It’s China that can keep the UN climate talks alive

China's new leaders may still be settling in, but Beijing has shown it is capable of maintaining political momentum towards a 2015 global deal on climate change.

As the UN-led climate negotiations begin in Doha, monumental shifts across the global economy and politics are taking place. Nowhere is this more obvious than in China.

China is at a critical juncture: the decisions made over the next few years will determine how it addresses some of the overwhelming challenges to its current development model. There have been positive signals, especially on the green economy. During the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress in November this year, “ecological civilisation” featured heavily in outgoing president Hu Jintao’s speech and was incorporated into the country’s overall development plan.

And earlier this year, the soon-to-be new premier of China Li Keqiang, on a visit to Europe, signalled the importance of greater collaboration between the European Union and China on clean energy by launching several major new processes on urbanisation, renewables and energy security.

Read also: Insight into green vocabulary of the Chinese Communist Party

China’s programmes for addressing climate change domestically through its 12th Five-Year Plan are impressive. Accelerating progress on the low-carbon economy has worked in China’s favour as it has become a global leader in wind and solar power manufacturing. The cliché that “when China sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold” can also be turned on its head. When China makes up its mind to lead, the rest of the world follows suit.  
Doha matters because the UNFCCC international climate negotiations are an important channel through which China can help shape the global development model in ways that re-enforce its low carbon economy. Europe is the largest market for Chinese solar power, but its internal negotiations on ramping up climate-change ambition – and therefore creating a larger market for Chinese goods – are being delayed by uncertainty over progress on a global climate regime.

China has traditionally been a reluctant leader on the global stage, but it has come a long way. In these negotiations, China and the US positions have for years been pegged against each other, in a “if you move, I’ll move” stand-off.  But we have also seen incremental change. In the 2009 climate meetings, China stepped out from behind the Americans, stood next to them in Cancún in 2010 and came out in front in Durban in 2011. At Durban, China was instrumental in agreeing a process and a deadline for a comprehensive and legally binding global agreement by 2015 to address climate change.

Unlike China, many major emitters have not yet begun to stress test their national development models against future global risk scenarios such as resource scarcity. Many countries, rich and poor alike, struggle to understand the connections between climate change, energy, water and economic growth and are unable to apply foresight in their economic planning. This was starkly demonstrated this year by the economic vulnerability of the United States to the extreme droughts and storms of 2012.

China’s cultural emphasis on the significance of “harmony” between human development and nature as championed by Hu Jintao, demonstrates its ability and willingness to comprehend long-term global risks and plan ahead. In fact, Hu’s doctrine of “scientific outlook on development” has been used to promote a more sustainable development pathway for China for the last 10 years. The UNFCCC, as a forum, should provide China with an opportunity to work with other countries to further its systemic understanding of global risks as a basis for increasing overall global economic and ecological stability.

China creates new climate alliances

But in Doha, China’s negotiating mandate will be somewhat constrained as the new leaders take time to settle in. Without a strong mandate, negotiators will likely be instructed not to “rock the boat”, as demonstrated by recent statements by Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief climate negotiator, confirming his commitment to ensuring China plays a constructive role in moving forward from the Durban deal. 

China is also keeping its options open. Xie recently hosted meetings with the BASIC group of countries – Brazil, South Africa, China and India – and the Like-Minded Group (a new and fluid alliance of predominately fossil-fuel producing developing countries). Keeping all options open, and being pragmatic is clearly China’s tactic whilst its leaders get their feet under the table.

At the negotiating table, China is pragmatic in its tactics and alliances, but also guided by principles which derive from its broader foreign policy – namely, sovereignty, solidarity and comparability.

First, sovereignty to determine its own development pathway at a pace it feels comfortable with. Often China’s negotiation positions and tactics are more regressive than their ambitious actions on the ground would suggest.

Second, solidarity with the poor. More than any of the other large developing countries, and most developed countries, China is more sensitive to the needs of those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

And finally, comparability, to ensure other countries come forward with sufficiently ambitious goals. While China is slowly disentangling itself from the US positioning, it still demands more ambition from developed countries.

While Doha will not be the ambitious meeting the climate crisis requires, it will nonetheless be important for building momentum towards a comprehensive agreement in 2015. China’s role in ensuring we do not renegotiate the Durban agreement will be essential to limiting climate risks in China and maintaining the drive towards a low carbon economy which China has so heavily invested in both financially and politically.

Liz Gallagher is senior policy advisor at E3G.