Donald Trump’s 1 June announcement of US withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement coincided with the 19th bilateral EU-China summit in Brussels, giving China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, an opportunity to reaffirm China’s intention to implement the accord. The success of COP21 (the UN Climate Change Conference) owed much to China’s role in the negotiations.
The main hurdle in Paris was the major divergence between the group of developing countries — the G77— and the developed countries over the funding of energy transition and the division of labour to contain climate change. China’s chief negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, used China’s hybrid status as both a developing nation and an economic power to position himself as the mediator who could win the trust of all participants. He won agreement that the North’s annual contribution of $100bn to the Green Climate Fund for the South would no longer be obligatory from 2020.
But China also won acceptance for the idea of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ from the 195 signatory nations. Under this principle of international environmental law, the efforts demanded of industrialised nations will be scaled according to their economic size and historical responsibility for global warming.
The signing of the Paris agreement was considered a diplomatic success for China: its leaders had been angry that the western media blamed them for the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 — a minimal, non-binding agreement considered a retreat from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. In Paris, China demonstrated what environmental diplomacy might look like, and since then, it has rarely missed a chance to make clear the role it intends to play, highlighting the leadership void left by the US.
China’s stance is all the more necessary since its development model now looks unsustainable; since the 1980s it has been based on an economic policy that used social and environmental dumping to gain competitive advantage over western nations. China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (28% of global CO2 emissions) and is producing alarming environmental data — 10% of its arable land is contaminated with heavy metals; 80% of underground well water is unfit to drink (1); and fewer than 1% of the 500 largest cities have air quality that meets international standards. Air pollution causes up to a million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organisation.
‘The state has grasped the urgency of the environmental problem and given a sincere undertaking to protect the environment,’ says Chloé Froissart, director of the Franco-Chinese Centre at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. In 2013 President Xi Jinping declared that an ‘ecological civilisation’ — a hazy concept whose ultimate aim is nonetheless clear — was emerging to produce a sustainable development model that reconciles robust growth with a better quality of life. The 13th five-year plan, approved in 2016, projects reducing coal consumption as part of the energy mix from 64% in 2015 to 58% in 2020, and increasing the proportion of non-fossil fuels to 15%. The government wants to reduce reliance on traditional heavy industries, which are major contributors to pollution, and strengthen its economic leadership in renewables.
This policy has already achieved notable successes. Despite China’s image as polluted and polluting, it is now the world leader in green energy production, photovoltaic equipment, hydroelectric power generation and investment in wind power. It is also the largest market for cars that run on clean energy. Though China’s economy grew by 6.7% in 2016, its CO2 emissions fell by almost 1%, to 8.768m tonnes, a better performance than in Europe, where emissions remained the same while the economy grew by just 1.7% (2). China’s ambitious green transition, besides easing tensions over the public’s environmental concerns, is a response to the challenge of modernising its engines of growth and greening its international image.
(1) See Chris Buckley and Vanessa Piao, ‘Rural water, not city smog, may be China’s pollution nightmare’, The New York Times, 11 April 2016.
(2) Provisional figures for 2016 from the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.