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  1. Environment
  2. COP26
2 November 2021

Can the world trust China on climate change?

Xi Jinping’s attempts to win the world’s confidence on environmental policy relies on the US’s failure to do likewise.

By India Bourke

Last September, as the US election placed US climate action on a knife edge, China stepped in with an unexpected show of leadership: the country would become carbon neutral before 2060 and peak its emissions within the decade. Yet since then it has offered no major new update in ambition. President Xi Jinping, already not attending Cop26, did not even address the summit by video link (sending his leaders’ speech by written statement instead).

For many, this limited progress is not enough. “Six years have passed since the adoption of the Paris Agreement,” said Greenpeace China’s Li Shuo, “the benchmark we use to evaluate climate leadership should evolve. A country can no longer lead by simply putting long-term carbon reduction targets forward. It needs to accelerate near-term climate action.”

The planet’s largest polluter and biggest coal consumer is essential to ensuring the world avoids exceeding a dangerous 1.5°C of warming. Scientists have warned that without pushing global emissions down to zero by 2050, as well as reducing them by 45 per cent by 2030 (not peaking, as China has pledged), the 1.5 limit will be breached.

China has historically played up its role as a “developing nation” to argue for more time and less pressure in decarbonising its economy. And this year seems no different. While signing up to the recent G20 agreement to meet net zero by or around mid-century, China has also, as part of the Like-Minded Developing Countries coalition, been opposing developed nations’ call for a global net-zero target, said Belinda Schäpe from the think tank E3G. Playing it both ways, as a member of developing and developed economies’ groups, “will be a difficult balance to strike”, she added.

So can the world trust China to step up? To both meet its targets and – before too long – improve on them?

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The case against Beijing’s trustworthiness (xin in Chinese) is being made with increasing force by US politicians on both sides of the House of Representatives.

Just last week, during a congressional hearing on the oil industry’s role in climate disinformation, Republican representative Ralph Norman suggested that one-sided climate action would risk leaving America at a disadvantage and do little to sway the Chinese course. “Do Democrats really believe that putting the oil and gas industry out of business will suddenly make China less of a polluter?” he asked. 

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Meanwhile, the Chinese government’s harsh crackdown on freedom – in the Xinjiang territory, in Hong Kong and within central China – is turning those who favour openness into hawks.

In his recent book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian at the University of California, Irvine, recalls British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s 1990 belief that China would honour its commitments to Hong Kong because it would wish to be seen doing so “in the forum of the world”. That hope was dashed, however, by China’s 2020 imposition of harsh new laws.  “It is one clear recent example of the Party’s readiness at times to just say it is no longer convenient to keep a promise and [then] break it,” Wasserstrom told New Statesman.

Yet even if China seemingly cares little about being at odds with the West diplomatically, domestically there are still good reasons for the administration to want to be seen as trustworthy on climate.

First, Xi’s lack of implication at Cop26 is arguably less an attempt to belittle climate action, and more about suring-up his nationalist credentials at home as an autonomous power, as well as a lack of willingness to travel because of Covid.

The premier is readying for a leadership contest in 2022. There’s no real question his re-election prospects are in doubt, but he will still need to fortify party consensus around him. “Just because China’s system is top-down and authoritarian doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lot of politics,” said Sam Geall, CEO of China Dialogue, “it just happens within one party.”

It is very much within China’s own long-term economic interests to act on climate, Geall added. Exporting clean technology, shifting from manufacturing to innovation and services, improving energy security, and ending air pollution. All these are important in ensuring the country moves away from an economic model that has seen its property developers become mired in debt and its citizens stuck in an energy crunch. But, in the short term, such a shift will also require “turning around a huge juggernaut, and it’s not going to be a simple process”, Geall said. 

Secondly, China’s self-image as a climate leader among developing nations continues to be a meaningful part of its identity, said Marina Rudyak, a China scholar at the University of Heidelberg. This fact could continue to push the country in a positive direction.

For years, Chinese companies have been supporting new infrastructure projects abroad, including green energy, Rudyak underlined. After pushback from local communities about a lack of adequate compensation and environmental protection, however, China’s central administration has issued new regulations. These stipulate that if environmental standards in the host country are lower than in China, the company involved should try to adopt the higher Chinese standard and engage with local people. “So there is a learning process happening,” said Rudyak.

And thirdly, China is suffering from the impacts of climate change. In one surreal and widely shared video from this summer’s catastrophic flooding in Henan province, passengers in an underground train carriage stood submerged, chest deep in rising water. The fatal disaster led to the deaths of 14 people in the subway tunnels alone, and more widely killed 71 while displacing nearly two million.

There is reason to trust that China will continue its steady-as-she-goes progress on emissions reductions. And showing leadership to developing nations, as a protector of its economic interests and as an example of climate ambition, will likely continue to be key to this process.

In this regard, the potential for China to leverage the trust it holds is huge. “If Beijing decides to act faster, it will reinvigorate global climate momentum,” said Li.

But equally, in setting only conservative targets for itself on emissions reduction, Xi is arguably also signalling how he wants future trust in China to be defined: namely, in opposition to the US, which may not be able to follow through on its own pledges if Congress continues to stymie new legislation.

“There is also a high-level leadership narrative that the East is rising and the West is falling,” added Li. “And the climate case to support that view is the Chinese assessment that the US is heavily paralysed by its domestic politics.”

The overarching message China seems to be projecting at Cop26 is one of show not tell. But without more ambitious commitments, Xi’s attempt to win the world’s trust on climate may bank a little too much on Joe Biden losing his.

[See also: The US is not a leader in the fight against climate change]