Can China actually lead on climate change?
Shifting the Chinese economy away fromfossil fuels puts jobs in carbon-intensive sectors at risk.
China is in the "driving seat"when it comes to "international co-operation" on climate, saidPresident Xi Jinping at a major political meeting in Beijing ahead of theUN-led climate talks in Bonn earlier this month, the first annual meeting ofthe negotiations since President Donald Trump announced his intention towithdraw from the agreement.
Mr Trump's decision had left a powervacuum: the historic accord reached in 2014 between then president Barack Obamaand Mr Xi, leading the world's two largest economies, which together accountfor about 40 per cent of global emissions, had underpinned the consensusreached by the international community in late 2015 in Paris. Could China alonefill that vacuum?
Presidents Obama and Xi reached a historicaccord on emissions.
China certainly made its presence felt atthe talks, but often in its traditional stance as defender of the developingcountries, arguing that rich countries must shoulder the greater burden ofdecarbonisation, a position reportedly described by Greenpeace East Asiacampaigner Li Shuo as "an inevitable result of international climatediplomacy in the post-US era".
China's carbon emissions have also risenthis year, after two years of slight decline.
Still, it is committed to peak before 2030, and it leads the world in cleantechnologies — accounting for five of the world's top six solar PVmanufacturers, and seven of the top-15 wind turbine manufacturers.
China is also investing more than $US100 billion a year in domestic renewableenergy projects — more than double the US figure. At about $US32 billion, itsinvestment in green technology overseas is also the largest in the world.
Mr Xi has made environmental ambition asignature of his rhetoric, having coined the florid phrase, "clear watersand green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver". Bycontrast, the US President is not only averse to environmental regulation, buteven once tweeted, preposterously, that climate change is a Chinese hoax.
So, is China ready to lead on climate? Not yet.
Fossil fuel use maintains social stability
To assume a real leadership role, Chinaneeds not only to fulfil its Paris pledges — no small challenge, given thedifficulty of shifting its huge economy away from a reliance on coal-firedenergy — but also to demonstrate a strategy for overseas investment that isconsistent with its environmental ambitions.
Domestic local implementation tends to be a major problem for central plannersin China, and to shift the economy away from fossil fuels means bracing for thesocial stability risks of declining employment in carbon-intensive sectors. Anillustration of this was the recent approval by provincial authorities ofnumerous plans for new coal-fired power stations, which were later cancelled bysweeping central government decrees.
On the international front, as China's energy-intensive sectors slow, there isa risk that companies such as those producing the technology to mine and burncoal find an escape valve for overcapacity by exporting capital and technologyoutside China's borders, driving carbon-intensive growth in other countries,particularly along the so-called "Belt and Road" trade routes in central,south and South-East Asia.
From 2000 to 2016, 66 per cent of powersector lending from Chinese banks went into coal projects, according to BostonUniversity.
In Turkey, Chinese companies have signed agreements worth billions of dollarsto construct coal-fired power stations.
In Pakistan, China has also approved a $US1.2 billion investment for coalmining in the Thar Desert and the construction of 660 megawatt coal-fired powergenerators.
Self-interest behind sustainability push
To call for greater attention to the sustainability of these investments is notto expect altruism from China: its domestic actions, after all, have beendriven thus far by a leadership that understands how lower carbon developmentbenefits technological innovation, energy efficiency and security, and airpollution mitigation — as well as helping to stave off dangerous future climateimpacts on food and water security.
As China's energy-intensive sectors slow,coal interests may look further afield, spreading along trade routes in Asia.
Similarly, avoiding coal is a sensibleinvestment choice, as renewable energy costs continue to fall — in large partthanks to economies of scale in China — the burden of air pollution on healthand wellbeing becomes ever more apparent, and the risks of climate impacts risearound the world.
There is little question that China deserves praise when contrasted with MrTrump's retreat from climate action. As its economic power grows, it can beexpected to maintain active climate cooperation where it is advantageous, fortechnological, economic, and soft power purposes.
But unless China can implement its domestic energy transition to phase outcoal, and green its Belt and Road Initiative and overseas investment morebroadly, its rhetoric about playing a leading role on climate change globallyis unlikely to be realised.
The advanced economies of the world becameadvanced by creating the bulk of the CO2 emissions since 1800. It is thereforereasonable to expect them to shoulder some of the cost of decarbonisingdeveloping economies. That the US has withdrawn from the climate mitigationsphere and left China in this position is deeply regrettable. China willinevitably use any influence it obtains to undermine international oppositionto its expansionist policies and its neglect of human rights.