3 key reasons China is stepping up on climate action and what it means for international politics

Jessica Dickinson

UN Climate Change Conference 2009

Delegates arrive at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo source: Neil Palmer (CIAT) via Flickr Creative Commons.

The finger was pointed at China after the failure of the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009, with its manifest rejection of binding targets and rumours of stalling tactics. But six years down the line and China has released its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), the climate actions it plans to take as part of the post-2020 UN agreement, encompassing a pledge to achieve peak carbon emissions no later than 2030. In doing so it has been applauded as the first developing nation to commit to such a peak. What has driven China to take the step and what does it signal, if anything, about its foreign policy?

Firstly, China’s commitments to the UN climate negotiations are demonstrative of the re-orientation underway in its economy, as it moves from a reliance on exports and energy-intensive industries towards a more innovative, knowledge-based economy in which services drive growth alongside domestic consumption. The 12th Five-Year Plan in 2011 prioritised seven high-value growth industries to help achieve this. Critically, the list includes industries associated with sustainable growth, such as clean energy vehicles, new energy and energy conservation. Not only are these industries critical to helping drive down pollution, but the government sees them as a huge economic opportunity. Consequently, China is now pulling away as the world’s leading investor in “clean” energy, its investment rising 32 per cent from 2013 to a record $89.5 billion in 2014, according to a Bloomberg report. And we can expect to see ongoing support for these industries in the upcoming 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020). But the backdrop to all of this is the necessity to ensure that the economy continues to grow in order to sustain the government’s legitimacy and to mitigate against the potential for social upheaval.

Beijing air pollution

Beijing air pollution. Photo source: Kentaro Iemoto via Flickr Creative Commons.

Environmental degradation is the second key factor in China’s adoption of a carbon peak, with the country facing major environmental challenges. The leading cause of death in China is respiratory and heart disease, much of which is related to air pollution. As such, smog reduction is a significant priority and the government has built an action plan around it. Water is also a key environmental issue: about 40% of the water in the country’s river systems is unsuitable for drinking; the quality of water in lakes, reservoirs and urban areas is poor; more than 400 cities are short of water. And the Chinese people are not happy about it. According to the Chinese government’s most recent State of the Environment report there were 712 cases of “abrupt environmental incidents” in https://www.viagrasansordonnancefr.com/viagra-cialis/ 2013, a 31 per cent increase on the year before. Meanwhile, new cases of environmental damage are reported virtually every week on Weibo, one of China’s most popular micro-blogging sites, and just last month over a thousand Shanghai citizens descended on the district government office to protest against the construction of a new chemical plant. So, with environmental issues a clear threat to social stability, central government needs to be seen to be taking action in order to maintain authority.

Third, China’s pledge to the UN is indicative of its growing desire to participate in and influence the world system. Since President Xi took the reins in 2012 the PRC has taken a more proactive role in international affairs. China has unilaterally or jointly proposed new multilateral initiatives including the One Belt, One Road strategy, the New Development Bank and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The latter has been seen as a significant foreign policy success for China, which proposed the idea and will lead the bank moving forward. China’s joint announcement with the USA ahead of the official release of its INDC, revealing for the first time both countries’ post-2020 emissions targets, can be viewed in the context of these developments and as a strong indicator that China wishes to be regarded as a cooperating group going into the negotiations. An analysis of the media reaction on Chinese soil serves to back this up, with the People’s Daily, an official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, talking up a “new pattern of major power relations.” China’s INDC also sets the standard high for those countries yet to announce their targets so lesser emitters will find it harder to walk away from comparable pledges. In combination with China’s recent signing of a new Memorandum of Understanding with the UN, outlining the efforts it will take to share technologies, know-how and experience in facing climate change to help advance South-South cooperation on climate change, there is strong evidence that China is using the international politics of climate change to rise up the ranks of global leadership.

However, while foreign policy will remain high on the PRC’s agenda in future, and we should expect to see vigorous diplomatic efforts on climate change, there will be no compromise on entrenched positions. China remains deeply resistant to any external, binding commitments that it perceives would undermine its national sovereignty, a concept deeply embedded across East Asia. To the extent that climate change diplomacy is revealing of the country’s desire to take a lead in the international system, the PRC seems ready to take up the mantle, but we should remember that, in this case at least, with environmental degradation at serious levels and Chinese economic growth stalling it is very much in China’s interests to comply.

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