China's practice of ecological civilization in multilateral environmental governance within the fields of climate change and biodiversity

If EC is not yet sufficiently mature to challenge global norms on development and environment, it is important to verify whether the endorsement of that principle has led China to support or resist the existing institutions of multilateral environmental governance. Because China is a big player and potentially wields a veto power over many global environmental issues, its leadership within the framework of multilateral cooperation can make a difference, especially when other major nations, like the US, withdraw.

China has signed and ratified a large number of MEAs, among them the UNF- CCC and the CBD. It is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, accounting for 29% of annual global emissions in 2018. Moreover, it is a megadiverse country, harboring nearly 10% of all plant species and 14% of animal species on Earth.10 However, its participation level in both regimes has been highly uneven. In regard to climate change, China has been a vocal participant ever since the negotiation of the UNFCCC in 1992. But while engaging with the process, the Chinese government has resisted the multilateral imposition of emissions reduction targets. In Chinese eyes, the principle of common but differentiated responsibility' implied a recognition of its and other developing countries’ right to industrialize, and therefore to pollute, as well as of the moral duty of developed countries to help them “leapfrog” into greener modes of industrialization via financial and technology transfers (Heggelund 2007). The Chinese position has not changed much in the decades since 1992. At the Copenhagen COP in 2009, despite the fact that China had announced a unilateral pledge to reduce the carbon intensity' of its economy by 40%-45% by 2020, it vehemently opposed European proposals to include some developing countries in the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol.

The presidency ofXi Jinping, associated with the promotion of EC, has brought significant change. The obligation to address global climate change became aligned with Xi’s domestic economic reform agenda and the war on pollution (Hilton & Kerr 2017). Xi claimed that addressing climate change was in China’s interest and not a duty imposed by others;" accordingly he also encouraged a more active diplomatic effort. China signed several bilateral agreements in the run-up to the Paris COP and, most importantly, reached a pathbreaking agreement with the Obama administration in 2014, which was instrumental in sealing key compromises on the bottom-up and universal structure of the Paris Agreement. In this process, China accepted both the universal obligation for all countries, including developing countries, to reduce their emissions, and to take part in a multilateral review and evaluation of its actions, something to which it had been sternly opposed before.

The change of US administration in 2016 left a vacuum of leadership, and many turned to China to fill it. Geall and Ely (2017) note that Xi’s continued commitment to the Paris Agreement, made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, received almost universal praise. Yet, China’s capacity and willingness to exercise this leadership have been questioned (e.g., Economy 2017). Xi Jinping has made efforts to maintain the Paris momentum in the years that followed. He hosted a G20 summit in Hangzhou dedicated to the low-carbon transition and joined the Ministerial on Climate Action created by Canada and the EU to replace the Major Economies Forum, which had been led by the US under the Obama administration and was dismantled by its successor. Furthermore, while holding to its developing country status, China made unilateral commitments to provide USD 5 billion of climate cooperation aid to other developing countries. It also has been deeply involved in the negotiations of the Paris Rulebook, especially the enhanced transparency framework, for which it was nominated as a co-facilitator, together with the US.12 In this context, it played a critical role in resolving a standoff which opposed the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC, to which China belongs) to developed countries like the US and the EU, regarding whether there should be one set of transparency and reporting rules for all (which the US and tlie EU wanted) or a different set of rules applying to developed and developing countries (which the LMDCs wanted). Eventually, during the second week of negotiations at the COP25 in Katowice, China’s Special Representative for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua announced that China would accept a single rulebook. This change, which enabled the Katowice summit to be a success, was accomplished by the participants agreeing to include a number of flexibilities in the rules themselves, many of which accommodated China’s needs. China also insisted that the choice to use these flexibilities would be left out of the review and compliance procedures of the Paris Agreement. Once China and the developed countries agreed on these conditions, the support of the rest of the LMDCs for a single rulebook was immediately obtained.

