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After COP26: China, the Global South and the Messy Reality of Climate Politics

Paul ELLIS / AFP

By Lukas Fiala and Hugo Jones, China Foresight LSE IDEAS

The China-U.S. Joint Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s came as a surprise to most observers, breaking two weeks of geopolitical bickering at COP26. “In the area of climate change, there is more agreement between the U.S. and China than divergence, making it an area of huge potential for cooperation,” said Xie Zhenhua at a press conference.

The joint declaration on Wednesday evening built on an earlier statement made in April and reaffirms Washington’s and Beijing’s commitment “…to work together and with other Parties to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement.” The read-out details several areas of intended cooperation, including regulatory frameworks and environmental standards related to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases as well as pledges targeting CO2 and methane emissions. The latter includes the intention “to convene a meeting in the first half of 2022 to focus on the specifics of enhancing measurement and mitigation of methane, including through standards to reduce methane from the fossil and waste sectors, as well as incentives and programs to reduce methane from the agricultural sector.”

Most importantly, the joint statement recognizes the importance of “…the scaling up of financial and capacity-building support for adaptation in developing countries…” and “…of the commitment made by developed countries to the goal of mobilizing jointly $100b per year by 2020 and annually through 2025 to address the needs of developing countries”, which, so the statement, should be met “as soon as possible.”

The joint declaration, whilst optimistic, papers over some deeper fault lines in global environmental politics. The optics are good, but the content is thin for the moment.

And there remain vastly polarised conceptions about China’s environmental ‘identity’, with many in Glasgow claiming that China is the villain of the piece and others hailing China as a paragon of ambitious climate policy-making.

Calling out China, the former president of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed was scathing in an interview with POLITICO earlier this week: “They’ve very much ignored the COP. They’ve ignored the planet. They’ve ignored climate.” Nasheed’s heated comments came before the joint declaration, after China’s climate plan brought about no fresh ambition and its perceived absence from alliances on methane emissions and coal phase-outs – moves that many had seen as disappointing given China’s previous diplomatic activism in climate negotiations. Some argue that Xi Jinping’s personal absence from COP26 has diminished China’s soft power, tarnishing Beijing’s campaign to project the image of a responsible great power.

Despite this, China tried to position itself as a chief representative of the developing world at COP26, as it has typically done at prior climate summits. Its diplomats lobbied for greater financial support to countries in the Global South in reducing their emissions and transitioning to renewable energy. China has also joined a commitment of over 100 leaders to work jointly to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 and backed the new Breakthrough Agenda. Moreover, as China Foresight’s recent Ask the Experts pointed out, China has already done much to lead the way in terms of progressive climate policy: the decision to rein in all public overseas coal finance earlier this year represented a significant shift, for example.

Regardless of China’s laudable actions, renewed attention on equitable climate mitigation policies has to put the developing world at the heart of the agenda. Climate discussions that emancipate voices from the Global South are still few and far between. A recent Carbon Brief analysis, for instance, highlighted some of the inequalities in highly cited climate articles, less than 1% of which are authored by Africans.

This month’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) ministerial meeting could be consequential for south-south environmental politics. One of the four main documents to be released at the meeting will be the ‘Sino-African Declaration on Cooperation on Climate Change’; it will be interesting to see the tone set there, the pace of change envisaged, and the disparities compared with China’s public face at COP26. And in terms of African voices, will a collaborative discussion about greener futures take place, or will the agenda be set entirely by China?

There are some serious and long-standing environmental problems in the Africa-China relationship that are yet to be addressed. The Environmental Investigation Agency published a report on Wednesday outlining the ecological harm inflicted by the expansion of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in Africa. It highlights that some TCM treatments are still sourcing ingredients from endangered species, posing a threat to biodiversity, yet TCM continues to be formally endorsed by the governments of several African countries. Not to mention the well-known fact that about a third of Chinese investments in Sub-Saharan Africa between 2005 and 2017 were directed into natural resource sectors.

Rerouting some of these capital flows will come at social, political, and economic costs, especially in countries that have relied on the export of natural resources to bolster a large part of their GDP. China’s decision to rein in all public overseas coal finance, for instance, will have large implications for countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia that have banked on easy access to foreign coal finance in the past and thus doubled down on coal technology which now makes up a vast part of their domestic energy portfolio.

In the context of the ambitious endorsement from the US, the UK, and the EU to green existing infrastructure and connectivity initiatives – such as the B3W and Global Gateway – one may hope that the heated geopolitics of climate change and development assistance, paired with the perception of China as a pacing challenger, will soon result in a more diverse financing landscape for developing countries to achieve a fair and equitable green transition. In Africa, for instance, Beijing could follow words with deeds by extending already existing China-Africa development funds and finance mechanisms tied to FOCAC towards supporting African countries’ climate and environmental policies.

Lukas Fiala is the China Foresight Project Coordinator at LSE IDEAS and Hugo Jones is a Program Assistant LSE IDEAS. LSE IDEAS is the foreign policy think tank at the London School of Economics.

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