China Emerging as Reluctant Climate Leader

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By Eric J. Lyman

Nov. 16 — China could emerge as a global captain in shaping international climate policies in coming years, and an economic beneficiary of those changes, even as the U.S. steps away from its leadership role.

China is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, but the country’s emissions growth has slowed rapidly. A report by the U.K.’s University of East Anglia released this week at the United Nations’ Marrakech climate change conference called that a main reason behind mostly flat growth in worldwide emissions since 2014.

Additionally, Chinese industry is now the world leader in the production of solar panels and other green technologies. And the country is set to institute a national regime that will levy a fee against companies that pollute too much.

Those trends, combined with the increasing likelihood that under President-elect Donald Trump the U.S. will back away from its leadership role in the climate change negotiation process, have many looking at China to play a bigger role.

But the Chinese themselves are not completely welcoming of that role.

‘A Developing Country’

“China is taking a lot of actions domestically … I think China is doing a lot to transform its economy,” Chen Zhinhua, a senior Chinese negotiator, said in a Marrakech briefing. “But our focus is not about a title of top leadership. … We are doing our best, and we would be glad if China’s efforts have encouraged other countries to take constructive action.”

Liu Zhenmin, China’s deputy foreign minister, said the country’s level of development should be taken into consideration when gauging its role.

“China is a developing country,” Liu said. “Developed countries should continue to take the lead when it comes to climate mitigation and on finance issues for adaptation efforts.”

But it is clear that a reduced U.S. presence at the talks would leave a void.

The U.S. produces around 16 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, second only to China’s 23 percent. If U.S. emissions are not curbed as promised by its commitments in last year’s Paris Agreement to fight climate change, it would make it more difficult for the world to reach levels that would keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), one of the pact’s stated goals.

Money Worries

But the biggest short-term impact could be in the area of finance. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. pledged to provide $3 billion over four years to help poor and developing countries adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Of that amount, $500 million has been delivered, and if a Trump administration fails to follow through on Obama’s pledge it would leave an unexpected shortfall in the $100 billion pool of funds pledged to developing countries.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change also expects to feel the crunch: a veteran UN official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Bloomberg BNA that between a possible U.S. pullout and lower contributions from other countries, the UNFCCC and its 450-person staff could see its $20-$25 million budget slashed by as much as $9 million next year, which could hurt the organization’s effectiveness.

‘It Could Moderate the Process’

As a developing country, China would not be expected to fill the financial vacuum left by U.S. withdrawal from the process. But many in Marrakech said an increased role for China in UN talks would be helpful to the process.

“It’s all about cooperation and alliances,” a veteran UNFCCC official told Bloomberg BNA, asking not to be named. “If China’s role is increased and there’s a high level of collaboration between China and the European Union, that would be a welcome development.”

Duncan Marsh, international policy director at the Nature Conservancy, said a higher level of collaboration between China and the European Union would help the climate negotiation process.

“It could moderate the process and lessen the divide between north and south,” Marsh told Bloomberg BNA, referring to industrialized and developing countries. “Some developing countries might be less likely to be critical of the process if China helps.”

‘New World Order’

Erik Solheim, the newly installed executive director of the UN Environment Program, said at a briefing this week: “There is a new world order. … Leadership in climate policy has shifted to developing countries, China first among them.”

China leadership in the climate negotiation process would likely expand its influence in the developing world, said Alice Waters, a delegate from the Africa Group.

“China is already very present in Africa and a bigger role in [climate diplomacy] would only increase that,” Waters said.

A diminished U.S. role could also cement China’s position as world leader in green technologies, said Marsh.

“China is already a leader when it comes to green technologies, and if the U.S. steps back China will move forward and probably no other country would be in a position to close the gap,” Marsh said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric J. Lyman in Marrakech at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

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