The new geopolitics of China’s climate leadership

China must demonstrate a propensity to achieve President Xi’s vision of carbon neutrality as close to 2050 as possible and seriously re-orient its support for carbon-intensive infrastructure overseas through BRI. Otherwise, any goodwill generated by his announcement risks quickly becoming a thorn in China’s side.

By 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 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 signaled 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 United States.

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 United States with a wide-ranging and ambitious program 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).

Chinese President Xi Jinping with U.S Vice President Joe Biden in Beijing on December 4, 2013.

President-elect Joe Biden believes that any attempt to address climate change without China doing more will inherently remain limited. 

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.

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 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 U.S. short-term action through a new 2030 emissions reduction target, and to have completely decarbonized the domestic energy system by 2035.

China would be wise not to cut against this, including given the troubles with the wider bilateral relationship. It is in both countries’ interests to rebuild the cooperative relationship on climate change they established under the Obama administration, and which Biden – and his anointed Special Presidential Envoy John Kerry – played a key role in creating. That is because, from Biden’s perspective, any attempt to address climate change without China doing more will inherently remain limited.

This will require a sophisticated approach by China, including to overcome its traditionally tin-eared response to the views of the international community on its climate credentials, and instead to demonstrate a willingness to understand genuine areas of geopolitical weaknesses on climate and to seek to overcome them.

First, China would be well advised to confirm that Xi’s September announcement will cover all greenhouse gas emissions and not just carbon dioxide. According to modeling by Xie Zhenhua’s Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University, and a separate study by the Asia Society Policy Institute and Climate Analytics, this would put the goal squarely in-line with the global temperature limits set by the Paris Agreement, especially if coupled with deeper cuts in the short term to avoid higher cumulative emissions over time.

Ideally, China would also join the Biden administration and European Union, plus every other G7 economy, including Japan (and now also South Korea), in committing to reach this goal closer to 2050. Few governments have a propensity for effective and centralized long-term planning as China. The celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049 provides a ripe milestone for Beijing to have in mind.

Short-Term Ambition

At the same time, China must be prepared to do much more to reduce emissions in the short-term, including through depositing a new NDC next year in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow. While President-elect Biden will begin the process of rejoining the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, the United States is unlikely to be able to produce a 2030 NDC before the northern summer. And once it has, this is likely to represent a significant first restorative step, potentially by elevating the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025 (on 2005 levels) to somewhere between a 38 and 54 percent cut in emissions by 2030.

But in order to be credible, China must use the Five-Year Plan process, including the production of a “Special Plan for Combating Climate Change and the CO2 Peaking Action Plan”, as well as the “Plan for Energy Development and the Plan for Electricity Development” – to commit to a cap of 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, and to control non-carbon dioxide emissions at two billion tons. This would require China to also commit to limiting total coal power capacity to no more than 1,150 gigawatts in 2025 and work towards a complete phase-out of all domestic coal generation by 2040. This would mean China would also cross the symbolically important threshold of reducing the share of coal in total energy consumption to below 50 percent before the end of 2025.

However, much of this will rest even more immediately on the decisions China continues to take as part of its economic response to Covid-19. The approval of a large number of new coal-fired power plants this year does not augur well for ensuring there is a green economic recovery, even with Beijing’s investment in so called “new infrastructure” such as electric vehicle charging stations and rail upgrades. Indeed, the total capacity of coal-fired power generation now under development in China is larger than the remaining operating fleet in the United States.

Belt and Road Initiative

A third area that will require a sophisticated reset by Beijing concerns the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and especially China’s support for large amounts of carbon-intensive infrastructure around the world, including coal-fired power stations. By some estimates, China is currently involved in the construction of more than 100 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations around the world, including in South East Asia, Africa, and even Eastern Europe.

Beijing should be careful not to underestimate the extent to which this has the potential to significantly impinge the BRI – the jewel in the crown of Xi’s foreign policy – in the years ahead. Already moods are shifting in many recipient countries.

President-elect Biden has not only pledged to shine an uncomfortable light on China’s offshoring of emissions through the BRI on the campaign trail, but his commitment to massively ramp up America’s overseas clean energy investments also has the potential to result in a sophisticated diplomatic squeeze on China. If China does not want to be seen to be moving only at the behest of U.S. pressure, it would be well advised to begin to make these reforms earnestly.

Source: Asia Society

Kevin Rudd
Former Prime Minister of Australia
President of Asia Society Policy Institute

Images courtesy of (UN Photo), (Photo courtesy Reuters) and Parveen Chopra

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