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Can China’s climate policy be influenced?

Politicians are increasingly positioning engagement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) around the need to collaborate in tackling climate change. In light of this, the Council on Geostrategy asks seven strategic experts if the PRC’s climate policy can be influenced

John Flesher, Conservative Environment Network

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may not act out of concern for the planet, but the United Kingdom (UK) and its allies and partners are making a profound mistake if we assume that it is not interested in taking serious action on climate change.

The PRC’s poor environmental record – record coal capacity, rising emissions, and weak ambition at United Nations climate talks – obscures a much more complex picture. The PRC already dominates global supply chains in solar panels, batteries and critical minerals – all vital for global decarbonisation. Its electric vehicle production is surging and its Belt and Road Initiative is building essential infrastructure in developing countries. Make no mistake: the PRC is taking the economic opportunities of climate action very seriously indeed.

We need to respond in kind. For too long, free and open countries have stood back and complained about the PRC without taking action. It is time for us to adopt a more muscular approach to trade and aid – to drive up standards in high polluting countries and assert our own economic influence overseas. We also need to make bold domestic policy changes to attract clean industries to our shores and those of our partners. Driving a genuine race to the top with the PRC on cutting emissions and reaping the economic rewards of Net Zero is the most influential step we can take.

Li Shuo, Greenpeace East Asia

In 2021, the United States (US) and PRC delivered two joint climate declarations, paving the way for a strong outcome at COP26 in Glasgow. The same year, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CCP, also decided to join the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, strictly control coal consumption, and imposed a moratorium on building new coal plants overseas. These commitments are not negligible. Of course, the key is whether and how Beijing follows up on these pledges. And unfortunately, climate momentum is not high in the PRC at the moment. But the fact that the PRC made these announcements during key international events is an example of how the CCP is not tone-deaf to international expectations.

The PRC has also shown a willingness to shift its climate policy in accordance with its broader geopolitical interests. The resumption of climate talks between the PRC and the US is a case in point; Beijing understands how irresponsible a unilateral cut of the climate hotline between these two powers will be perceived by climate-vulnerable countries. 

If the PRC’s climate policy is to be influenced, we have no choice but to engage it. Climate change is different from other geostrategic issues. Powers such as the UK, US and European Union (EU) should attempt to persuade the largest coal consumer to change course, and be open to listening to its clean technology expertise. Key to this will be a dialogue where all parties enter with a degree of humility; it may lead to a safer planet for us all. 

Scott Moore, University of Pennsylvania

The PRC’s climate policy certainly can be influenced, including by foreigners, albeit to a limited degree. Concerted international pressure, especially from other developing nations, can still be effective, and carbon border adjustments or similar mechanisms are likely to induce significant operational changes at the sectoral and firm level. 

Undoubtedly the greatest influence, however, is held by domestic constituencies within the PRC, including officials principally concerned with economic growth and energy security versus those charged with decarbonisation and industrial upgrading. And indeed Xi himself, whose commitment to climate action appears principled, at least to some extent. Whichever of these constituencies holds the greatest sway will determine much about the pace and medium-term outcome of the PRC’s decarbonisation push.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

The PRC is by far the world’s largest polluter. It greatly exceeds the UK – the first industrial nation – in cumulative emissions. The PRC’s per capita emissions also now rival the most developed countries; the average Chinese citizen releases eight tonnes of carbon per year while the average Briton releases just 5.2.

To be fair, much of these emissions are a consequence of North American, British, European and Japanese companies ‘offshoring’ manufacturing to the PRC, where environmental (and other) standards are lower and production is cheaper. In other words, the PRC is not entirely at fault.

So, how can Chinese environmental policy be influenced? Polite dialogue will be insufficient by itself. More forceful actions are required:

  1. The PRC should be denied the right to masquerade as a ‘developing country’ under the logic of ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibilities’, particularly given the fact that its per capita emissions now rival or exceed those of developed countries;
  2. The CCP cannot be allowed to instrumentalise climate change for geopolitical purposes. The UK should push back against CCP narratives which seek to deny and offload Chinese environmental obligations – especially when these myths are peddled in developing nations. Unlike China, it should not be forgotten that the British Isles may form a ‘lifeboat’ for the continuation of complex civilisation in the event of climate catastrophe;
  3. Broader carbon border adjustment mechanisms should be explored to encourage the ‘reshoring’ of manufacturing. This will require a concerted effort from the UK, US, EU and Japan.

