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China’a Confusing, Contradictory Environmental Agenda

FRED DUFOUR / AFP

While scrolling today I came across this great piece by the China expert and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, laying out the wider implications of China’s much-discussed commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.

Rudd points out that one of the factors complicating China’s emergence as a global leader on climate is the difficulty of balancing the international demand for responsible climate leadership with domestic pressure to shield the numerous companies and people dependent on China’s coal industry. 

The result is the kind of contradiction we’ve discussed in these pages before – the fact that China is both the largest builder of green energy and dirty energy capacity in the world. It is also putting pressure on Chinese companies to hunt for the last governments willing to still pay for coal power – many of them in Africa. The result is something like a two-headed snake – fun to discuss but maybe not the most efficient way to move forward.

China faces growing international competition on the climate leader front, both once the Biden administration rejoins the Paris Accord, and from South Korea and Japan, who have announced that they will stop funding coal capacity internationally. 

Japan undercut China’s 2060 announcement with its own goal to hit carbon neutrality by 2050. That’s great, but one should also point out that Japan is uniquely blessed with geological faults, geysers and hot springs. The fact that it isn’t already running Iceland-style on geothermal energy, and (as Afshin Molavi pointed out in today’s podcast,) is still a major buyer of Middle Eastern oil, is frankly a scandal – one for which Tokyo should face a lot more heat. If Kenya can make geothermal work, Japan certainly can.  

By taking a more aggressive leadership position on climate, China can gain on its rivals both in the West and in Asia, and build massive political cred in the global south. But that will depend on the snake losing that second, vestigial, coal head.

The only way that will happen is if Chinese companies face increased pressure on their southern flank, along the Belt and Road. African activists have already madesignificant strides in opposing Chinese-funded coal power in Africa, and these efforts will have to be ramped up in the 2020s. African governments and communities will have to make clear that the continent isn’t a dumping ground for Chinese companies’ old technology.

As we’ve seen with China’s ban on its domestic ivory trade a few years ago, political pressure from Africa can change Chinese policy. With sufficient pressure from African activists and governments, the 2021 FOCAC summit could be a moment to get a commitment from China to stop funding coal-powered electricity in Africa. But it will depend on the continent joining voices to fiercely advocate for its own future. Time is running out. 

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