China's 'complicated' role in fight against climate change

Three years after they helped forge the landmark Paris agreement, the U.S. and China are effectively on opposite sides of the climate discussion, Nahlah Ayed writes.

Talks on implementing climate deal still stalled on final day of conference in Poland

As both the world's biggest polluter and producer of solar panels, China occupies a unique position in the international fight against climate change. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

When the leaders of the world's two biggest economies — and its two biggest polluters —  finally saw eye to eye on climate change, they paved the way for a historic global agreement to fight it.

"We have both determined that it is our responsibility to take action," then-U.S. President Barack Obama said in 2015, with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his side.

Three years after they helped forge the landmark Paris agreement, representatives from some 200 countries meeting in Poland have yet to agree on a final rule book to implement it. This time, the U.S. and China are effectively on opposite sides of the climate discussion, which isn't helping.

And of the two countries, China is now seen as the reliable one.

China — the world's leader in green technology — is seen as being ahead in the fight against climate change. Leading environmentalist Al Gore told the Washington Post that "China's role is complicated, but in some ways, they're moving the ball in the right direction."

A lot has changed on the international landscape since the United States and China cooperated on the Paris climate deal in 2015. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

It is complicated — because as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is also very much part of the problem.

Unlike the U.S. under Donald Trump, which has announced its withdrawal from the Paris agreement, China continues to champion the accord. It is knee-deep in the multilateral process of solving one of the world's most pressing challenges, and Chinese negotiators have been working, along with those of the European Union, drafting the last-minute proposals to untangle some of the key points of contention at the conference in Katowice.

So while its relationships with both the U.S. and Canada have deteriorated in recent days and weeks over other significant issues, China is seen as indispensable at the climate table.

"When the U.S. stepped back, China decided to step up," said Catherine McKenna, Canada's environment minister. She has had several meetings with Chinese representatives leading up to the conference, as well as in Poland this week.

"The role China plays around the negotiating table can't be underestimated."

China also made a significant concession on Thursday, agreeing to a uniform set of rules for developed and developing nations, after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a call to Xi urging compromise.

"We need to avoid straying from the principles and spirit of the Paris agreement," veteran Chinese climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua told reporters.

A challenge and an opportunity

China has compelling — and urgent — reasons to be active at the table.

Pollution is a huge problem in China's cities, a problem that the central government is "very serious" about tackling, says Jonas Nahm, assistant professor of energy, resources and environment at Johns Hopkins University

China is also lacking in arable land and water resources and is fighting desertification in the north, says Nahm.

"Climate change is hugely threatening to them and they know it," he says.

China, a country of 1.3 billion, is still hugely reliant on coal, and observers say its shift away from coal domestically has slowed down. While it has been more successful than many developed nations in staying on track to meet its promises to cut emissions, environmentalists predict emissions may soon start going up again.

One challenge, Nahm says, is that decisions on climate matters aren't always made at the central government level. Local governments can make decisions that, for example, favour the rampant use of coal for economic reasons.

But China has also recognized that acting on climate change can be a huge economic opportunity. While it may be the world's biggest polluter, China is also the biggest producer of solar panels. It is building solar installations and wind farms in Africa.

It is also one of the top producers of electric cars — some of which will be on Canadian streets by the spring of 2019.

"This isn't… an altruistic operation only [for China]. There are numbers on the table," says Nahm.

Environmentalists predict that China's emissions may soon start going up again, after initially staying on track to meet its promised cuts. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

There are also contradictions for China abroad. It aggressively exports its green technology, but it is also still helping countries like Vietnam build coal plants. Both are done as part of its Belt and Road initiative, which is helping develop markets for Chinese exports, while building political influence.

"That is giving people pause," says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"You can't say you want to create an ecological civilization and be a world multilateral leader on climate change, and then be funding more of the addiction to fossil fuels."

Shifting from a 'China-U.S.' thing

Given the size of its population and its enormous emissions, environmentalists agree that China is essential to tackling a worldwide crisis far worse than it was believed to be in Paris. 

"China is absolutely fundamental," says Mariana Panuncio-Feldman, senior director of international climate cooperation for the World Wildlife Fund.

"The fact that they are engaged — I see that as a very positive step."

For the purposes of the talks in Poland, and despite its innovation on the technology front, China is considered a developing nation, and is the leading voice for other countries under that rubric.

It was partly China in that role, and its relationship with the U.S. as the leading developed nation, that helped clinch the Paris agreement.

The absence of that dynamic is partly what's made negotiations harder this time, say veteran negotiators, especially as some of the major sticking points are again dividing the participants between developed and developing.

"There was a capacity to be a convener, each of us, on our own side… to help bring things together," says Todd Stern, Obama's lead negotiator at the Paris meeting, who was in the room when Obama and Xi met there.

This time, he says, "There is no China-U.S. thing at a political level."

Even with a litany of domestic pollution problems, China is seen as a pivotal figure in the fight against climate change. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

But there is an EU-China thing now and a Canada-China thing, and participants in Poland hope those will suffice in reaching agreement.

"The centre of gravity is now shifting more to the European Union and China. But that hasn't reached the same level of maturity as the U.S.-China relationship was under President Obama," says Meyer.

Meyer and others still believe negotiators will find a way to reach an agreement, not only because tackling the climate crisis is even more urgent than it was understood to be in Paris — but also to prove that multilateralism works.

Still, China has lamented that the U.S. isn't fully at the table.

"Of course I'm disappointed," China's negotiator, Xie, said at a media briefing yesterday. "We hope the U.S. will come back."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.