Climate change: An opportunity for EU-China cooperation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Coal in China. [timquijano/Flickr]

It’s time to shift from the well-known statement that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humankind to a new affirmation, argues Teresa Ribera.

Teresa Ribera is the director of Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.

The most important single factor to ensure that this shift becomes a reality is China’s buy-in into this new vision. The European Union is aware of China’s importance, Europe being the superpower most strongly backing a UN response to global issues. It is now China´s turn to decide to what extent the country is ready to be a positive force in this common endeavour or, the other way round, to build its international profile on a bilateral basis. 

Depending on the answer, the coming decades could be very different. China became an emerging economic power before it became an emerging diplomatic one. This is clearly starting to change. A few examples include Beijing’s hosting of the APEC Summit in 2014, the number of bilateral summits China has recently engaged in, especially this year, and the fact that it is chairing the G20 in 2016.  The intense international agenda of its Premier confirm the increasing diplomatic interest of China, to listen and be heard, to play its role in the international arena. This is notably the case in the climate change arena. 

In this context, what does the China-European Union declaration on climate change issued at the Brussels Summit held this week mean? 

China and the EU committed to achieving an “ambitious and legally binding” climate agreement in the negotiations that will culminate in Paris this December. This represents an important shift for China, one of the countries that opposed a legally binding agreement in Copenhagen in 2009. It is a measure of China’s increased confidence on the world stage, and faith in its capacity to implement its climate pledges in the context of a multilateral framework. In the light of this bilateral agreement and progress in the international negotiations, it now seems almost universally agreed that the Paris climate talks should deliver a new international legally binding treaty on climate change. 

China and the European Union also agreed to continue their existing bilateral cooperation on a number of technical and sectoral policies, and expressed once again the need to increase climate ambition over time.

Not much additional news or other relevant improvement is reflected in the communiqué. Previous efforts had been made to gain a commitment from “all countries able to do so” to provide financial support for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. This would have been a significant breakthrough in the standoff between developed and emerging countries on which countries should provide climate finance. It could also have opened some very interesting prospects that could have an impact beyond the UNFCCC climate finance mechanisms. 

Over the last few years, China has become a massive international financier. Prime Minister Li Keqiang recently signed $50 billion worth of infrastructure projects during a state visit to Brazil. China has established no less than three development banks worth several hundred billion dollars. China is today one of the most important development funders of the world (if not already the most important). So, the criteria the country applies when shaping its investment decisions does matter for sustainable development around the world.  To what extent China will be willing to voluntarily subject its efforts under the multilateral frameworks is still ambiguous. The country seems to be open to improving consistency in the application of principles, but maintains the traditional division between developed and developing countries when deciding who is to provide climate assistance to vulnerable countries.  

Finally, China is at the centre of important challenges concerning the future of urban areas. As some experts have already stressed, cities are the biggest stranded assets we need to save. Cities lock in their energy consumption patterns for decades to come and determine their own legacy in terms of pollution. Many are also already highly vulnerable to environmental and climate risks impacting citizens´ prosperity, health and life expectancy. European and Chinese cities are different, but they offer an important ground for common understanding and cooperation. Exchange of best practices in this area should be facilitated by the ‘EU-China Partnership for low-carbon cities’ announced in the joint declaration. 

Paris needs to offer a consistent global framework to boost consistent climate action everywhere and major players need to recover the pride of engagement and cooperation among partners, according to both the principles of effectiveness and solidarity. 

The China-EU summit needs to serve this purpose, as a building block in a “new normal” of universal climate governance.

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