Why China is serious about becoming the global leader on climate change

Chinese culture

Chinese culture has endured for thousands of years. Unknown Ming court artist, 1538AD

The Trump administration’s hostility towards climate action and research leaves a void in global climate politics. Could China step up?

The world’s largest absolute emitter could certainly use US inaction as an excuse to backslide on its promises of greenery. But China could instead see this as an opportunity to project itself as our planet’s leading custodian.

Evidence suggests the latter course is far more likely. Opening the annual National People’s Congress in March, premier Li Keqiang pledged to “make the sky blue again”. Both the report he presented and the legislation and decisions reached continued to stress environmental issues, albeit perhaps not as emphatically as in recent years.

Meanwhile, in January at the annual World Economic Forum pow-wow in Davos, president Xi Jinping took advantage of Trump’s economic nationalism to affirm China’s commitment to globalisation. As the US rejects the very idea of global responsibilities, China is thus apparently aiming to reap the rewards of positioning itself as the polar opposite.

This isn’t just empty rhetoric. Chinese investment overseas in green technology increased by 60% last year to US$32 billion. More importantly, the broader context of Chinese domestic politics has created strong incentives for further environmental efforts. This suggests an authentic medium to long-term commitment. And in China, it is the “dog” of domestic politics and regime legitimacy that wags the “tail” of geopolitical strategising.

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