This episode illustrates China’s increasingly skilled climate diplomacy but not necessarily its leadership in bringing about the most ambitious and effective climate regime. Moreover, in recent years China’s commitment to act on climate change has shown signs of weakening. Although China already met its 2020 carbon intensity target (40%-45%) in 2017, three years ahead of schedule, its CO, emissions rose in 2017 and again in 2018. The objective put forward in its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), that they will peak by 2030, is universally considered as conservative and insufficient to keep global temperatures below 2°C.t3 China thus will face tremendous pressure to ratchet up its contributions for 2030, but thus far it has not been particularly proactive in proposing an upgraded NDC.

This coming of age of China’s climate diplomacy since 1992 contrasts with its discreet, almost unnoticeable contribution to the CBD process over the same period. Over the past 30 years, China for the most part has not actively engaged with the CBD negotiations, even though it ratified both the Cartagena and the Nagoya Protocols in 2000 and 2016, respectively. This sluggishness is reflected in the paucity of scholarly analyses of China’s relationship to the CBD, compared to the already significant literature on its relationship to the UNFCCC. And yet, biodiversity and conservation are hot issues in China not only because of the trade in endangered species, which has been addressed under CITES, but also because of the challenges that China has faced in its efforts to protect biodiversity within its own borders. Notable among those efforts have been the progressive establishment and difficult supervision of a vast network of protected areas since the 1980s and the implementation of the idea of “ecological redlines” in 2017.

EC can be seen as having brought a major change in China’s attitude towards the CBD because the country offered to host the COP15 in 2020, which is expected to adopt major reform of the current regime governance structure under the Post- 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. This represents a significant diplomatic challenge, because although a “zero draft”14 was proposed by a working group cochaired by Canada and Uganda in January of 2020, little progress has been made in resolving outstanding disagreements between parties on the scope and shape of this framework. As a CCICED report highlighted,

there is still a great gap between high expectations on the part of scientists and others alarmed at the rapid global ecological damage and biodiversity loss, and existing political will nationally and globally to take sufficient action to guarantee a sustainable future.

(CCICED 2019: 5)

The need for strong political leadership is widely recognized. Yet, while China contributed to the Sharm El-Sheikh to Beijing Action Agenda for Nature and People established at the COP14 in 2018,b other countries have arguably shown more leadership than China. France, keen on exporting its experience with the Paris Agreement, tabled a Global Pact for Environment at the UN High Level Political Forum in July 2017; Canada hosted a Nature Champions meeting in April 2019 in Montreal, attended by environment ministers and leaders from various non-governmental organizations; and Costa Rica launched a High Ambition Coalition of nations to push for a Deal for Nature on the eve of the UN Secretary- General’s Climate Summit in New York in September of 2019.16

Civil society’s expectations of China as a host have continued to rise, even as the political momentum has failed to build and was crushed by the coronavirus pandemic. According to the CCICED report, “only being a good host for the CBD COP15 is not enough” (CCICED 2019: 8). A workshop report organized by the MEE and the EU underlined that China, as a host, should share its experience, demonstrate its efforts at building an ecological civilization domestically, make a substantial commitment itself, and exercise collective leadership (Rankovic & Shen 2018). However, thus far, the main influence that China has had on the upcoming COP has been visible in the choice of its logo and especially its theme, “Ecological Civilization - Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth” (see Figure 2.3), which combines the two key discursive elements of ecological civilization and community of common destiny, here extended to non-humans as well. In this regard, hosting the CBD provides a unique opportunity for China to promote these concepts internationally.

By contrast, some observers have questioned China’s ability to drive the negotiations for a new and more ambitious governance framework by “leading by example”

Logo of the Kunming CI3D COP15, with the COP’s theme “Ecological Civilization - Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth”

FIGURE 2.3 Logo of the Kunming CI3D COP15, with the COP’s theme “Ecological Civilization - Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth”

Source: Logo commissioned by the Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection and presented by then Minister Li Gangjie and Acting Executive Director of the C13D Elizabeth Mrema on January 9, 2020. Available at

in showcasing what the term “ecological civilization” means within China itself in the field of biodiversity conservation, by making sufficiently ambitious international commitments, and by pushing a majority of governments to reach ambitious compromises. As underlined by Mike Shanahan in an article published in China Dialogue in February 2020, there have been “fears that China will prefer to facilitate dialogue towards any agreement rather than drive ambition towards a strong one and risk failing” (Shanahan 2020).

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