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Climate Multilateralism in Limbo: China’s Role in Constructing Meaningful Paths Forward

Throughout the past decade, China’s public stance toward the climate crisis has shifted significantly as the consequences of climate change and benefits of decarbonization have become more clear. Before the 26th session of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in a recorded statement at the UN General Assembly in September that China would no longer build new coal-burning power plants abroad—a seemingly landmark commitment from the world’s largest domestic coal producer and largest global financier of coal-powered plants. The announcement comes one year after President Xi outlined two key climate targets for the country in 2020: that China would reach peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2060. 

China’s recent moves toward sustainability reflect the country’s strategic and pragmatic plans for continued economic development and global integration. In the wake of fledgling US climate leadership, China’s changing attitude toward the climate crisis is not only diplomatically strategic but will strengthen China’s economic and energy resilience if the country fulfills its green commitments. But whether China will decarbonize and whether it will do so through the global climate regime or unilateralism remains ambiguous. China’s decisions have the capacity to facilitate global decarbonization and reshape geopolitical dynamics by tilting the scale toward open and cooperative sustainable development or climate protectionism—risking the escalation of longstanding economic and energy security conflicts that have historically undermined climate multilateralism. These outstanding questions pull the fraught history of the global climate regime to the forefront of global politics once more.

Since the birth of the global climate regime nearly three decades ago, the multilateral approach to mitigate climate change has been shaped by the heterogeneous nature of the climate crisis itself and the competing notions of justice that have driven negotiations. Countries face differentiated physical risks from climate change, possess uneven capabilities to act, and bear incredibly disproportionate responsibilities for historical greenhouse gas emissions. As global shares of emissions have shifted between countries, the success of climate multilateralism has accordingly hinged upon and been hindered by the propensity of the world’s most carbon-intensive economies to change.

Yet throughout decades of global efforts to transition away from fossil fuels, the two largest global emitters—historically the United States and currently China—have continuously hesitated to decarbonize and significantly impeded multilateral efforts to combat climate change. Why? Reducing emissions has historically required countries to implement costly mitigation measures that would sacrifice economic growth. The fluctuating progress, fragmentation, and future of climate multilateralism can thus be understood as a story of path-dependent stalemate innately tied to national fears about the economic security and energy market consequences of mitigation that trace  back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. 

It seemed at first that progress was being made in 2014 when former US President Barack Obama and President Xi made history after issuing a US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation in which China first committed to its 2030 peak emissions target. But as President Xi has pioneered climate change onto China’s agenda, the US has struggled to rebound from its Paris Agreement withdrawal under former President Donald Trump in 2017. China’s recent incorporation of sustainable goals into its economic development and continued US hesistance to craft a comprehensive response to climate change are iterative of the same fault lines that have plagued the climate regime for decades; this time, however, the consequences of action for economic and energy security are more explicit.

China’s green posturing under President Xi reveals strategic calculations about the potential losses faced from inaction and the substantial benefits of decarbonization

Even without the advantages of multilateral cooperation, China stands to gain from mitigating climate change through reduced extreme air pollution and public health risks, enhanced energy security, and increased economic growth and market access from the development of renewable industries and low-carbon technology. Furthermore, China currently holds the necessary tools to become a global leader of sustainable development and low-carbon transformation. Through its five-year socioeconomic development plans, China has driven innovation in clean energy technologies, including fast-growing solar photovoltaic and onshore wind capacity. The country currently possesses the largest renewables market, largest global share of renewable energy capacity, and is forecasted to lead renewable capacity expansion in 2022. Moreover, China is aided by its growing monopoly on rare earth elements, a group of materials essential for the production and manufacturing of clean energy technologies like electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels. China’s potential to dominate  crucial renewable energy and low-carbon technology industries makes it a key player in global efforts to decarbonize. But without the external control of multilateral cooperation, China could choose to advance protectionist policies that would cement its influence in the renewable energy market and have lasting implications for global trade relationships. 

Yet China’s outsized influence on the climate change mitigation trajectory presents meaningful opportunities for multilateral participation with compelling benefits for its global governance goals: climate mitigation is “low-hanging fruit that does not impact the political standing of the CCP at home but has the potential to improve its reputation abroad.” Pursuing climate action within the bounds of multilateralism would not only greatly increase the likelihood of successful global decarbonization but will also signal to world leaders renewed potential for climate multilateralism that would enhance China’s legitimacy on the world stage while incentivizing the reciprocity of other countries like the US to reduce emissions. Climate multilateralism is thus a win-win scenario for China, whereby the country can secure lasting influence as a responsible global power while serving its own economic and environmental interests. 

Though China may be “poised to meet growing global demand for cleaner technologies,” the country still faces significant domestic challenges to decarbonizing its energy system. In 2020, coal comprised 56.8 percent of China’s primary energy mix, while its coal power capacity grew by a net 29.8GW. Dramatically reducing the carbon-intensity of its energy sources requires China to not only expand renewable energy capacity swiftly, but accelerate the phasing-out of coal power—and the country’s policy actions thus far have fallen short of its medium- to long-term targets. While President Xi’s commitment to halting coal-power plant construction abroad is a good first step, he provided no further details on whether this moratorium would apply to the financing of coal-power abroad, nor did he elaborate on China’s plans for reducing domestic reliance on coal. 

China’s potential role as a pacesetting model of sustainable development is ultimately contingent upon whether the country chooses to deliver on its green commitments—and whether it  does so through international cooperation. Though China ultimately stands to gain substantial economic and political benefits from pursuing decarbonization in any manner, as the US begins reprioritizing the climate under President Joe Biden’s leadership, China’s next steps could set the tone of global power relations for decades to come. Rather than undermine global mitigation efforts or heighten trade conflict through unilateralism, China’s multilateral cooperation could facilitate continued economic openness and create amicable conditions for sustainable innovation. 20 years ago, climate multilateralism deteriorated after the prioritization of national interests over the global good, but the costs of climate policy action are more clear than ever. There is still time to create avenues forward that minimize the risk of catastrophic environmental damage and deliver benefits that support rather than undermine a global low-carbon transition. 

Original illustration by Kyla Dang