China’s climate leadership: The world’s new geopolitics

The Paris Agreement’s five-year anniversary provides the perfect opportunity for China to demonstrate its confident, international policy activism on the environment.

Kevin Rudd

Since 2014, China has embarked on a new era of confident, independent international policy activism under President Xi Jinping — the origins of which can be traced back to the Chinese Communist Party’s 2014 Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs. That conference marked the end of Deng Xiaoping’s 30-year-old dictum of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”.

The origins of China’s newfound desire to play a leadership role in the global fight against climate change can also be traced back to 2014. This includes Xi’s landmark joint announcement on climate change with former United States president Barack Obama less than three weeks before the party’s Central Work Conference.

Since then, China has shown a steady determination to demonstrate its own climate credentials, which increasingly has become a bright spot in China’s position on the world stage. Yet, Xi’s announcement this September that China will aim to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 marked an important new milestone. For the first time, China has signalled it is not just willing to be a participant in the international fight against climate change, but that climate leadership has crossed the geopolitical Rubicon in Beijing’s eyes. In other words, it has become a central priority for China irrespective of the steps taken by other countries, including the US.

This marks an important new era for the geopolitics of China’s climate leadership, but also one in which Beijing must understand that it will be judged more sharply than ever before, including by its developing country compatriots. This is especially the case as President-elect Joe Biden takes office in the US with a wide-ranging and ambitious programme to tackle climate change both at home and abroad.

To best navigate these newfound expectations and responsibilities, China will need to significantly bolster its short-term efforts to reduce emissions through its 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, especially with regards to its future use of coal. Piecemeal steps forward in the short-term will be insufficient in the eyes of the international community. At the same time, China must also demonstrate a propensity to achieve Xi’s vision of carbon neutrality as close to 2050 as possible and start to seriously re-orient its support for carbon-intensive infrastructure overseas through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Without these steps, any goodwill generated by Xi’s recent announcement risks quickly becoming a thorn in China’s side because of the geopolitical benchmarks it has now set for itself.

Ecological civilisation

While it was president Hu Jintao that first used the phrase “ecological civilisation” in 2007 to describe China’s own brand of environmentalism, it is Xi that has made it part of the party’s lexicon and a key pillar for the country’s development.

In doing so, Xi has deliberately sought to differentiate China’s approach from traditional Western notions of liberal environmentalism. This includes by underscoring the economic importance of environmental action, as evidenced by his regular pronouncement that “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver”, a phrase Xi first used in 2005 when he was party secretary in Zhejiang province.

Until now, domestic imperatives have been driving China’s creeping environmentalism. The single greatest inspiration for the change in behaviour between the China the world grappled with at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 and the China that was instrumental in the securing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, was rising concerns amongst the Chinese population on the level of air pollution in their cities. Declaring a “war on pollution” during the opening of the 18th National Party Congress in March 2014 underscored this.

However, that same year, Xi’s rhetoric also started to emphasise the international imperatives of climate action. This included his declaration that “addressing climate change and implementation of sustainable development is not what we are asked to do, but what we really want to do and we will do well”. Nevertheless, China remained cautious, as demonstrated by Xi’s decision not to attend a climate summit convened by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in September 2014, which was billed as the most important moment in the lead-up to Paris.

Nevertheless, in 2015 and 2016, Xi embarked on an intensive environmental reform effort within the party, including through embedding the concept of ecological civilisation in the 13th Five-Year Plan and pitting it alongside the concepts of “The Chinese Dream” and “The Two Centenary Goals”, including to double China’s GDP by 2020. China’s vision of ecological civilisation was also a central concept in the 2015 NDC it tabled as its first commitment under the Paris Agreement.

This helps demonstrate why, by January 2017, just days before the inauguration of President Donald Trump who was elected on a platform of withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, Xi was prepared to use an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos to signal China would nevertheless stay the course with the agreement.

The significance of Xi’s statement at the time should not be underestimated. If China had chosen to use Trump’s formal confirmation in June of that year of his intention to withdraw from the agreement as an opportunity to obfuscate on its obligations — or worse to also seek to withdraw from the agreement altogether — it is unlikely that the agreement would remain intact today. For that, the world owes China a debt of gratitude.

A new era

Xi’s announcement this September that China will achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 marks an important new era for the geopolitics of China’s climate leadership. Xi’s announcement was his most important speech on climate change since his January 2017 address in Davos and his November 2014 joint announcement with Obama.

For most of the Trump era, China’s approach to the international fight against climate change had been akin to that of a substitute teacher. Beijing had never signalled a desire to do more than simply cover the field in Washington’s absence.

Important initiatives such as the establishment of the Ministerial on Climate Action (MoCA) alongside the EU and Canada were more at the behest of Brussels than Beijing. And for Beijing, this was an easy win until the breakdown in relations with Ottawa beginning with the arrest of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou in late 2018, which made the optics of co-chairing this forum difficult.

However, September’s announcement demonstrated that China’s diplomatic calculation has now changed. With a deadline looming next year for countries to respond to the Paris Agreement’s invitation to develop long-term decarbonisation strategies for mid-century, and to enhance their short-term climate targets (NDCs), few expected China to make any serious pronouncements before the outcome of November’s US presidential election was clear. And in the event of a Biden victory, Beijing would still have a sweet spot between November and January to make announcements to head off future pressure from a Democratic administration in Washington. The fact Xi decided China should nevertheless be prepared to adopt — for the first time — a clear pathway to decarbonise its economy was therefore hugely significant.

The fact that Xi’s announcement also made no reference to China’s traditionally hard-held bifurcation between developed and developing country responsibilities, or indeed linked China’s actions in any way to the action of others, was also hugely significant.

Xi’s dismissal of the Europeans’ attempts to extract such an announcement just a week earlier during a virtual EU–China leaders’ meeting underscores he clearly now sees greater geopolitical value in China’s preparedness to signal its desire to act alone compared to the domestic value of being seen to use minor steps by China as a lever for extracting stronger commitments from the developed world in return.

New geopolitical benchmarks

The challenge for China now is to live up to the new geopolitical benchmarks it has set for itself in the eyes of the international community. This includes among its G77 developing country compatriots, including the many island nations whose very existence hinges more than anything else now on the actions of developing countries such as China, as well as India (with Xi’s announcement, India is now clearly forecast — for the first time — to become the world’s largest emitter). In other words, China will now be judged on an increasingly level playing field to the United States, European Union, and regional powers like Japan, rather than simply rewarded for coming to the table.

At the same time, China will need to be conscious that with US President-elect Biden’s inauguration in January, any goodwill it has built up in recent years for staying the course with the Paris Agreement will quickly be eclipsed by the weight of Biden’s own ambitions. This includes Biden’s determination to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, aggressively ramp up US short-term action through a new 2030 emissions reduction target, and to have completely decarbonised the domestic energy system by 2035. — China Dialogue

Rudd is former Australian prime minister.