COP26 – The Role of China

China is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, surpassing even the resource intensive economy of the United States.  With this tag comes some responsibility to take action to reduce emissions so this post is about China’s role in our efforts to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and avoid the worst consequences of climate breakdown. 

But China, so influential in reaching agreement in Paris, may not be represented by their President, Xi Jinping at the world leaders summit next week.  The result is that we may have to be braced for headlines blaming China for a lack of ambition in any agreement or, worse, any breakdown of the talks or failure to reach agreement.

China – My Impressions

I am not an expert on China and Chinese politics.  I have never been to China and like most people in the UK and other western countries, my view of China has been coloured by reports in the press and other media which, almost without exception, seeks to position China as an adversary of the west. 

About 10 years ago, I did a lot of research on environmental entrepreneurship in China while preparing a “Green Business Options” course for the Green Jobs Programme of the International Labour Organisation in south-east Asia.  The overriding impression I gained from that research was that with the market reforms that were, at the time, gaining momentum, the amount of time, money and effort that was being put into new “green” businesses in China dwarfed anything we were doing in the UK.

The other insight I gained from this research was that to some extent, China, its leaders and its people are relatively unconcerned about what happens in western democracies.  Our electoral cycles are based on 4 or 5 year terms of office for our governments.  This, in reality condemns us to probably only 2 years of meaningful policy-making in that it can take a year for a new government to find its feet and the final year to 18 months of a term is spent positioning the government to gain re-election.  In contrast the Chinese system allows their government to work to a much longer time-horizon than our’s.  We also need to be aware that Chinese civilisation can be traced back at least a couple of thousand years, so the last 250 years of dominance by the UK, Europe and the United States, could be considered by the Chinese as a historical aberration that will pass and China will, again, assume its rightful place as world leader.

It may be a controversial perspective to take, but perhaps we can see this happening with China’s increasing influence outside its own borders at a time when western political and economic systems are showing signs of decline?  Remember, Chinese politicians are happy to play a long-game!

Please do not assume that this means I endorse China’s one-party state system.  Flawed as it may be, I prefer democratic government.  However, the type of democracy we enjoy here in the UK, the US and western Euope clearly does not lend itself to the long-term, strategic thinking we need to deal with climate breakdown!

China at COP26

The insights I gained from my research prompted me to be more sceptical when reading about China in western media outlets and encouraged me to try and look behind the headlines.  The key headlines in relation to China and COP26 last week were that President Xi was unlikely to attend either the G20 meeting in Rome or COP26 in Glasgow.  The implications from the reports in the UK were that President Xi’s absence would undermine the conference and that it would make an effective outcome much more unlikely.  What was less well reported was that the Chinese President has not left China since the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2019 and that the lack of face-to-face meetings has not had any major effect on China’s role in other international gatherings.

Of course, there are benefits in personally attending some of these world leaders’ meetings.  In particular, there is always the opportunity for unscheduled sessions, away from the main discussions, which may be more productive than the formulaic and choreographed plenary sessions.  But many people from across the world in both their professional and personal lives have become used to video conferencing and it is entirely possible that while not attending the conference in person, President Xi will address the sessions via video link.  We must also remember that President Xi’s absence does not mean the Chinese will be absent from the conference.

The same, but different

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC) has always acknowledged that developed countries have contributed the most to historical emissions of greenhouse gases and that developing countries should be allowed to increase their share to enable them to meet their social and development needs.  This gave rise to a fundamental principle of the UN FCCC, that governments would seek to protect the climate on an equitable basis but in accordance with their “common but differentiated responsibilities.”  This meant that developed countries would take the lead in dealing with climate change and would transfer finance and technology to developing countries to support their mitigation and adaptation.

Unfortunately, the idea of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs, discussed in earlier articles in this series) turns the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” on its head, instead, asking for “common and shared responsibilities” that take no account of historical responsibility or equity between developed and developing countries.  An alternative, equity-based proposal that was put forward by several developing countries was not adopted in Paris, partly because at that time, there was no effective way of determining what that equitable access meant.

Bear with me, this is relevant!

China’s role in emitting greenhouse gases is undoubtedly important in that the country now emits, annually, a greater quantity of carbon dioxide than any other single country in the world.  But how important is it in relation to emissions from the second largest emitter, the United States? A key issue to bear in mind is that in terms of climate breakdown, it is the “stocks” of carbon dioxide that reside in the atmosphere, not the annual flow that we need to consider.  So, responsibility for climate breakdown must be measured in terms of each country’s contribution to the quantity of carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution.  On this basis, the cumulative emissions from the USA (420 gigatonnes – or 420 000 000 000 tonnes) and Europe (377 gigatonnes) are each more than twice as significant as China’s 160 gigatonnes.

Jason Hickel, in an article for The Lancet Planetary Health in September 2020 used this starting point to calculate what a “fair share” of carbon dioxide emissions might look like.  This is a real attempt to determine what equitable access to atmospheric space means.  Using Hickel’s calculation, as of 2015, China had not overshot its fair share of global emissions.  At current rates of emission, it will overshoot in a few years and will then join the United States and Europe as a climate debtor with responsibility for climate breakdown.

This fair-shares approach provides an opportunity to quantify national responsibility for climate breakdown, consistent with the principles of planetary boundaries and equal access to atmospheric commons.  The results provide guidance for determining just approaches to liability for damages related to climate breakdown.  The outcome is that high-income countries must not only reduce emissions to zero more quickly than other countries, but they must also pay down their climate debts.

This means that although China is the country with the largest emissions of carbon dioxide, when you consider emissions per person, China is still some way behind most the G20 group of countries with a resident of the United States emitting nearly three times as much per person as a resident of China.  And when we look at the historical cumulative emissions, as we have done above, China is well behind the US and EU.  It is, therefore, fair that China should be allowed to reach its decarbonisation targets later than those countries that industrialised much earlier.  The fairest way for us to work towards decarbonisation on a planetary basis is for the biggest historic emitters to take the quickest action, as they promised to do when signing the UN FCCC back in 1992.

What action is China taking?

We must not forget that along with the United States, China led the way at COP21 in Paris to secure the agreement to keep warming to 1.5 degrees.  They have also followed other major economies by pledging to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century.  The Chinese government has committed to making sure their emissions peak by 2030 and that beyond 2025, their use of coal will decline.  This has been extended recently when President Xi promised to end funding for coal-fired power station projects overseas, supporting green and low carbon energy instead.

China is also a world-leading manufacturer of solar panels, is the biggest single market for electric vehicles and is not far behind the UK as one of the biggest markets for offshore wind

Undoubtedly, the Chinese government also understands the economic benefits of decarbonising and the significantly greater costs of not acting.  The role of China is, therefore, very important in these negotiations but it is wrong to characterise China as responsible for inaction on the climate.  That responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the UK, the United States and western Europe.  We have the skills, the technology and the finance to help the rest of the world to decarbonise. 

Do we have the will to do so? 

In less than three weeks, we will know the answer!

image of Chinese flag by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay