China is in the “driving seat” when it comes to “international co-operation” on climate, said President Xi Jinping at a major political meeting in Beijing ahead of the UN-led climate talks in Bonn earlier this month, the first annual meeting of the negotiations since President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the agreement.
Mr Trump’s decision had left a power vacuum: the historic accord reached in 2014 between then president Barack Obama and Mr Xi, leading the world’s two largest economies, which together account for about 40 per cent of global emissions, had underpinned the consensus reached by the international community in late 2015 in Paris. Could China alone fill that vacuum?
China certainly made its presence felt at the talks, but often in its traditional stance as defender of the developing countries, arguing that rich countries must shoulder the greater burden of decarbonisation, a position reportedly described by Greenpeace East Asia campaigner Li Shuo as “an inevitable result of international climate diplomacy in the post-US era”.
China’s carbon emissions have also risen this year, after two years of slight decline.
Still, it is committed to peak before 2030, and it leads the world in clean technologies — accounting for five of the world’s top six solar PV manufacturers, and seven of the top-15 wind turbine manufacturers.
China is also investing more than $US100 billion a year in domestic renewable energy projects — more than double the US figure. At about $US32 billion, its investment in green technology overseas is also the largest in the world.
Mr Xi has made environmental ambition a signature of his rhetoric, having coined the florid phrase, “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver”. By contrast, the US President is not only averse to environmental regulation, but even once tweeted, preposterously, that climate change is a Chinese hoax.
So, is China ready to lead on climate? Not yet.
Fossil fuel use maintains social stability
To assume a real leadership role, China needs not only to fulfil its Paris pledges — no small challenge, given the difficulty of shifting its huge economy away from a reliance on coal-fired energy — but also to demonstrate a strategy for overseas investment that is consistent with its environmental ambitions.
Domestic local implementation tends to be a major problem for central planners in China, and to shift the economy away from fossil fuels means bracing for the social stability risks of declining employment in carbon-intensive sectors. An illustration of this was the recent approval by provincial authorities of numerous plans for new coal-fired power stations, which were later cancelled by sweeping central government decrees.
On the international front, as China’s energy-intensive sectors slow, there is a risk that companies such as those producing the technology to mine and burn coal find an escape valve for overcapacity by exporting capital and technology outside China’s borders, driving carbon-intensive growth in other countries, particularly along the so-called “Belt and Road” trade routes in central, south and South-East Asia.
In Turkey, Chinese companies have signed agreements worth billions of dollars to construct coal-fired power stations.
In Pakistan, China has also approved a $US1.2 billion investment for coal mining in the Thar Desert and the construction of 660 megawatt coal-fired power generators.
Self-interest behind sustainability push
To call for greater attention to the sustainability of these investments is not to expect altruism from China: its domestic actions, after all, have been driven thus far by a leadership that understands how lower carbon development benefits technological innovation, energy efficiency and security, and air pollution mitigation — as well as helping to stave off dangerous future climate impacts on food and water security.
Similarly, avoiding coal is a sensible investment choice, as renewable energy costs continue to fall — in large part thanks to economies of scale in China — the burden of air pollution on health and wellbeing becomes ever more apparent, and the risks of climate impacts rise around the world.
There is little question that China deserves praise when contrasted with Mr Trump’s retreat from climate action. As its economic power grows, it can be expected to maintain active climate cooperation where it is advantageous, for technological, economic, and soft power purposes.
But unless China can implement its domestic energy transition to phase out coal, and green its Belt and Road Initiative and overseas investment more broadly, its rhetoric about playing a leading role on climate change globally is unlikely to be realised.