Varun Sivaram

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Yanzhong Huang: China’s New Rhetoric at COP21

by Guest Blogger for Michael Levi
December 3, 2015

China; Climate Change; COP21 REUTERS/Stephane Mahe


China’s public rhetoric about international climate policy has changed dramatically since the 2009 UN summit in Copenhagen, write Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for Global Health, and Research Associate Ariella Rotenberg. In this piece, part of our series of guest posts on the UN climate summit in Paris, they explain why that is and what it might mean for the ongoing UN summit in Paris.

The Chinese government’s attitude toward climate change at COP21 looks almost unrecognizable compared to the previous 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. In the final days of the 2009 meeting, then Premier Wen Jiabao skipped a session of two-dozen world leaders and sent in his place a lower level official from the ministry of foreign affairs. When President Obama sought out a one-on-one conversation with the Premier, he found himself accidentally walking in on a meeting between the Chinese, Indian, South Africa, and Brazilian leaders—the Indian Prime Minister whom Obama had been told was already on his way to the airport. The language describing Copenhagen focused on the “deadlock” between the United States and China. And Britain came out publicly blaming the Chinese, among others, for blocking what could have been a legally binding treaty to reduce global warming. The output of the 2009 meeting was instead the underwhelming agreement on the part of delegates to “take note” of the accord struck by the United States, China, and other emerging powers that fell significantly short of the original ambitions.

At COP21 China seems to have made a U-turn, emerging as a leader and convener for a serious climate change agreement. As a sign of China’s commitment to reaching an agreement, this is the first time China’s Head of State (instead of the premier) has attended climate change talks. Xie Zhenhua, the head of the Chinese climate delegation for the past nine years and the person who was held responsible for the Chinese actions in Copenhagen, spoke on Tuesday saying, “China is entering a new normal of energy and resource conservation…we can seek a different way.” He has all but abandoned his previous rhetoric that China has the right to develop using dirty technology just as wealthy nations have done, and instead insisted that China will develop “through ecologically driven wealth generation.” Indeed, both the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th CCP Central Committee and the “Thirteenth Five-Year Plan” (2016-2020) made it very clear that China will shift toward green low-carbon development. Already, from 2005-2014 China has reduced its energy consumption per unit of GDP by nearly 30 percent and its CO2 emissions by more than a third. Earlier this year, President Xi Jinping announced with President Obama a pledge to peak overall carbon emissions by 2030. That milestone created an environment of optimism leading up to COP21; “if the Chinese can do it, we can do it,” has been the pervading attitude on the part of more than 150 nations who have made the similar pledges leading up to COP21.

For the Chinese, of course it’s not exclusively about saving the planet. Chinese citizens, particularly in China’s large cities, live with what is often dangerous smog, and suffer from water and soil pollution. On the very day that President Xi arrived in Paris for the climate talks, a coal-fueled “airpocalypse” (i.e., smog at crippling levels) engulfed Chinese cities. Outdoor air pollution is estimated to kill close over three million people worldwide each year in urban areas—most of those cities are in India and China. China seems to have finally realized that it must take active steps to clean up industrial engines of growth for the earth, but also for the sake of the health of its own people. There is indication that Chinese policy makers are strategically using China’s environmental crisis to press for significant policy change in addressing the climate issue. In the words of Chang Jiwen, a senior researcher at a State Council think tank, China is exploring the pathways of handling pollution control, climate change and ecological construction simultaneously.

From a financial standpoint, China has already substantially invested in what will (hopefully) be a significant shift to alternative energy solutions. China is currently both the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy. It still lags behind in terms of building a nationwide carbon market and putting in place a legal framework for its emission control efforts. But if China can indeed follow through on its commitment to cleaner growth, it will establish itself as an undisputed leader in coping with climate change. We do not necessarily have to hold China to such high expectations in terms of its immediate actions in Paris. Positive rhetoric in Paris can be considered a significant accomplishment in and of itself.

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