Qi Hang: Tracking China, on substance

At COP24, China engaged a rather wide range of substantive topics on climate action. In this blog, my purpose is to not cover all of them, but rather, showcase a selection of which I found interesting, revealing and insightful about China’s overarching climate action policy framework, as much as Chinese grand strategy.

The first topic of importance to China at COP24 is climate science and policy work with regards to the Third Pole – the Tibetan Plateau. The side event that was themed around environmental governance of Tibet was interestingly the second side event lined up in the first week of COP24. During the side event, various scholars and policy insiders spoke on Tibet (and the North and South Poles), approaching from several angles. Naturally, there was the scientific angle – largely on transboundary cooperation between Chinese and scientific delegations from other countries (such as with the Danes in Greenland, one of the most rapidly melting landmasses), use of technology (in particular data-driven climate action; one of the speakers, Anil Mishra from UNESCO/IHP highlighted the dire scarcity in monitoring data on glaciers above the altitude of 3000 meters above sea levels) etc.

Then there was also a much more geostrategic angle, that was particularly illuminated in the talk given by Zhang Haibin of China Institute of International Affairs, on “Going Beyond the Western Geopolitical Thought” on the three poles. It was fascinating to observe that a talk on the core national security interests of securing eminently open Arctic trading routes (possibly as a solution to the heavily militarized and easily contained Malacca Strait, through which some 80% of Chinese goods flow through), and more importantly, the value and advantage of holding the headwaters of the major river networks of South and Southeast Asia in Tibet. Zhang underscored the importance of pivoting from the traditional zero-sum mentality of realism, towards regional and international governance of global commons. This is very much in line with modern theories of a “Peaceful Rise 2.0” (和平崛起) and theories on managing a peaceful external environment as to benefit Chinese national security (周边外交), as well as some of Xi’s rhetorical notions on “community of shared future for Mankind” and China’s rising role in international order and global governance. What remains underlying to his argument, however, is still the geostrategic significance of Tibet to China under what he calls the “holistic national security perspectives” (总体国家安全观) – still a primal calculus on military, economic and energy security that any great power, let alone rising superpower, would have on the table. I found this to be a stark and insightful reflection on Chinese approach to global climate action – while Beijing remains both in appearance and in substance to be genuinely committed to combatting climate change, their motivations remain quite far from pure and unadulterated altruism (as repeated by several Chinese delegates during COP24), and are in actual fact very much driven by traditional security concerns and national security interests, of which environmental and climate security are now core components of since the FYP11.

At a more micro level, China has been quite eager to showcase decarbonization efforts in specific sectors that have been the most responsible for GHG emissions during their rapid industrial rise. For example, in the forestry sector, China has pretty much halted net deforestation. In fact, their reforestation programs, such as the Shengle project in Inner Mongolia, have become the poster child for Chinese decarbonization efforts, both demonstrated in side events and at the inaugural FSV, which drew very large, curious and positive responses from the delegates of other countries. China has also pivoted towards bamboo technologies in the forestry sector; bamboo is a lucrative and green alternative to traditional wood products, and as a testament to true Chinese wonkiness, the Pavilion brought in local industrial experts on bamboo to explain how changes in the interior diameter of bamboo can drastically impact carbon emissions during manufacturing process.

Other sectors that were prominently showcased at the China Pavilion were the transportation, logistics, infrastructure and energy sectors. During the side event on sectoral decarbonization strategies, one of the more memorable local experts brought to Katowice was a representative of a large logistics and transportation company called Fuyang Port International Logistics Pte. Ltd. They have been able to achieve near-zero carbon in storage and transportation, through vertical greening technology, superefficient air-conditioning system, rai-water reuse system, smart curtain technology, nanometer insulation, as well as switching their distribution lines from land to sea, which reduces carbon footprint significantly.

Other showcases take the form of positive case studies and pilots of frankly very progressive environmental and climate policies, some of which rival and even surpass that of the EU and North America. Meishan, a township of 50,000 people in Zhejiang, was one of such case studies. It is projected to peak in coal use by 2020, plateau in the 2020s, and then fall by 2030 such that the town hits its 1.5 degrees emissions target. It will become a net-zero carbon city by 2050. This will happen while GDP and population grow at four times the national average during the same time frame. It will also present a large solar and wind opportunity due to its highly strategic location – by the sea where these renewable resources are abundant, and also the fact that it is a booming port helps transportation, logistics and other peripheral sectors and industries go green as well.

One major gap in what is otherwise a very enthusiastic, very furnished and very conscientious effort by China to showcase its progress since 2012 in hitting emissions targets (and in many cases very much more ambitiously than predetermined) is the lack of address of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is known to be a vehicle to export carbon excesses from domestic China to abroad, through a concept known as “shadow ecology”. During the first week, there was minimal reporting, speaking on and answering of questions regarding the environmental impacts of the BRI.

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