial system. Nevertheless, where possible, China needs to work with other developed countries to achieve greater results or more ambitious aims in CO2 emissions. Although both the US and China have pledged joint action on climate change, it is difficult to see whether this marriage of convenience will persist. Both powers have been critical of each other, especially Washington in terms of Beijing’s policies on Taiwan and Hong Kong. For this, both must persevere and cooperate to look past ideological differences and achieve greater green development.
Will China fulfill its targets or is it just a diversion?
Whether these measures are sufficient to achieve the targets of carbon neutrality by 2060 is another question. An aim cannot be realized if there is no clear pragmatic policy methodology to reach it. Nevertheless, one can have faith that China will still implement policy to achieve these targets. At present times, the nature of climate policy deviates from the tragedy of the commons, where there are rewards to be reaped for sticking to the targets China set for themselves. Economic development is principal to Xi’s legitimacy as he is renowned for policies eradicating poverty. For this, green development can help him broaden his support base to stay in power (Wang, 2021). Furthermore, expanding their economy into sectors such as solar power, wind power and hydrothermal power could give rise to new opportunities where China could have an advantage. China can bolster development in renewable energies as well as profit, by adapting their specialty of manufacturing to the environmental realm (Wang, 2021). According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, China is already at the forefront of the global renewable market. In 2018, they accounted for approximately 30% of the renewable energy market (Wang, 2021).
China’s infrastructure projects which culminated in the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) are also relevant, as climate change could threaten to destroy these projects (Fromer, 2021). For instance, the Maputo-Katembe bridge in Mozambique is considered highly vulnerable to climate change. Situated in Africa, the region is susceptible to conflicts between agricultural groups over limited resources (Fromer, 2021). However, although the program preaches to promote greater green development among participant countries, its heavy reliance on fossil fuels indicates otherwise. Many of the projects are coal fuelled in 25 Belt and Road countries, additionally, the World Bank estimated that the transport infrastructure could increase emissions by 0.3 percent globally (POLYGRAPH.info, 2021). The incentives to protect the Chinese projects seems insufficient as approximately two thirds of these large projects involve the use of coal. Furthermore, it is possible that countries in the BRI will attempt to use these projects to imitate the Chinese economic model which catapulted them to success. This would create difficulties for emission targets to be met which were set in the Paris Agreement, as developing countries will begin greater production.
Before the smog crisis, many of China’s policies were championed by economic interests rather than interests in green development. Now those circumstances have changed, the world desperately wonders whether it will regress to the same stance it took 10 years ago. As one of the greatest emitters of carbon dioxide, China’s participation is key to our advent into a green world. Not only are there great incentives for China to reduce its emissions through greater use of renewable energy, there are interests to safeguard its other projects in the BRI. To truly provide an answer to the narrative that it set for itself in September 2020 however, it must prove so by streamlining the BRI according to the promises made in the Paris Climate Agreement.
Fromer, Jacob., 2021. China’s Belt and Road projects face climate change challenges. South China Morning Post. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3130902/chinas-belt-and-road-projects-face-climate-change-challenges.
Anon., 2020. Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions. Union of Concerned Scientists. Available at: https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions.
Li, Jing.,2019. Xie Zhenhua: China’s veteran climate chief steps down. Dialogo Chino. Available at: https://dialogochino.net/en/climate-energy/32152-xie-zhenhua-chinas-veteran-climate-chief-steps-down/.
POLYGRAPH.info, 2021. Is China’s Belt and Road Really ‘Green’? POLYGRAPH.info. Available at: https://www.polygraph.info/a/fact-check-at-leaders-climate-summit-xi-jinping-proclaims-belt-and-road-green-/31219748.html.
Wang, Xiangwei., 2021. Scepticism of China’s climate change promises is misplaced. South China Morning Post. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3130705/scepticism-chinas-climate-change-promises-misplaced.
Schmidtz, D. & Willott, E., 2002. Environmental ethics: what really matters, what really works, Oxford University Press.
Cai, Jane., 2021. Tracing China’s climate change journey from denial to decarbonisation. South China Morning Post. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3130132/tracing-chinas-climate-change journey-denial-decarbonisation.
Xie, Echo., 2021. What is green finance, and why is it important to China? South China Morning Post. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3128167/what-green-finance-and-why-it-important-chinas-carbon-neutral
By Gabriel Chow
Gabriel is a first year BSc Politics and International Relations student at UCL. Particularly interested in Middle Eastern politics as well as how sustainable development can be best achieved in a turbulent era during the pandemic.