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Alicia Kearns MP

China: Climate friend or foe?

In order for any negotiation and agreement on climate change to be meaningful, and in order for our cooperation and collaboration to not undermine our other pressing concerns with the Chinese state, it would be wise to adopt and adapt a well known turn of phrase from the then US President: mostly “trust, but verify”.

Talking about global challenges inevitably means talking about China. In no area is this more true than in climate change policy. Without China working with us, there is almost no chance that we can hit the global 1.5 degree global warming target in the Paris Agreement.

China-UK co-operation on climate change raises two conundrums. The first is that, while Chinese development itself has generated huge investment in green energy, this development is itself also predicated on significant increases in emissions, and reliance on carbon-intensive power.

Secondly, the UK will always run the risk of co-operating with a power with often adversarial geo-political aims, and a human rights record that is, if I am to be courteous, nothing short of unacceptable. The UK must then adopt a stance that seeks to extend a hand to China to combat climate change but remains cautious of its ends and its means.

There is no doubt that China’s rise has fuelled huge investments in green technology. Since 2012, China has by far been the largest investor in renewable energy (excluding large hydro), and its investments in 2017 more than doubled those of the United States. However, the figure in 2018 was 38 percent down on its record in 2017 and the lowest in four years, driven in part by the falling cost of solar power, but also by a shift in policy from the Chinese government to restrict access to the feed-in tariff, in response to alarm at the level of public expenditure committed to renewable energy projects. Consequently, solar energy investment actually fell by 56 percent according to the figures available, with the amount of new solar capacity added also falling, but less steeply. In the same year, the China Electricity Council called for the development of between 300 and 500 new coal power plants by 2030, although overcapacity in the sector means that typical plants already run at less than 50% of their capacity.

This contradiction has continued through the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Chinese Government has indicated that it wants to reboot its economy in part by focusing on green infrastructure, and has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2060, it has also begun approving carbon-intensive infrastructure projects to alleviate “significant pressure” on the grid. While final decisions are still to be made, China will continue to be heavily reliant on coal well into the 2030s under Bloomberg NEF projections.

China has already demonstrated an unfortunate willingness to flout international law and to disregard human rights. China’s treatment of Hong Kong and its shredding of the Sino-British Treaty is a clear demonstration that the United Kingdom must always be weary of international engagement with the Chinese state.

This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the United Kingdom. We have been climate leaders for the last two decades. We were the first major economy to legislate for net zero by 2050, and emissions were 44 percent below 1990 levels in 2018. Indeed, between 1990 and 2017, the UK had the highest per-capita growth rate in the G7 whilst delivering the fastest decarbonisation rate. If approached in the right way, we’ve shown that decarbonisation goes hand in hand with economic growth. 

We can leverage this leadership with our excellent diplomatic service, and in the coming year as we hold the Presidency of COP26 and Chair of the G7, we can push for meaningful progress worldwide. We hold the pen. Leading environmental think tank E3G has called for the creation of coalitions, like the High Ambition Coalition, to get countries like China signed up to more ambitious targets.

There is also a real ambition, shared by our Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Xi, to use the UK’s Presidency of COP26 and China’s hosting of the Biodiversity COP to put public health and the environment, alongside nature-based solutions to climate change, centre stage - this I believe has been made all the more acute by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is in addition to the deep financial cooperation that has become a hallmark of UK-China engagement on green issues. The UK-China Green Finance Centre has helped leverage London’s role as a global financial centre to invest in green technology and secure clean growth. These are precisely the sort of initiatives that will allow the UK to both push China to adopt more ambitious targets and cement our role as a financial and environmental leader.

Thus, on one level there are opportunities for partnership, and for the United Kingdom to take the lead on climate issues. If we can get China on side, we will have been instrumental at encouraging China’s integration into the international community and its rules-based order in at least a limited manner. This will hopefully commit China to further constructive engagement, rather than unproductive enmity.

However, if the UK is to increase its geopolitical profile and global influence through environmental diplomacy, there must also be significant attention paid to the implications of co-operation and engagement with the People’s Republic. This is a dynamic that has for a long time been under-appreciated in the West.

China has already demonstrated an unfortunate willingness to flout international law and to disregard human rights. China’s treatment of Hong Kong and its shredding of the Sino-British Treaty is a clear demonstration that the United Kingdom must always be weary of international engagement with the Chinese state. They have shown that international agreements can be discarded when politically necessary. Similarly, the Communist Party has committed appalling atrocities against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province, and continues to deny its gross human rights violations there. They have also demonstrated a willingness to mislead other countries in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and its public health impact, until it was too late.

The United Kingdom is therefore faced with a dilemma: to co-operate on issues where we might achieve important gains, but to do so in ways that keeps watch on the actions of the Chinese state at every turn, and does not see us remain silent on pressing human rights and geopolitical concerns. Climate change is an existential question, but it cannot be used to allow an authoritarian state, which is also the world’s largest emitter, to bend multilateral rules and institutions, aided by our willingness to compromise. We must shift from a diplomatic posture of hopeful and aspirational engagement with China, to one of clear-eyed and pragmatic diplomacy with a much firmer declaration of our own intent: to defend and secure our interests, protect human rights and bolster the international rules-based order.

Perhaps the best analogy is one that was used when the existential threat was not the climate, but nuclear weapons. In the midst of those intense cold war negotiations, there was a real willingness to reduce the threat of nuclear war. In order for any negotiation and agreement on climate change to be meaningful, and in order for our cooperation and collaboration to not undermine our other pressing concerns with the Chinese state, it would be wise to adopt and adapt a well known turn of phrase from the then US President: mostly “trust, but verify”.