China’s Emerging Status: COP 15 and The Dream of Ecological Civilization

By – Abhishek Sharma

The policy shift observed in the U.S with the coming of the Biden Administration has again put global issues at the forefront, and one of that is Climate Change. COP26 is the flagship event where negotiations and discussions on climate change will begin in November at Glasgow, Scotland. However, another vital conference has taken place before that in Kunming, China: UN COP 15(15th Conference of the Parties) biodiversity summit was held in the capital of Yunnan province in China. China hosted the ambitious COP15 meeting online for the first round of talks and will follow this in April 2022 for the second round in person. This special summit allows China to project its leadership in the domain of biodiversity conservation, which has been an area where China has attracted a lot of criticism; COP15 presents to China a possibility to influence and direct a framework with an inclusive-global vision for the year 2030. One of those recommended targets is ‘30 by 30’, which plans to give protected status to 30 % of lands and oceans, already supported by many nations. This same target is also considered controversial in many countries: COP15 presents to China such challenges which are complex and need extensive deliberations and negotiations among countries, NGOs, civil society and more. These are just some obstacles which are exacerbated with pandemic restrictions in China. This article is looking at China’s vision for COP15 in continuation of the failure of Aichi Biodiversity targets. How can China navigate through the challenges it faces regarding creating consensus within the international community amidst its own environmental violations? What is China’s domestic approach in directing the framework for biodiversity conservation at the international level to further its own climate diplomacy?

The world is looking forward to discussing Climate Change at COP 26, in Glasgow, Scotland, where all major heads of states are expected to participate under the post-Brexit Global Britain. However, another major event has taken place in Kunming, China. This was the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) Summit. This summit took place under the Chinese leadership, which seems now more participatory and responsible for climate negotiations and biodiversity protection compared to a decade earlier. What made COP15 crucial for the world, and particularly China, was the failure of COP10 at Aichi, Japan, in 2010. At Aichi (COP10), the 220 targets aimed to fulfill the conservation of environmental habitat till 2020 were not achieved by the international community. Therefore, China via COP15 sought to achieve substantial commitments from the global community on biological diversity conservation to create a more integrated framework response on climate change adaptation and mitigation. However, the COP15 summit must also be seen as a political opportunity for China to influence and shape biological diversity conservation vision until 2050, especially when Beijing itself is largely under criticism for its own environmental transgressions. In addition, by leveraging the COP15 summit, China would like to change the international community’s perception of China’s ability to create consensus on international agreements towards a conclusive arrangement on climate protection, helping build its image as an international environmental leader.

China’s Interest in Shaping International Climate Negotiations and Climate Diplomacy

China has been traditionally seen as a state inclined to pursue a position preferring  its political interests over the global good, especially as the importance of global (liberal) norms, rules, and laws has been challenged by China. Nonetheless, under President Xi’s leadership, China is now more assertive at the global stage in shaping negotiations, discussions, and policies on issues ranging from climate change to security. Beijing’s strategy has been leveraging global norms to pursue its political objectives, be it in expanding territoriality in the South China Sea or trade policies at WTO. The focus of China has been to bend the rules in its favor, not that other states are innocent of these allegations, even powerful states like the U.S have faced backlash for violating international norms and rules.

After its economic success and shaping major trading agreements successfully, China now feels that it can play a significant role in non-conventional security domains that challenges the global community, such as climate change and biological diversity conservation. Being a large state with a billion-plus population, it places China at an advantage to even drive the direction, and leverage it for its benefit.

Climate negotiations are not just routine diplomatic engagements between states, these are now more of jostling between powerful states, particularly U.S and China for hedging their own political objectives and interests. The political interests manifest toady mainly in the domain of geo-economics, where contested interests of states clash on the issues of intellectual property, clean-tech, and green energy technology. To ensure that the interests are protected, states like China have invested more in climate/environmental diplomacy. However for China this is not just about geo-economics alone but also about its broader geostrategic objectives. Climate negotiations gives China an opportunity, as mentioned earlier, the power to influence and shape the rules of the international multilateral framework on new emerging issues of climate finance, green technology, and resilient infrastructure, considered as new engines of future economic growth. At the same time, it helps to institutionalize structures within Multilateral institutions like the UN, and UNEP which favors its geostrategic objectives. China’s objection for grant to Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary at the Global Environment Facility council is just one example of China’s incremental leveraging power at multilateral forums.

China’s contemporary climate diplomacy is closely linked with issues of human rights, market access, trade and security, that it thinks can be leveraged with western countries during negotiations. The trilateral meeting of China with Germany and France, and reiteration of China’s commitment towards climate change mitigation was a signal of China’s emerging climate diplomacy in absence of U.S leadership. China’s Climate diplomacy rise comes in the backdrop of the downward trajectory of bi-lateral relations between China and the U.S, after Trump came to power, and its continuation with the Biden administration. Increasing geopolitical developments are overshadowing the cooperation between China and the U.S, the ban on solar panel material by U.S, and the rare earth material exports curbs by China used in wind turbines and electric vehicles to the U.S is just one area. 

Increasingly now China’s climate diplomacy is seen by many as a tool to achieve political and economic commitments from developed countries, without any accountability or compromise of its economic interests. However there exists different perspectives on China’s Climate Diplomacy too, author like Feng Renjie’s  The Making of China’s Climate Diplomacy has emphasized on the two-level game theory, bringing in the influence of both international and domestic influence on China’s position. But some would argue that this shift coincides with the peak of China’s economic growth, Communist Party of China (CCP) only guarantee (economic growth) to hold onto power. China’s changed position on Climate Diplomacy reaffirms its Common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) intersectionality with economic growth.

