China’s Vision for Environmental Leadership

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China’s Vision for Environmental Leadership

China’s climate diplomacy expands far beyond the COP process at this point, but its larger framework is often overlooked abroad.

China’s Vision for Environmental Leadership

A visitor poses for a photo on Tianyou peak in Wuyishan in eastern China’s Fujian province on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Was Glasgow, and the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), a major diplomatic blunder for Beijing? For a government that prides itself for its pragmatism, spends millions on crafting a global image, and allegedly spares no effort at developing its soft power, it would certainly appear so. This is not just because of the condemnation of global leaders, and U.S. President Joe Biden especially, who suddenly had the leverage to question China’s sincerity and aspirations for world leadership. Even more importantly, COP26 could not compare to an otherwise stellar year in climate action for China.

Indeed, 2021 had started quite well for Beijing: In January, China’s State Council released a white paper on international development cooperation including language on green development under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and featuring an entire section on eco-environmental protection for partner countries. Next, Beijing brought back from retirement its most esteemed climate negotiator, Xie Zhenghua. The move signaled Beijing’s readiness to engage in constructive climate negotiations with U.S. representatives, in spite of the ongoing China-U.S. tensions. Shortly after, Beijing was also praised for the release of green investment principles for BRI projects, developed in consultation with international experts. And, to top these off, Xi Jinping made two surprise announcements at the September 2021 U.N. General Assembly meeting: committing China to becoming carbon neutral by 2060 and announcing the discontinuation of funding for coal plants abroad.

Yet, by the time climate delegates gathered in Glasgow for the COP26 meeting in November 2021, none of these commitments and actions seemed to have much bearing. Instead, the top headlines were all about Xi’s absence from the gathering. A former top U.S. climate negotiator went as far as to characterize Xi’s decision as the “biggest holdout” to making COP26 a success. Things did not get much better at the end of the two-week negotiations when the COP26 president, Alok Sharma, declared he was “deeply frustrated” with China and India for watering down a commitment to phase out coal. Sharma publicly announced that the two would need to “explain to climate-vulnerable countries why they did what they did.”

Both the initial backlash and final comments were so pronounced, that even the John Kerry-Xie Zhenghua surprise announcement on ramping up cooperation between the United States and China to tackle climate change did not clear up the air entirely. And perhaps the biggest nail in China’s climate diplomacy coffin came from no other than former U.S. President Barack Obama. In language reminiscent of events more than a decade ago, he went as far as to declare that China’s national plan and actions show “dangerous lack of urgency” and are therefore indicative of the country’s “willingness to maintain the status quo.”

But reading China’s climate action through the lens of the COP26 theatrics would be rather limited, if not entirely wrong. This is because Beijing’s climate vision has now surpassed the venue provided by the U.N. Climate Change Conference events. In other words, Beijing is actively expanding the spaces for climate diplomacy and promoting a discourse on climate action that exceeds the language and prerogatives of the COP meetings.

Expanding the Spaces for Climate Diplomacy

“Actions speak louder than words” was Beijing’s response to Biden’s questioning of China’s global leadership mantle. And, it is clear that China is intent on taking both the climate conversation and action beyond the hallways of high-level diplomatic meetings. The most recent case in point is Beijing’s unprecedented agreement on climate collaboration, “green recovery,” and green sustainable development signed with African countries at the FOCAC meeting in late November. Notably, this was the first time in the history of FOCAC meetings where climate was singled out as an entirely separate collaborative area.

Similarly, in October 2021, Beijing announced an initiative on Enhancing Green and Sustainable Development Cooperation with ASEAN during the October 2021 summit. Although this is not the first time environmental issues merited special attention in the ASEAN context, the main difference in the present moment is the game changer of either launch or near completion of some major BRI infrastructure projects across the region.

None of this means that China is abandoning the high-level U.N. forums. Rather, it is suggestive that Beijing is using other platforms to wield a climate diplomacy sword, where agreements are both region and partner-specific. It also goes without saying that such collaborative initiatives stand in stark contrast to the perpetual stalemates around climate financing, the fund for adaptation, and loss and damages at the COP negotiations.

A New Climate Action Language

Aligned with the politically prominent vision for “ecological civilization” (生态文明), Beijing is now also set on a new climate discourse trajectory. Most specifically, the intent is to frame climate action into a language that goes above and beyond questions on carbon emissions and coal. In promoting an understanding of the unity between nature and mankind (天人合一), Beijing now appears committed to actions that tackle problems of ecology and biodiversity as much as solutions to carbon emissions. This intent was most prominently signaled during the U.N. Biodiversity COP15 meeting, which China hosted in October 2021. Although the (mostly virtual) plenaries only set the first stage of negotiations, with the second half scheduled for April 2022, Xi Jinping was quick to unveil a biodiversity fund of $230 million, to support biodiversity protection in developing countries. Around the time of the COP15 meeting, Beijing also released its first ever white paper on biodiversity. All of these are welcome news, especially given that the BRI corridors alone are estimated to overlap with the range of at least 265 threatened species, 1,739 important bird areas or key biodiversity areas, and 46 biodiversity hotspots.

