Climate change carries profound importance for certain countries, which acknowledge its dangers and prioritise action. However, others often use it as a tool to showcase leadership without substantial action. China stands out as a country that seemingly falls in the latter category.
As countries worldwide commit to addressing the urgent matter of climate change, active participation in summits such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference is of paramount importance.
In this context, the ‘Global South’ has progressively emphasised climate action as a top priority. But China, which positions itself as a leader among these countries, seems to be not quite as actively engaged at the highest levels in key summits as its counterparts.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, for instance, did not attend the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP28) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Dubai from 30 November-1 December 2023. Instead, Xi delegated this responsibility to Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang and his climate change envoy, Xie Zhenhua— who will retire by December-end.
Xi last attended a COP summit in person in 2015, when the landmark Paris Climate Agreement was signed. In the 2021 Glasgow COP26, he participated virtually.
While over 1,400 Chinese delegates attended the COP28 and Ding also hosted the G77 + China summit on the sidelines, Xi’s non-appearance at the summit raises concerns regarding China’s consistent commitment to addressing climate change.
Xi’s absence was conspicuous, particularly when other prominent world leaders were present, including India’s Narendra Modi, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, and the United Kingdom’s Rishi Sunak.
But it’s not just the COP. China’s high-level absence from crucial summits seems to be part of a recurrent pattern.
Why didn’t Xi attend?
The presence of top leaders at important summits signifies initial steps toward climate action.
Xi’s absence from COP28 sharply contradicts China’s stated commitment to reducing emissions by 65 per cent from their 2005 level by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
It also highlights China’s selective multilateral engagement, where Xi prioritises participation that draws direct and undivided attention.
Notably, he chose to skip the G20 summit in New Delhi, likely due to escalating tensions between China and India, as well as the possibility of being sidelined and isolated in a gathering that included many Western leaders. Instead, he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco. His visit to the United States and the Xi-Biden summit became the central topics of discussion during the APEC.
Despite Xi’s absence at COP28, China pushed its agenda forward. A notable example of this was the G77 + China summit, aligning with Beijing’sstrategy to integrate climate change into its broader ambition of assuming a leadership role among emerging economies.
Chinese state-owned media was also actively engaged in portraying China as a climate hero while assigning blame to the US for perceived inaction. International Energy Agency (IEA) chief Fatih Boral’s praise of China as a “champion of clean energy” received acclaim from Chinese media. Interestingly, Boral was formally inducted as a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering earlier this year.
An editorial in the Chinese state-owned Global Times singled out the US for its pledge of a “meagre” $17.5 million to the Loss and Damages Fund established during COP27 in Egypt last year. This even though China did not make any pledge for the fund, which aims to provide financial aid to less privileged and poorer countries impacted by climate disasters.
Last year, Xie, China’s climate change envoy, suggested that China may not provide financial support to the fund. “We strongly support the claims from developing countries, especially the most vulnerable countries, for claiming loss and damage compensation because China is also a developing country and we also suffered a lot from extreme weather events… It is not the obligation of China but we are willing to make our contribution and make our effort,” he said at a news conference during COP27.
Despite being the world’s second-largest economy, China seemingly leverages its ‘developing country’ status to avoid making significant financial contributions to the fund and the broader cause of addressing climate change. Additionally, at COP28, China and India refrained from committing to tripling their installed renewable energy capacity by 2030, in contrast to the 118 other countries that endorsed the initiative.
Is China doing enough?
China has surpassed some of its green energy goals ahead of the deadline. According to the Global Energy Monitor report, “renewable sources such as solar and wind power now constitute more than half of China’s overall capacity, a milestone initially projected for 2025, and it plans to double its solar and wind energy capacity by 2025, surpassing this goal five years earlier than scheduled.”
However, major challenges persist. China still heavily relies on polluting fossil fuels to support its energy-intensive economy, and official reports indicate that coal still accounts for roughly 60 per cent of China’s energy generation and over half of its overall energy consumption.
China is facing severe environmental crises, with natural disasters like typhoons, torrential rains, and landslides causing staggering economic losses totalling $42 billion in the past year alone. The human toll of these disasters is also a deeply concerning issue. For instance, in August 2023, torrential rains in China’s Hunan Province forced over 3,000 people to evacuate. Similarly, in Beijing and Hebei, Typhoon Doksur wreaked havoc, resulting in the loss of over 50 lives and displacing thousands more.
As the world’s second-largest economy, China bears substantial responsibility not only to tackle its own environmental issues but also to contribute to global solutions. However, a persistent question remains: Is China taking adequate steps?
China now stands as the world’s largest carbon emitter, with 12.7 billion metric tons of emissions annually, followed by the US at 5.9 billion metric tons. Despite this, some still argue that China could meet its carbon reduction goals by 2030 with consistent efforts and political will. In 2022, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2035, highlighting the perils of climate change as a pressing non-traditional security threat.
However, several factors could hinder China’s climate actions.
First, its slowing economy might impede the effectiveness of its efforts. This, as pointed out by the World Bank, could lead to job losses, particularly in emission-intensive sectors such as the coal industry. Second, China has a history of politicising and weaponising climate talks. An example of this is China’s suspension of climate talks with the US following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.
China’s credibility as a climate crusader also falters when considering the environmental degradation, rapid rise in temperatures, and melting glaciers in Tibet. These issues are believed to be exacerbated by China’s construction of dams and infrastructure in the autonomous region. Moreover, positioning itself as a ‘developing country’ in setting goals for climate actions and shifting responsibility to so-called developed countries is counterproductive and could impede effective regional responses.China plays a pivotal role in both adapting to and mitigating climate change. To enhance its effectiveness in addressing this global challenge, Beijing should foster greater decentralisation within its climate change initiatives and separate political interests from climate change agendas.