By Michael Lelyveld
China’s role in combating climate change is becoming more complicated as it straddles the gap between the developed and developing worlds.
The country’s contributions to both carbon emissions and control efforts are likely to remain a key focus for implementation of the historic climate agreement approved by nearly 200 nations on Saturday.
By a remarkable coincidence, the United Nations climate conference in Paris opened on Nov. 30, the same day that the International Monetary Fund accepted China’s yuan for inclusion in the club of the world’s most powerful currencies.
The IMF’s long-sought recognition may be seen as a measure of how far China has come on its course toward joining the countries with developed economies.
It may have been less of a coincidence that Beijing raised its smog alert to the second-highest level on the same day, as President Xi Jinping addressed world leaders in Paris, pledging China’s “confidence and resolve to fulfill its climate change commitments.”
Grimy smog from coal-fired winter heating had been darkening the region for over a week, but as Xi spoke, particulate concentrations in China’s capital climbed to over 20 times the safe levels set by the World Health Organization.
The collision of events point to the complexity of China’s climate policies, which are aimed at ensuring a peak in its world-leading carbon emissions by “around 2030,” although urban smog only seems to be getting worse.
One week later, Beijing raised its smog alert to the “red,” or top, level for the first time, triggering shutdowns of factories and schools as residents were warned against going outdoors.
In the run up to the Paris conference, China repeated its previous pledges to cut carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by 60-65 percent from 2005 levels and raise the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix to 20 percent by 2030.
Yet, in spite of the targets, China has continued to build new coal-fired power plants at a rapid pace, assuring its place as the top carbon emitter for decades to come.
On Dec. 2, the State Council, or cabinet, said China would cut pollution from coal-fired power plants by 60 percent before 2020, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 180 million metric tons annually, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
But the pledge appeared to be a step back from earlier reports that the government would ban all construction of new coal-fired power capacity under its Five-Year Plan starting in 2016.
In a preview of the Paris conference, Xinhua stressed that China’s promises were “in adherence with the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities,” a reminder that it continues to argue for less stringent pollution policies as a member of the developing world.
The familiar argument is that rich industrialized nations, which have been responsible for most carbon emissions over the last century, can hardly deny poorer developing countries the right to energy-driven economic growth now.
But for China, the case for playing industrial catch-up has gotten harder to make after it has grown to become the world’s top carbon emitter and won admission to the IMF currency club with a bankroll of U.S. $3.44 trillion (22.2 trillion yuan) in foreign exchange reserves.
The issue became a major point of contention in the Paris talks over wording of the draft agreement, as developed nations sought language that would include countries “with the capacity to do so” among those who should provide aid for poorer developing states to offset climate costs.
After China objected to the implied aid obligation, the language was altered in a draft released Friday to read that “other parties may on a voluntary, complementary basis provide resources to developing countries including through South-South cooperation initiatives.”
In the final agreement on Saturday, the language regarding China was watered down further to read that “other parties are encouraged to provide or continue to provide such support voluntarily.”
In September, China announced a 20-billion yuan (U.S. $3.1-billion) South-South cooperation fund to help developing countries cope with climate change.
But the resistance to bigger pledges in Paris suggests China wants to keep its distance from the larger commitments of the developed world, which are expected to reach U.S. $100 billion (645.8 billion yuan) annually in 2020.
David Bachman, a China scholar and international studies professor at University of Washington in Seattle, said China has continued to represent itself as the leader among developing nations, entitled to put GDP growth ahead of carbon concerns, even as it rises into the ranks of the rich.
“For almost any major emitter, it’s a very conflicted situation, but certainly in China’s case … they want to have the benefits of a cleaner environment and less global
warming, but they don’t want to pay the price in substantial terms,” Bachman said in a phone interview.
Daniel Gardner, a history professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and senior fellow at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development, said China’s argument for common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) has evolved since it was introduced at international environmental talks over 20 years ago.
