China’s climate deals are for its own benefit – any good to the world is purely incidental

How genuine is China’s commitment to green energy? WiNG, CC BY-SA

During Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s last visit to the UK, China signed a series of deals on energy and low carbon technology, and a declaration of cooperation on climate change. A few weeks later, similar deals were signed with the US. The question is whether this demonstrates a genuine commitment from China to environmental protection, or whether it’s just rhetoric in the run up to important climate change conferences in New York and Paris.

There is no doubt that the Chinese leadership has instigated a number of measures to address the problems of environmental pollution at home. The world’s largest polluter has done much more than any other government in the developing world. In recent years China has standardised environmental laws and regulations, encouraged local governments to take on responsibility for environmental protection, and introduced the environmental information disclosure, urging enterprises to meet certain requirements.

Environmental NGOs, the mass media and online communication are also playing an increasing role in China’s environmental policy-making. The country is now the largest investor in renewable technology and ambitious targets have already been set to increase the portion of renewable energy generated in China and reduce its dependence on polluting coal.

China sees international cooperation on climate change as an opportunity. Its leadership wishes to be regarded as responsible global stakeholders by collaborating with major powers on big problems, without touching on sensitive issues concerning human rights, cyber-espionage or tensions in the East and South China Seas.

There is also an opportunity for China to open up foreign markets for its low-cost renewable energy products such as solar panels, ensuring itself a slice of the fast-growing renewable energy industry market. Nowhere is this most apparent than in those countries where Chinese state-owned companies and banks already provide infrastructure, investment and finance, in Africa and Latin America. As their economies grow these countries will face similar environmental problems, and so they watch China’s transformation carefully. Not only to see how a leader of the developing world tackles climate change and environmental issues, but also as a potential future supplier of environmentally-friendly technology.

Despite China’s aspirations and the positive ring to the speeches and deals signed with western nations, the key fact remains that China is not willing to sign up to any major international commitments on climate change. This has been demonstrated before: just before the Copenhagan COP15 in 2009, China announced its intention to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% (based on 2005 levels) by 2020. But during the conference it refused to agree to any specific targets.

China not only advocated on behalf of developing countries but also accused major powers of trying to divide the developing world. The Copenhagen summit took place just a few weeks after President Obama’s first visit to China, when the two countries agreed on joint cooperation on climate change and to establish the Sino-American Clean Energy Research Centre.

How much China commits itself to cutting emissions will depend on how far western powers will go in their own national climate policies. With the current divisions among EU member states on directions for energy strategy and a declining priority on the issue following the recession, the Chinese leadership can feel at ease. Subsequent UN climate talks in Bonn in June have also yielded only disappointing results. Other nations’ lack of commitment to emissions reduction gives China more room to manoeuvre.

Next year’s COP21 summit in Paris to replace the Kyoto Protocol might be another occasion for Chinese leaders to cut western counterparts down to size. China’s leaders’ rhetoric is clear: the developed world should take the lead in addressing climate change, while China – seen when it needs to be as a developing country despite its place as the world’s largest economy and second largest polluter – prioritises national economic development.

Seen in this light, cooperation is best understood if placed in the context of China’s interests. Bilateral agreements under the umbrella of renewable energy can help China advance technologically, provide opportunities for state-owned enterprises to access markets abroad, and enhance China’s energy security. These are likely to succeed; any collaboration beyond this scope – agreements for the good of the international community and the world at the expense of Chinese interests – is doomed to failure.