From Beijing to Paris: China's Environmental Leadership

How China has transformed into a leader in climate change action, and what that may suggest about present and future global power dynamics.

by Jaquelin Coulson

In the months leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, pollution levels in the city five times the World Health Organization safety standards had athletes concerned for their performance and their health. In an effort to reduce the smog, China invested $17.3 billion into improving Beijing’s air quality, implemented broad restrictions on industry and traffic, and even still, the Beijing Olympics went down as the most polluted games ever. Although its reputation does not make China a likely candidate for global environmental leadership, extensive changes in recent years have made it seem that this is the role it is taking on.

Despite being the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases, China is also the world’s biggest investor in renewable energies, with $88 billion invested in 2016, and a forecasted $360 billion by 2020. In 2015, it installed more than one wind turbine every hour, and boosted research and development into low-emission, next-generation nuclear reactors. These shifts were complemented by a decline in coal consumption; this year alone Beijing has cancelled 103 coal power plant projects which were planned or under construction, and there is increasing evidence to suggest that China’s coal consumption actually peaked in 2014. To replace coal as a back-up for renewable energy, Beijing is turning to liquefied natural gas, which produces 40% fewer emissions than coal. Energy efficiency is another area where China has surged ahead, boasting the fastest investment growth in this sector in 2016. By refining industrial and electrical technology to improve relative efficiency, China has reduced emissions, and is consequently on track to meet its Paris Climate Change Conference commitments ahead of schedule, thus exerting pressure on other states to follow suit. Clearly, China presents multiple strategies that could be adopted by other states seeking emissions reductions.

In 2013, China initiated carbon cap-and-trade pilot projects in seven regions with a total cap at 1.2 billion tons of CO2. After the “better than expected performance” of these pilots, China is now preparing to launch a nation-wide cap-and-trade system which will be the largest in the world. This system will foster ideal growth conditions for renewable energy companies and hasten China’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Researcher Jeremy Schreifels believes that there’s “a lot riding on the success of the program;” the eyes of the world are on China, anxious to see whether this is a model which could be replicated in other states, or even on an international scale. China also actively finances clean energy initiatives abroad, with $32 billion invested in renewable projects abroad in 2016 alone. Moreover, in 2017, China hosted the Mission Innovation Ministerial, a conference for countries wishing to support research and development in green energy, demonstrating the truly international scope of China’s interest in leading the charge against climate change.

All of these changes mark a significant shift away from China’s historical environmental reputation. Before the 2014 Paris Conference, for instance, China had often asserted that developing countries such as itself should not bear the same emissions restrictions and financial responsibilities as do developed states, and described a perceived “conspiracy by developed nations to divide the camp of developing nations.” Its aforementioned support for international initiatives suggests a softening of this stance. Back in 2009, China faced accusations of sabotaging the Copenhagen Accord with its persistent opposition to binding commitments made by other states. The resulting accord has been regarded as lacking ambition and substantive measures to ensure its implementation, and as solidifying China’s position as an obstacle rather than a contributor to climate action.

What has changed then, for China, since Copenhagen?

For one, Beijing has faced mounting pressure from organizations concerned with the health consequences of severe air pollution. Particularly in 2012 and 2013, citizens’ increasing awareness that domestic air quality was far worse than reported by the Chinese government created greater scrutiny, and expedited the push towards greener alternatives. Moreover, with an anticipated $8 trillion in renewable energy investment globally by 2040, the market for clean energy technology has presented an opportunity for China to diversify its industries and regain momentum in economic growth. China has the potential to gain a major competitive advantage as an exporter of clean energy technology in this emerging market, and it appears to be seizing that potential. An additional change comes from the increasing importance of climate change action to the international community. With 197 signatories, the Paris Agreement enjoys truly global support, and Chinese President Xi Jinping himself recognizes that the political consequences of failing to “conform with global trends” demanding climate action could be severe. Rather, leading the charge on the environmental front may give Beijing the political capital it needs to divert scrutiny away from issues like tensions in the South China Sea, its “tacit support for North Korea,” and domestic matters relating to political freedoms.

Given American President Donald Trump’s controversial stance on climate change, environmental leadership may also give China an upper hand over the United States. While China has cultivated an economy amenable to clean energy innovation, Trump has repealed anti-coal legislation and pledged to restore coal jobs. Although private sector renewable energy will persist regardless of government support, some have warned that American companies may be disadvantaged relative to their Chinese counterparts in green industries which are subsidized by the Chinese government but neglected by the US. For instance, already over two-thirds of global solar panel production occurs in China, where it is subsidized by the government, and the influx of Chinese solar panels which flooded US markets at the beginning of the decade was a major contributor to the bankruptcy of American solar panel start-ups. Having recently matched, and in some countries, surpassed the cost efficiency of coal and natural gas energy, solar and wind power have been heralded by the World Economic Forum as “compelling investment opportunit[ies]” with high economic potential, making China’s dominance all the more significant.

Additionally, if China’s carbon cap-and-trade system succeeds in laying the groundwork for an international framework, China will significantly influence its implementation, and “is likely to set the de facto benchmark price” which the US and other states will have to consider. Moreover, Trump’s threats to withdraw from the Paris Accord and dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that he is now prepared to allow China to seize leadership on what may be the most important issue of our time. Trump’s environmental stance has already distanced him from European partners, a development which will only be exacerbated as concerted climate action becomes more urgently necessary. Former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew has suggested that for the US to be displaced in its relations with environmentally-conscious allies “by an Asian people long despised and dismissed with contempt”, would moreover be a shattering blow to American identity. That said, the extent to which countries will actually penalize the US for its environmental policies remains to be seen.

At this point, the push for climate action has gained too much momentum to be halted by one outlier state. US opposition will only see it left behind, leaving China leading the charge, and with no intention of stopping any time soon.