Judith Shapiro on the Future of China’s Climate Policy

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Judith Shapiro on the Future of China’s Climate Policy

A discussion of China’s role at COP26, the significance of China’s blackouts induced by coal shortages, and future directions China’s climate policy might take.

Judith Shapiro on the Future of China’s Climate Policy

Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative on climate change, attends an event during the Year of Action to Accelerate Climate Adaptation, Sept. 24, 2019.

Credit: Flickr/ UN Climate Change

China’s environmental governance is in the spotlight this week as diplomats hash out agreements at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Professor Judith Shapiro tracks global environmental politics and policy, with a particular focus on China, in her role as director of the Master’s in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development for the School of International Service at American University. She is the author of numerous books, including most recently “China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet,” co-authored with Professor Yifei Li of NYU Shanghai and published by Polity last year.

In this interview with The Diplomat’s Jesse Turland, Shapiro analyses China’s role at COP26, the significance of China’s blackouts induced by coal shortages since September, and future directions China’s climate policy might take.

What does Xi Jinping’s statement to COP26 signify? What are your thoughts on the current domestic politics around climate change for Xi and the reasons for his absence from the event in Glasgow?

While many were disappointed that China has not offered new commitments to reduce carbon emissions, Xi Jinping reaffirmed earlier commitments and began to spell out concrete ways that China can reach peak emissions and carbon neutrality. Xi’s pre-Glasgow speech seeks to remind developed countries of their relative lack of concrete steps and the need for developed countries to offer greater assistance to developing countries, as financial assistance has fallen far short of earlier pledges. Given that [U.S.] President Biden has been stymied in his efforts to get meaningful carbon reduction packages through the Congress, and also given that China does not respond well to international pressure, it is not surprising that there is nothing dramatic or new in this speech.

As for Xi’s decision not to attend in person, it can be as simple as not wanting to be exposed to embarrassing protests and interventions, and to avoid exposure to COVID. Moreover, his decision not to attend sends a message that although China is assuming some of its responsibilities as a major economic power, it will not do more until developed countries step up.

Do the recent coal shortages and blackouts signal that China will struggle to meet its commitments to reduce its dependence on coal? Is China likely to struggle to reach peak emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2060?

The recent coal shortages and blackouts underline the fact that the Chinese leadership has multiple, often competing mandates, including economic prosperity, social stability, and the provision of basic public goods like electricity. The power outages occurred because power companies were not free to pass on increasing costs to consumers despite the rising price of coal, so they chose simply to shut down; coal prices had gone up because many small inefficient coal mines had been shuttered, and because China’s tense relationship with Australia caused a temporary pause in imports. These failures in power provision and coal pricing mechanisms are being adjusted now, but in the short term the state felt it had little choice but to increase coal supply.

If one is optimistic, these increases will be temporary, to allow the country more time to implement a range of other measures to reduce carbon. These will include construction of multiple hydropower dams and nuclear power plants (both of these energy sources are of course problematic for multiple reasons), better connection of wind and solar to the power grid, widespread installation of electric vehicle charging stations and battery swaps and phasing out of gasoline vehicles, and a functioning nationwide carbon trading market. Moreover, technological innovations like mining Helium 3 from the far side of the moon are touted as possible long term, game-changing solutions. The Chinese argument is that they simply need a bit more time.

That said, reducing dependence on coal will indeed be a struggle, given that China’s supply of coal is plentiful and the country’s energy needs are vast. As the world criticizes China, however, we might remember that China is the world’s manufacturing hub. Developed-world consumers and corporations have effectively displaced environmental harm, including air and water pollution, soil contamination, and toxic waste disposal, onto China and the Chinese people, along with the increase in carbon emissions. The roots of our current environmental crisis lie in our system of globalized trade and investment rather than with China per se.

Is China’s international isolation making it more difficult for it to cooperate with other nations in developing green capacity?

China’s international isolation is a missed opportunity for cooperation on climate as well as pandemics and other issues. Unfortunately, despite the desire of some parties to set apart and compartmentalize the climate issue as one reserved for cooperation, the Chinese have insisted on tying climate cooperation to improved ties on other issues. As a newly emerged superpower, China can be unusually prickly whenever there is a perception of disrespect, even when it would greatly benefit them to cooperate on project information, technical and scholarly exchange, policy dialogue, and so forth. Even such seasoned negotiators as Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry have seemingly been unable to make much progress on joint climate initiatives.

What do you make of China’s commitment in September not to build any new coal-fired power stations along the Belt and Road?

China’s commitment to stop building coal-fired power plants on the Belt and Road is one of the few bright lights in the current dark landscape. The announcement shows that China is at least somewhat receptive to constructive international opinion, especially when it is articulated through global bodies like U.N. agencies and consultative bodies of chosen international advisors.

The announcement came slowly because the Chinese “center” does not have perfect control over the vast range of international investors, which include Chinese development banks, state-owned enterprises, regional financial institutions, and private capital. A few months ago, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment tried to issue a scorecard for green-lighting and red-lighting international investments, only to be sharply rebuked by investors who argued that the MEE was overstepping its mandate. Since then, as the center has prioritized Ecological Civilization and Xi Jinping made it clear that China’s responsibilities extend internationally as well as domestically, the center has gotten a better handle on the behavior of its overseas investors.

China’s foreign investment has in the past been guided by the principles of joint cooperation and win-win development solutions, and investors have argued that they are led by what the recipient countries say they need. The shift away from coal-fired power plants indicates an adjustment in this principle, as critics have encouraged China to hold recipient countries to a higher standard of sustainability, especially since China has so much capacity and expertise in renewable energy. It seems that this message is being heard.

Of greater concern is the environmental impact of the Belt and Road infrastructure investments in high-speed rail and highways, deep-water ports, and big hydropower dams. The intensification of global trade via improved infrastructure and connectivity may be welcomed by many developing countries, but it has negative impacts on biodiversity, local livelihoods, and landscapes as well as acceleration of carbon emissions from transport. In particular, the extraction of resources like timber, fisheries, metals and minerals, wildlife, and even grain have profound impacts on local communities. In the focus on climate, some of these impacts are given less attention, but they are significant.