Are China’s Commitments Enough?

There has been a lack of linkage between the conference of parties on climate change and biological diversity. This weak interlinkage has been a subject of contention for environmental experts and activists, who have advocated for a closer coordination between the two. Chinese President Xi, in his address, tried to link the issue of Biodiversity protection with the challenge of Climate Change. President Xi said a ‘sound ecology and environment is not just a natural asset but also an environmental asset, and it affects the momentum of social and economic development.’ The focus of the whole speech of President Xi was on the issue of breaking the traditional binary between humans and nature. This is even reflected in the slogan of the COP15 that is Ecological Civilization: Building a shared future for all life on Earth.

The Chinese approach at COP15 is focusing on finding intersectionality between the issue of biodiversity conservation with the broader issue of Climate change which will be discussed at COP26. China, a significant stakeholder, has tried to align COP15 with the upcoming COP26 by creating a broad consensus with developing countries and announcing financial assistance. A divide between developed and developing states has also been an obstacle in Climate Change negotiations. Recent steps taken by China have shown its intentions to take a more prominent role in driving the negotiations on Climate change towards sustainability, be it a net-zero target by 2060 or the stopping of building new coal-fired power projects overseas. These steps will help the global community efforts in Climate Mitigation; at least on paper.

In   this   context, a   report  by   Global  Energy  Monitor  stated  that  the  announcement of cancellation of 44 coal plants overseas could reduce 30 million tons per year of carbon emission. However, the Coal Finance pledge by President Xi does take into account the domestic  coal  plants  and coal production, which accounts for half of the world. However, the current coal crisis happening in China points to the challenges of reduction in consumption of coal, which affects the Chinese target of moving to renewables. This one aspect just shows the complex nature of ambitious targets on Climate Mitigation, and the difficulty to achieve them. On Climate Change, a lot has been announced by China that sounds promising, but it remains to be seen how it will take shape going forward.

A UUN Report states that not even a single target out of 20 has been fully met. Out of 20 targets, China is on track on 16 Aichi’s targets, three of which are exceeded. In a journal publication on Biodiversity conservation in China, the authors have acknowledged China’s progress in biological diversity conservation in the area, such as Panda conservation and increasing forest cover, however, they have also touched upon the challenges of the lack of comprehensive policy that takes both Economic development and Ecology conservation together. The White Paper on Biodiversity released by China before COP15 reiterated the criticality of governance and biodiversity conservation and raised the latter to national strategy. Therefore, it appears that China’s overall strategy and policies on Biodiversity conservation point towards a direction of aligning it with the economic development that is human-centric. 

China has taken initiatives that shows its intention towards conservation and protection of biological diversity. China’s ecological conservation red line initiative aims at carbon sequestration that address climate change mitigation through protection of at least 25 percent of country’s land and sea. Similarly, China aims to raise its overall forest coverage from 23.04 percent from 2019 to 24.1 percent by the end of 2025, planting 36,000 sq. km of new forest a year. However, the policy doesn’t match the practical outcomes. Many experts have pointed out that the ambitious Ecological Conservation red line initiative lacks any solid legal basis which gives the local governments enough room to bypass regulations, effectively making the redline system a paper tiger. Another study revealed that the much of china’s new tree cover consists of sparse, low plantations and shrubs, that are unlikely to provide the same benefits as natural forests. Even china’s afforestation policy in arid and semi-arid region of northern china, shows that lack of tailoring of local environmental conditions(focusing on use of inappropriate species), have compromised its efforts to achieve environmental policy goals.    

 COP15 Outcomes

After the conclusion of the first round of the COP15 summit at Kunming from 11-15 October 2021 virtually, there are indications of hope through the adoption of the Kunming Declaration. The declaration reiterated the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity: Living in harmony with nature and recalling the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to be aligned across environmental, social, and economic dimensions in alignment with the 2050 Vision. The declaration points towards a renewed focus on adopting an effective post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF) next year in April 2022. Some visible actions by China were also noticed at the COP15; Xi in his address, announced a $233 million(1.5 billion Yuan) Biodiversity protection fund to support developing countries. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of Conference on Biological Diversity, appreciated and applauded the Chinese leadership in supporting the developing countries and enhancing South-South cooperation in an interview with China Daily.

The overall atmosphere at COP15 was positive and highly hopeful as it was only the first meeting to create consensus among the global community on the way forward for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The major challenge lies ahead for China when the second meeting will take place at Kunming in April 2021, where significant issues will be negotiated and discussed. If China succeeds in achieving substantial commitments from the global community in the next round of meeting, it will enhance the status of China more with the absence of the U.S at the COP15. It remains to be seen whether China will leverage the opportunity, or this will turn out to be the second Aichi. Concurrently, it is also important to note that climate diplomacy remains one key area wherein the US and China have the potential to collaborate; but for this, both sides must not only engage in hosting/leading discussions, but also implementing and ensuring implantation of declarations and goals pass. 

Abhishek Sharma holds a Masters degree in International Relations from South Asian University. He is interested in evolving Geopolitics of East Asia and the Indo-Pacific Region, focusing on India-South Korea relations and Indian Foreign Policy. His research interests also include the intersection of Gender and International Politics, particularly in Environmental Peacebuilding, Nuclear Disarmament, and Feminist Foreign Policy.

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