Is China ready to lead on climate?


BEIJING: China is in the “driving seat” when it comes to “international co-operation” on climate, President Xi Jinping says.
He was speaking at a major political meeting in Beijing ahead of the United Nations-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.
Trump’s decision had left a power vacuum. The historic accord reached in 2014 between then president Barack Obama and 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 (K315bil) a year in domestic renewable energy projects — more than double the US figure.
At about US$32 billion (K103bn), its investment in green technology overseas is also the largest in the world.
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, Trump is not only averse to environment regulation, but even once tweeted, preposterously, that climate change is a Chinese hoax. So, is China ready to lead on climate?
Not yet. 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 Southeast Asia.
In Turkey, Chinese companies have signed agreements worth billions of dollars to construct coal-fired power stations. There is little question that China deserves praise when contrasted with Trump’s retreat from climate action. 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. – ABC