Mantle of Climate Leadership Passed on to China

Mantle of Climate Leadership Passed on to China

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A sight peculiar to rural China is endless rows of low-rise buildings which are often accompanied by solar water heaters. It is estimated that around 3000 companies produce such devices in millions to meet the demands of roughly 30 million Chinese households. The sales of these solar powered water heaters are not driven by subsidies or environmental guilt. Rather, the rural Chinese folks have been using these for a couple of decades now because they are cheap and easy to operate.

Environmental security and awareness has gained ground in China over the past decade or so. As Donald Trump walked off the Rose Garden stage announcing the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, champagne corks could practically be heard popping open in Beijing. As the Chinese leaders grow thirsty for more international influence, a window of opportunity has been opened up for China to cash in and fill the vacuum created by the US withdrawal.

The saga burst into life in an entertaining COP22 conference held in Marrakech where the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Mr. Lie Zhenmin, took it upon himself to school the US President in the climate diplomacy history. He rejected Trump’s claim that climate change was a Chinese hoax. In fact, it was Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. who had supported the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in putting up the issue on global agenda. Eventually, rising international concern led to the signing of Kyoto Protocol which was the first agreement of its kind on climate change. However, the agreement was rejected by the US Congress despite the fact that Bill Clinton had signed it. And when the United States entered the Paris Agreement in 2016, President Obama knew better than to seek Congress’ approval.

This time around, China has made it clear that the withdrawal of the US would not be seen as an excuse to slacken their efforts. Rather, Beijing would continue to pursue its interests which align perfectly with a future with lower carbon concentration; a view shared in all circles of China’s leaders and experts. Indeed, the country already boasts world’s largest wind and solar power installed capacity. On top of this, its climate policies have already been incorporated in the five year economic plan.

The US departure from its climate policies would stimulate this effort rather than crippling it. When the news of Trump’s victory set the phones ringing in Beijing, policymakers in China predicted an increased role in global politics. And now that US is no longer a part of the Paris Agreement, the prediction is set to hold true as China is now expected to don climate leadership.

Washington and Beijing seemed bound together in an impasse: a relationship where the climate policy of one was shaped by the willingness of the other to do as much, if not more.

Not so long ago, such a reaction from the Chinese officials would have been unimaginable in response to a man who held views like Trump. As recently as in 2009, the US and China were faced with a deadlock in the aftermath of the failed Copenhagen Climate Conference. Both these countries had differences on the structure of the Kyoto Protocol whose nature made it obligatory for the developed nations but only advisory for the countries with emerging economies, including China. Washington and Beijing seemed bound together in an impasse: a relationship where the climate policy of one was shaped by the willingness of the other to do as much, if not more. The lack of willingness from both sides hampered the global efforts immensely.

But Beijing’s climate policy has undergone a big change since that time. Back in 1997, China was a host to 21% of the global population and responsible for a mere 14% global CO2 emissions only. However, by 2009, China was producing 26% of the world’s emissions and was working on their climate policy. Their policy circulated around reducing their intensity of carbon from 40 to 45 percent by 2020. The aim was for China’s emissions to peak by 2030 or earlier.

Another crucial aspect of the Paris Agreement is its non-mandatory nature. It does not force action upon its signatories nor does it differentiate between the developed and the less developed, poor countries. Instead, it invites each nation to volunteer an effort on reducing the carbon emissions in a bid to motivate all nations to work for the common good and keep the global average temperature rise below two degree Celsius. However, meeting this demand would require a stronger initiative than is currently being done.

Another crucial aspect of the Paris Agreement is its non-mandatory nature. It does not force action upon its signatories nor does it differentiate between the developed and the less developed, poor countries.

One may wonder, what made the bad boy of global climate policy turn into potentially the global climate leader. And why, despite Trump’s assertion that climate policy serves only to cripple the economy, do the policymakers in Beijing consider it as the stepping stone to China’s development.

The answer lies in the change of perception in China between Paris and Copenhagen. The leaders in Beijing realised in this time that the growth rate of China had slowed down and the way forward for their economy was to be more efficient in the matter of energy and resources. For this to happen, the need of the time was for China to upgrade its technology and preferably produce it and own the patents, if it was to avoid stagnation.

The advent of the 2015’s thirteenth Five Year Plan brought with it the realization that Beijing saw its future in low carbon technologies and looked to cash in on the opportunity to establish its hold as an innovator, as a producer and exporter in this field. China foresaw the fight against climate change as a business opportunity and a noble cause of saving humanity while they were at it. This can be gauged by the fact that China invested about $102.9 billion in renewable energy and managed to install a wind power system equal to 50 percent of the world’s wind powered projects. Although coal was initially used to power it, it has been replaced gradually by hydro and nuclear power.

Like any other country, however, there are forces in China that have their own interests against this energy transformation. The giants with traditional energy production continue to defend their interests. But the ever thickening smoke that blights the major cities of China, persistent water and soil pollution along with the rising health hazards and adverse social impacts have created a political space for the Communist Party to take action for the better.

The slogan of “ecological civilization” was used to float a raft of policies by Xi Jinping’s government that promised the use of greener technologies for a cleaner environment.

The slogan of “ecological civilization” was used to float a raft of policies by Xi Jinping’s government that promised the use of greener technologies for a cleaner environment. And the cough hardened population of China was highly unlikely to oppose any move that aimed to clean up the environment. To top it all off, policymakers in Beijing were well aware of the adverse effects of climate change on the country which served as an added incentive to counter this evil at the earliest.

The withdrawal of US support to the Paris Agreement has indeed hampered the global efforts to curb climate change and its effects. The potential cut of US funding to the funds that are intended to help the less developed countries to adapt and mitigate in response to climate change is also worrisome. However, it is safe to say that although the global efforts would be weakened by Trump’s regrettable decision, they would not be destroyed. China is poised to take over the role of the leader in global climate politics and assume a role of being a reliable and steady ally in the fight against climate change. While on one hand assuming the leadership on climate has many economic incentives, on the other it can possibly be used by Beijing to make a claim for the moral high ground.

The picture for industrial setup seems clear too. China’s pockets are relatively deep enough to finance the dissemination of greener technologies across the world. This would not only consolidate their trade and diplomatic ties, but also create countless jobs and raise trillions of dollars in investment at a time when the demand for clean energy is expected to grow exponentially according to the International Energy Agency. No doubt, Beijing has its future well sorted out.

Muhammad Saad
is a graduate of School of Economics of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He has specialized in the field of development and political economics with additional non-credit courses of Environmental Economics and Monetary Policy. Currently, he works at the CSCR.

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