What choices will China make at Glasgow climate summit?

Domestic constraints, as well as China's view of reciprocity in commitments by other nations, will determine its own approach

Written by Avinash Godbole

The 26th round of negotiations of the Conference of Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC is scheduled to take place from October 31 to November 12 in Glasgow. Considered the last opportunity to do something meaningful and credible to save the planet from irrecoverable temperature rise, the Glasgow summit has acquired incredible significance. What happens in Glasgow will depend on whether the US and China cooperate as they did in Paris to put on the table the Paris Accord in December 2015. However, a lot of water has flown under the bridge since then and that is going to impact the potential of the US-China cooperation and the success of the Glasgow summit. Both have immensely different priorities and the pandemic has not made the choices easier.

While China has made several commitments as part of the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25), it has also built several new coal-fired power plants at home in the last 2 years. And these are not just to replace older inefficient plants as was supposed to be done. In fact, 60 per cent of China’s energy growth in the last 2 years has come from fossil fuels and that is an alarming development from the global perspective. China recently announced its Nationally Determined Commitment (NDC) target updates and those are nearly identical to last year’s announcement of becoming carbon neutral before 2060. China has also announced that it is going to stop building coal-fired power plants overseas. While China’s targets are good, it needs to upgrade its targets significantly in order to achieve the commitments made in Paris. Thus, there is a lot of pressure on China to advance this target to 2050 if any meaningful outcome is to be achieved in Glasgow. This pressure may be one of the reasons why Xi Jinping will abstain from the summit meeting as is clear by now.

Just 3 days before the start of the summit, China has issued a new white paper stating China’s stance on climate change. It highlights some of the usual points like the tussle on the issue of financing, technology, and capacity building. These are the three areas the developed countries were supposed to be helping the developing countries with as committed in the Paris Accord but little has transpired on the ground since then. Second, China reiterates its developing country status and recalls the CBDR principle throughout the paper. Even then, it highlights its remarkable success in the path to transition to the clean energy sector, including investment in the research and development of clean energy, diversification of the energy basket to expand the share of renewable sectors. It is ahead of its targets on carbon intensity and forest density growth but is not likely to hit the target of carbon emissions peaking before 2030 and the non-fossil fuel target is also likely to be missed. China has revived the building of coal-fired plants as of now. Coal remains attractive for several reasons — it employs a lot of people and earns provinces a lot in tax. In several cities, the local economies are built around the coal sector and for them, a transition to clean energy is going to be costly as well as difficult.

China’s self-perception as a responsible stakeholder and its aversion to criticism are the reasons for its changed negotiating position from Copenhagen to Paris. Two other reasons are the domestic incidents of air and water pollution and the US-China 10-year framework on climate cooperation, which brought in S&T cooperation. Before Paris, China saw climate change as a technological opportunity and it achieved that as part of the US-China climate change cooperation. For example, China’s leap in electric mobility in cars, scooters, and buses has been based on the technology transfer it received from the US. That is also the reason why China could leapfrog the hybrid vehicle technology altogether.

It seemed like the Biden administration would take a more cooperative approach towards China in general, but its strategy has been issue-specific. Meng Wanzhou’s release was a point of thaw but the telecom sector disputes continue. China’s violation of the Taiwanese airspace through PLA-AF incursions and banning of products and companies linked with Xinjiang, as well as the strengthening of NATO’s approach to China and the upgradation of the Quad in the last one year, all signal a long-term shift in the US approach to China. China would also assess the US commitments vis-à-vis its domestic constraints, like the hard-to-change energy sector.

China needs to undertake more action domestically on climate change and for that, it needs all the possible technological cooperation that can come its way. China’s domestic public opinion is not only aware but also sensitive about issues like air and water pollution. In 2021 alone, massive floods in Henan, Shanxi and elsewhere have caused close to 400 deaths and relocation of more than 2 million people and losses and damages worth $20 billion at least. The party has also promised to work on quality-of-life issues as part of the revised principal contradiction. Thus, more action on climate change is also a necessity.

How China approaches the Glasgow Summit hinges on three major factors. The first is its assessment of the domestic and global economy which would make it hesitant to commit to stronger targets. The second would be its assessment of the reciprocity of commitments from the US, EU and Australia. The third factor is a proactive strategy on climate change, which is also one of the ways for China to assert its status as a benign, friendly norm-maker rather than a disruptor. The big question is whether China feels the need to do that now. And does it see the world as benign or hostile?

The writer is Associate Professor and Assistant Dean, JSLH, JGU

Source: Read Full Article