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Climate Change and China’s International Image Yantai, Shandong Province, China. Image via pixabay.

Climate Change and China’s International Image

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The U.S.’s climate envoy, John Kerry, visited China last week, emphasizing that climate change is a “universal threat” and that U.S.-China climate talks “need a little more work.” Recently, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen arrived in China for high stakes attempts to bridge the world’s two largest economies, and wind and solar energy are booming in China, there are serious questions about China’s emissions and its potential economic impact. Previously, in July 2022, Nancy Pelosi toured the Indo-Pacific region with climate change on her agenda, among other issues. These visits come amidst increased concern regarding the effects of climate change. China has been understood as a key player in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, which means it is important to understand how China understands its own role in international climate negotiations because it helps policymakers better understand how to negotiate with China.

The Council on Foreign Relations has suggested that China has “weakened its ability to lead on issues such as climate change, where it once seemed focused on taking a major global role,” and its leadership in clean energy is “ebbing” due to the country retaining the title of the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. China’s global image has been branded the “worst” in many decades—particularly due to inadequate action on climate change—and a slowing economic engine contrasts with the U.S.’s climate action both globally and nationally. However, there have been, and continue to be, opportunities for bilateral U.S.-China cooperation on climate change. Dr. Robin Cleveland and former U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Chair, Carolyn Bartholomew, highlighted in a conversation with ASP that China’s own growing environmental crisis will likely spur its efforts to engage meaningfully in international climate negotiations. Such meaningful engagement was somewhat demonstrated by the COP26 agreement and at COP27.

Historically, however, China has demonstrated concern for the effects of climate change, including the impact on its global image. Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Beijing introduced stringent pollution control measures to control external perception of China and this practice has continued under President Xi Jinping in cities like Shanghai and Tianjin to avoid embarrassment to the regime that could risk undermining its legitimacy, domestically and internationally. By assessing China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s recent annual climate reports from 2015 to 2020, more information can be gleaned about China’s behavior regarding the extent of its cooperation with the global and regional communities on climate change. In 2015, there is little space devoted to international cooperation on environmental protection, but the report draws attention to how China has “successfully told the stories of China” and “showcased its achievements” through the negotiation and implementation of international conventions and in cooperation, including with the U.S.

The 2016 annual report demonstrated that China portrayed itself as playing a positive role in international climate negotiations, especially in its support for multilateral efforts by the UNFCCC and with emphasis on the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle. This principle suggests that developing countries—in which China refers to itself in the report—aspire to tackle climate change but given their economic standing, compared to developed countries, they bear less responsibility and require greater flexibility in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The same 2016 report demonstrates that China also considered itself a protector of the interests of all developing countries, primarily by stating the importance of BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) and LMDCs (likeminded developing countries).

In 2017, the report made it clear that China had been “highly praised by the international community” for its involvement in the Paris Agreement and its continued support of international climate cooperation, bilaterally and multilaterally. The year 2018, however, marked a turning point with the transformation of previously domestic concepts. For example, the concept of “Beautiful China”—understood as the beauty of China’s environment, society, and people—became “Beautiful World,” which suggests an effort by Beijing to imprint its domestic values and narratives on the global stage, as well as to enhance China’s international prestige. These efforts coincide with the growth in China’s its Belt and Road Initiative which has resulted in increased foreign direct investment in other countries’ domestic economies, exports, and distribution of development loans. Through the same Initiative, more than 60 percent of energy financing has gone toward non-renewable energy resources, leading to growing emissions in other countries—far from the “Beautiful World” envisaged.

The 2018 report also emphasizes China as an “important participant, contributor, and torchbearer in the global endeavor for ecological civilization,” which further champions an originally domestic concept by applying it internationally. The idea of ‘ecological civilization’ is related to Beautiful China and calls for the need to establish harmony between humans, economic growth, and nature. The same report draws attention to the fact that China is “proactively” promoting these concepts and internationalizing them against the “backdrop of uncertainty” in international climate negotiations. In other words, China made a strategic decision to internationalize concepts once exclusively domestic in origin – shaped by Chinese societal characteristics – to enhance its international prestige in international climate negotiations. These signs are further reinforced in the subsequent report in 2019 that stresses the importance of establishing a global ecological civilization – a concept implicitly linked to the Confucian value of harmony between humans and nature.

In the 2019 report, China continues to assert that it retains its status as a developing country, but this coincides with reference to China as a “responsible country” when dealing with climate change, in addition to being a “great power.” The added promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative and its associated sustainable development goals further reflect China’s dual identity as both a developing and developed country, and its growing assertiveness in seeking international prestige in the climate arena. However, despite these climate-related efforts over the years, and despite its claims to the contrary, China fared poorly in international opinion in 2021, where a median of 78 percent described China’s handling of climate change as “bad,” including 45 percent of who described it as “very bad.” Only 18 percent of Americans and Canadians believed China was doing a good job handling climate change.

Nonetheless, at risk of international climate policy being shaped predominantly by Beijing’s values—as evidenced by the internationalization of concepts that were once exclusively domestic in origin—the U.S. and its allies will likely consider reinvigorating the international climate agenda. In practice, liberal values will need to be embedded into the agenda, and the U.S. and its allies will need to cooperate with China to promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the continued adoption of sustainable development practices, and an accelerated transition to clean power and sustainable supply chains. The urgency for action was underscored by a recent ASP conversation with former Under Secretary of the Army Patrick J. Murphy, who argued that that the U.S. “better wake up” to the need to gain a “competitive edge” in the development of critical technologies, including renewable energy.