Gray Sergeant, Council on Geostrategy

James Cleverly, the British Foreign Secretary, tells us: ‘Issues such as climate change cannot be tackled without China’. It is difficult to disagree. As the biggest emitter of carbon and largest investor in sustainable energy, the PRC is both part of the problem and the solution. However, implied within Cleverly’s remarks is that through dialogue on the issue, the UK might influence Beijing to go further and faster.

Yet we should heed Xi’s words when he said

China’s commitments [to carbon peaking and neutrality] are unswerving, but the path towards the goals as well as the manner, pace and intensity of efforts to achieve them should and must be determined by the country itself, rather than swayed by others.

Indeed, efforts by the US appear, so far, to have yielded little. This does not mean conversations should not be had – when the stakes are so high, it would be foolish not to try. However, maintaining top-level dialogue between the UK and the PRC need not be justified on these grounds. If too much emphasis is placed on tackling climate change as a pillar of the bilateral relationship and concrete changes are not forthcoming, the utility of engagement may be further questioned. 

Moreover, the way in which His Majesty’s (HM) Government presents the problem gives the impression the PRC is doing us a favour, possibly setting the scene for British concessions to be made elsewhere. Yes, we may need the PRC to solve climate change, but Beijing needs to tackle the problem too, not least because of the fact that the PRC will be one of the hardest hit by its impact. Therefore, Britain should not sacrifice its interests or values in attempting to influence the PRC’s climate policy, particularly as the evidence suggests its ability to do so is limited.

Heidi Wang-Kaeding, Keele University

The visit of Cleverly to Beijing last month prompted renewed discussion over how the UK should deal with the PRC. The issue of climate change is highlighted in HM Government’s press release to justify the necessity of direct engagement with Beijing. However, it was not mentioned in the CCP press releases about Cleverly’s meeting with Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, and Han Zheng, the Chinese Vice-President.  

The PRC’s climate policy has been shaped and influenced by a combination of domestic and international forces since the 1980s. Britain has been a key influence on the PRC’s climate politics, and credit should be given to governmental and non-governmental organisations for the excellent collaborative work done in areas including, but not limited to, climate mitigation and adaptation, knowledge sharing, capacity building, and green financing. 

To what degree the UK and its allies and partners can continue influencing the PRC’s climate policy depends on two factors. The first is the state of the bilateral relationship. Both countries are fully aware of the diplomatic utility of climate cooperation; in the words of Wang in describing US-PRC relations, climate cooperation is an ‘oasis’ surrounded by a desert. However, the ability for such cooperation to continue amidst worsening bilateral relations remains to be seen. 

The second factor is how climate change is viewed. It should be through the lens of crisis management. Tackling climate change needs to be re-positioned as a priority in its own right, instead of a tool for legitimising renewed economic collaboration. This is where Britain’s approach falls short, limiting its ability to influence the PRC. The roll-back of many of the UK’s net zero policies will only weaken it further.

William Young, Council on Geostrategy

At the turn of the 19th Century Yen Fu, an influential Chinese scholar and translator, made a concerted effort to understand the secret of the West’s economic success. He sought to understand, and communicate to his countrymen, the root of the West’s wealth and power. This deep-rooted desire for wealth and power (and vivid experience of what it is like to be poor and weak), later manifested in the CCP’s ‘two centennial goals’ of becoming ‘a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2021’ and building ‘a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious’ by 2049.

For anyone considering whether the UK can influence the PRC’s climate policy this foundation should be the start and end point.

How does climate policy intersect with our own and the PRC’s formation of wealth and power? In many ways, whether this is in new technologies and the potential incumbent companies of free and open countries to be displaced (i.e., in critical minerals, electric vehicles and, in Germany’s case, the auto industry). Or in new ideas which can be used to undermine free and open countries’ relationships with emerging markets and developing economies (i.e., common but differentiated responsibilities). Or even the effective management of physical and transition risks posed by climate change (i.e., real-economy companies’ and financial institutions’ disclosure of material financial risks).

Each of these pose opportunities and risks for both the UK and PRC. The at times complex intersection of our respective countries’ interests and ability to influence each other (for better or worse), is underappreciated, under researched and poorly understood in both elite and popular discourse. A new injection of analysis anchored in the UK’s interests is urgently required.

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