“It wants to be recognized as a global leader, not the leader of an alliance of the poor, a nation with the power and authority to engage constructively with both developed and developing countries,” said Gardner by email.
“Its mantra-like reference to CBDR in Paris is less to identify itself as a developing country with a claim to more “carbon space” … than it is to present to the conference and the developing countries a China that is sympathetic to the CBDR principle,” he said.
Conflicts and contradictions
The conflicts and contradictions were on display as Xi flew from Paris to Zimbabwe and South Africa, a trip designed to confirm China’s status in the developing world.
In a pre-Paris editorial, Xinhua sought to preempt charges that China has become Africa’s new colonial power as a source of aid and investment in industrial development, as well as pollution.
“It will not be surprising if the banal claims of Chinese ‘neo-colonialism’ surface again before the historic event,” Xinhua said, referring to a meeting of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg.
“The world’s largest developing country brings better infrastructure and aid without political strings to the continent with the largest number of the developing countries,” it said. “If this defines a neo-colonialist, China is a more than qualified one.”
Since 2009, China has invested over U.S. $30 billion (193.7 billion yuan) in Africa, Xinhua said. The continent has become one of China’s major sources of mining materials, oil and manufacturing abroad.
At the FOCAC conference, Xi pledged to double China’s investment in Africa to U.S. $60 billion (387.4 billion yuan) over the next three years.
But on the climate issue, there was little attention to China’s role as the leading source of CO2 emissions, which threaten developing nations with global warming effects.
In Zimbabwe, Xi and President Robert Mugabe oversaw the signing of some 10 agreements, Xinhua reported. The largest was a U.S. $1.2-billion (7.7-billion yuan) loan to expand the country’s Hwange coal-fired power plant in a deal with China’s Sinohydro Corp., according to Bloomberg News.
Before the visit, Xinhua reported that Chinese companies had signed three smaller deals for Zimbabwe’s first large- scale solar power stations to help ease the country’s electricity shortage.
One implication of the CBDR principle is that developing countries will be potential markets for Chinese solar panels, wind turbines and other green technologies as recipients of aid from industrialized nations, Gardner said.
But other implications are not so green, as China used Xi’s visit to advance its plans for transplanting its industrial overcapacity abroad.
Under its “industrial capacity cooperation” initiative, China wants to build entire industries like steel in developing countries by exporting its machinery and technology.
The push would ease pollution pressures at home without reducing global production overcapacity, carbon emissions or China’s real market share.
“As African countries strive to boost industrialization and pursue sustainable development, China-Africa production capacity cooperation becomes the right thing at the right time for both sides,” Xinhua said on Dec. 2.
Benefactor, not problem
Despite the climate threat, poorer countries continue to view China as a source of development funding rather than carbon emissions, said Bachman.
“As China is the world’s largest developing country and Africa is the continent with the biggest number of developing and underdeveloped countries, their cooperation can serve as the most typical and representative example of South-South cooperation,” Xinhua said in a “spotlight” report.
The formula casts China as a benefactor for developing countries but not a source of environmental problems.
“For continental Africa and other places, they see China as the rich uncle, but they’re looking for the rich uncle to make contributions to development. They’re much less interested, at least in the short term, about CO2 emissions and climate change,” said Bachman.
In the longer term, these perceptions seem bound to change.
Over the next decade, as emissions from the industrialized United States and European Union continue to fall and those from China continue to rise in absolute terms, it may be harder for Beijing to argue that it is on the side of poorer countries suffering with consequences of climate change.
“The underdeveloped world will have to step up and say to China and to India and other big developing countries that are profligate in their use of energy that this is going to impact all of us,” Bachman said.
For developing nations in Africa, the issue is urgent.
“Africa, the least emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, now suffers the most from climate change,” said Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank.
“Others pollute, Africa pays and pays dearly,” he said in remarks broadcast from Paris by PBS News Hour.