China ‘Not Ready to be a World Leader’ on Climate Change

The U.N. Climate Summit 2014 in New York last week passed, as expected, with public statements of intent but no sign of firm commitments to reducing climate emissions.

If a deal is to be reached in Paris next year, at the latest “last hope” climate summit, expectations for progress are pinned on prospects of an initial agreement between the world’s two largest emitters: China and the U.S.

The U.S. has consistently made a commitment from China to cutting emissions a precondition of its own action, something President Obama stressed in his speech in New York:

“We recognize our role in creating this problem. We will do our part...But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation, developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass.”

In the past, this has led to a break-down in progress. Most famously, at the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, China, and India protested against what they saw as a failure to reduce emissions by developed countries, and an attempt to restrict their own economic growth and development.

Five years on, China is far more willing to accept its common, but differentiated, responsibility, says Professor Huan Qingzhi, a leading scholar working at Peking University's Center for Environmental Politics Research.

Speaking to chinadialogue, Professor Huan said China was “not ready to be a world-leader on climate governance and still sees developed countries like the U.S. as having a bigger responsibility to lead.

However, he added that China “is becoming a more active player” in global climate politics and “is ready to take on more responsibility—you will certainly see a better offer than China came up with at Copenhagen.

The key mover for China remains the U.S., added Professor Huan, pointing to the rapid response to Obama’s announcement on cutting emissions from coal-burning power plants and China’s own talk of including emission targets in its next Five Year Plan (2016-20).

“Xi Jinping’s absence [from the U.N. summit in New York] could be seen as the Chinese government wanting to wait and see if the U.S. decides to provide a better offer for the next few years. If it does, then China will probably follow.”

Speaking after the U.N. summit in New York, Greenpeace climate campaigner Li Shuo said environmental concerns were higher up the agenda in China today. “Five years after Copenhagen, China is in a vastly different position. Domestic air pollution is forcing the country to embark on a new path away from coal, and 2014 saw the lowest coal consumption growth in a decade,” he said.

However, Professor Huan said climate negotiators and observers still needed to take into account the slow pace of change in China.

“So many officials still put all the emphasis on economic development—we can’t make radical shifts like a country the size of Singapore could, for example. It takes time for the political machine in China to catch-up. Some officials and departments are already switched onto climate change and environmental problems. Others lag behind.”