China's climate transition

Was China really the villain that caused the Copenhagen climate talks to collapse? Has it now transformed into a climate leader? Sam Geall investigates.

Chinese protesters

China in their hands: hundreds in Yunnan province protest against a refinery. © AP / Press Association Images

‘We cannot again allow negotiations on real points of substance to be hijacked in this way,’ wrote Ed Miliband, then Britain’s Energy and Climate Secretary, in the aftermath of UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009. The conference had ended not only with a weak climate deal, but also the widespread impression that China, the world’s biggest CO2 emitter by volume, had been at fault.

‘We did not get an agreement on 50-per-cent reductions in global emissions by 2050, or on 80-per-cent reductions by developed countries,’ Miliband added. ‘Both were vetoed by China, despite the support of a coalition of developed and the vast majority of developing countries.’

British journalist Mark Lynas went further. ‘The truth is this,’ he wrote in the Guardian. ‘China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful ‘deal’ so Western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.’

Unsurprisingly, China took notice. In a direct riposte, official news agency Xinhua wrote that ‘China showed the greatest sincerity, tried its best and played a constructive role.’ A series of state media articles rebutted the claim that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had ‘snubbed’ US President Obama during last-minute talks to save the deal.

It’s unlikely China had indeed intended to scupper the negotiations. More likely, the Danish hosts and others misunderstood diplomatic protocols. Chinese policymaking, at least at that time, involved protracted bargaining among elite players. It is unlikely Premier Wen had a mandate to cut a deal, even if he had the will. Nevertheless, today the prevailing perception of China has changed.

China – which is the world’s largest investor in renewable energy and has put in place tough new air pollution laws and other regulations – is now more likely to be hailed as a bellwether of climate progress than castigated as a roadblock. Even Lynas agrees. ‘China has moved a long way, and so has the US,’ he claimed last year. ‘The fact that China was under pressure post-Copenhagen has helped move the leadership.’

This raises two questions. Has China really changed its position significantly? And did international pressure help create this shift?

The New Normal

First, let’s look at China’s transition. In 2009, the country clearly wasn’t prepared to set a ‘peak year’ on its greenhouse gas emissions, which any binding target implies. In 2015, China’s pledge to the UN talks included: a peak in total emissions by 2030 or earlier; a cut in its economy’s carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) by 60 to 65 per cent by 2030, from a 2005 baseline; and the share of its primary energy consumption that is provided by renewables rising to 20 per cent by 2030.

‘I don’t need China to be number one. Can we slow down our economic development and really deal with pollution?’

In short, China has shown not only a shift in position, but also genuine ambition. Increasing the share of renewables by that scale over the next 15 years will mean adding some 800 to 1,000 gigawatts (GW) of electricity generation capacity – equivalent to the entire US electricity system. Its plans include installing 200 GW of wind power and 100 GW of solar by 2020.

But on the second question, Lynas is on shakier ground. China’s action on climate change seems to be motivated by domestic concerns rather than international influences.

While China’s climate accord with the US last year was rightly seen as a positive signal, there is little evidence in other arenas – from the South China Sea to cybersecurity – that the country sees the need to please the US, or any other world power.

On the contrary, Western pressure seems to have had a negative effect. Activist scholar Dale Jiajun Wen wrote in 2012 that ‘people like Mark Lynas and Ed Miliband have probably done more to discredit concern for climate change among the Chinese population than all the Western climate change sceptics combined.’

For China’s President Xi Jinping – a powerful leader, far less hamstrung by factions and special interests in the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) than his predecessors – the restructuring of China’s economy is a core objective. He refers to the transition from energy-intensive industries towards innovation and services that provide higher-quality, slower growth as the country’s ‘New Normal’.

This may spring from his long-term economic vision for China’s future – exporting innovative technology is a core strategic aim – but it’s also likely it takes into account public perceptions, at least where they might threaten the popular legitimacy of the CCP.

Pollution pressure

In early 2015, online documentary Under the Dome was launched. Financed and presented by prominent former state television reporter Chai Jing, it had its debut on the eve of the National People’s Congress – the country’s annual ‘rubber-stamp parliament’. Stylistically reminiscent of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the film focused on the causes and effects of China’s air pollution.

Within 24 hours of being posted on Chinese sites, it had been watched more than 100 million times. Most reactions to the film, which begins with Chai recounting to a studio audience her daughter’s diagnosis of a benign tumour, were overwhelmingly positive. One of the most ‘liked’ comments on Chai’s original posting, on popular microblogging service Weibo, read: ‘I don’t need China to be number one. Can we slow down our economic development and really deal with pollution?’

A week after its release, China’s censors ordered the film’s deletion from the web. A leaked propaganda directive read: ‘Video websites are to delete Under the Dome. Take care to control related commentary.’

Significantly, however, the deletion came after China’s new Minister of the Environment, Chen Jining – a former environmental engineer and university president – had publicly lauded the documentary, saying it reflected ‘growing public concern over environmental protection and threats to human health’.

Public concern has been expressed in various ways. Chen Jiping (no relation to the environment chief), formerly of the CCP’s committee of political and legislative affairs, said in 2013 that the country sees an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 ‘mass incidents’ (ie protests) every year, of which the ‘major reason’ is the environment.

China sees 30,000 to 50,000 protests every year, of which the ‘major reason’ is the environment

Environmental issues have also helped to motivate a generation of Chinese activists. According to official statistics, China had more than 561,000 registered ‘social organizations’ – or NGOs – in June 2014. Many focus on the environment, and many thousands more groups – even millions, according to some estimates – are thought to exist unregistered, or registered as businesses.

The outlook for these groups is often uncertain and subject to rapid change. NGOs are coming under increased scrutiny for perceived foreign support. In 2014, a national security committee headed by President Xi ordered a ‘probe’ into the operation of international NGOs in China or Chinese NGOs with foreign funding.

But other, more positive, signals have emerged too: China’s revised Environmental Protection Law permits NGOs to bring legal cases against polluters; and new rules on ‘ecological civilization’ should make it much harder for local officials to violate environmental regulations without facing serious consequences.

A deeper cut

Will it be enough? China is still the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter and the transition away from fossil fuels won’t be easy.

To reach the globally agreed target to limit warming to two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, one scenario analysis from the International Energy Agency sees China’s carbon intensity needing to fall by around 80 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 – a much deeper cut, by 20 percentage points, than is currently planned.

Many believe China’s emissions will peak earlier than the official target, but it is unclear at what absolute level this will happen.

As the stock market falters, China’s leaders see rapid urbanization and the overseas expansion of its infrastructure firms, among other traditional drivers, as being vital to fuel continued economic growth. Whether these investments can embrace high environmental standards, or will simply lock in high-carbon growth, is a crucial question.

For China’s climate policymakers, its concerned citizens and its burgeoning civil society, Paris might not be a homecoming for a once-vilified international player so much as the beginning of a long and difficult road.

Sam Geall is a Research Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex, and Executive Editor of China and the Environment: The Green Revolution (Zed Books, 2013).