Of course, there is more to the ecological civilization doctrine than just the attempts to include nature and biodiversity in the climate change conversation. Xi’s overarching thesis, now meticulously elaborated by a number of research institutes and think tanks, is that ecological civilization sets humanity on its next stage of development. In a nutshell, it allows mankind to go beyond the mode of production and consumption triggered by the Industrial Revolution, and enter into a more advanced stage of development, marked as a harmonious co-existence with nature. In a country known for propaganda and hyperboles, the best way to understand the centrality of this new ecological vision is to note that it is now affectionately dubbed as key component of  Xi-plomacy.

Yet, when it comes to non-Chinese commentaries, both the vision for a shared future of mankind and nature and the expanding spaces for climate diplomacy often appear to be lost in translation. Instead, just as in 2009, Beijing is judged by its COP meetings’ pledges and track record. However, there are least three reasons why catching up to Beijing’s new diplomatic and discursive forays into ecological civilization and climate action is important.

First, beyond the political drama of COP26, there is some accuracy to statements that China’s approach to climate change lacks the necessary sense of urgency. Granted, this goes beyond ecological civilization or the specifics of China’s national plans and net-zero carbon strategy. Instead, this is also a matter of ontological approach. “A hundred years,” Chinese commentators are often keen on saying, “is just the blink of an eye.” The reference, of course, is to China’s millennia-old history and claims to superior capacity in playing the long game. Yet, there is no long game when a “ghastly” mass extinction of species is on the horizon. If the Chinese government is serious in addressing biodiversity issues along with its regional and local partners, it needs to start from the premise that time is running out.

Second, keen on upholding principles of sovereignty and non-interference, Beijing often approaches environmental conflicts with an assertion that China respects “the will of the people” and adheres to domestic legislative processes. Yet, it is often unclear who “the people” are and whether their interests align with a purported vision of green development and sustainability. A case in point is the often-cited flagship BRI construction of a hydropower plant in Batang Toru, Indonesia. Among many controversies associated with the project is the claim that the construction endangers the livelihood of the last remaining species of a rare orangutan. What is often not commented on is that local communities and various groups are split in their opinion – some supporting the construction, while others opposing it. And this is just one of the many cases where both notions on “the will of the people” and the expectation that local communities would become “land protectors” set an entirely unrealistic platform for either consultation or resolution of environmental and development challenges on the ground.

One way to resolve this conundrum is to keep Beijing accountable for its own vision on the unity between mankind and nature. In other words, instead of dismissing Beijing’s ideology as empty propaganda, the language of ecological civilization can be leveraged to interrogate Chinese actors’ willingness to enact this vision on the ground. In places, such as Batang Toru, where fragile ecosystems are harmed, upholding the standard of “unity between nature and mankind” might be a better starting point than “the will of the people.”

Third, beyond Beijing’s high aspirations to share the “wisdom of ecological civilization” with the world, the mechanisms to hold Chinese actors accountable for their overseas operations are still limited or non-existent. Indeed, there have been signs that Chinese companies will soon be called to higher standards. At the end of November, Xi announced new guidelines for the BRI focused on green transition of developing nations, promotion of capacity building in green and low-carbon development, and deepening ecology, environment, and climate governance cooperation. This, some commentators have been quick to point out, is an attempt at rebranding the BRI so that it can stay competitive against the newly-initiated Build Back Better World (B3W) of the United States and the Global Gateway Strategy  of the European Union. And, arguably, this is precisely the type of international push necessary to keep China in check.

Indeed, the past few years alone provide remarkable evidence on Beijing’s attempts to counter its critics, however grudgingly. The aforementioned announcement that China will no longer fund coal projects abroad is only the latest example. And, for the skeptics, let it also be remembered that, when first announced, the Belt and Road Initiative contained no language on environmental protection. Eight years later, a green BRI is central to Beijing’s global vision.

China is entering a new stage of climate diplomacy outreach, one where climate change problems are conceptualized in settings that exceed the U.N. Climate Change Conference framework. Keeping Beijing accountable – at the high-level meetings and on the ground – would require more than aspirational talk about values and higher-quality standards. For global citizens, one good place to start would be to demand that Chinese corporations and policymakers begin translating Beijing’s vision of ecological civilization into practice.