In terms of global climate governance, China is ushering in a period when it can better play its global leadership role. By advancing with the times in terms of language and symbolic positions, and implementing them through comprehensive substantive actions, China will surely be able to achieve this. Although this will pay a huge material cost, it is insignificant compared to the huge benefits it brings to China and even the entire mankind. Climate change is not only the most important issue facing a country and society, but also a major challenge facing all mankind at present and in the future. This is becoming the consensus of all parties. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, melting of glaciers and ice floes, and a sharp increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather (often manifested by storms, droughts, and the resulting increasing emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane) All show that the problem we are facing is no longer the prevention of climate change, because climate change has already occurred. We are facing the risk of irreversibly becoming a “greenhouse world”, and this situation is not far away, perhaps only a few decades.
1. Climate governance is urgent
Although the impact of climate change on different regions and people is not the same (some regions and people will be affected earlier and more severely), after the risk of nuclear war, climate change has now become an important issue threatening the security of all mankind. . Of course, the impact of climate change goes far beyond that. As many people have pointed out, before the middle of the 20th century, mankind did not need to worry too much or even worry about being affected by future generations. The normal practice is to ignore the worry about the future. Many people believe that “the ship will go straight to the bridgehead”, and given the continuous advancement of technology and material conditions, future generations can also bear the burden of their predecessors and support themselves. But after the middle of the 20th century, mankind has developed the ability to destroy itself and the earth. This ability first appeared in the form of nuclear weapons, and then in various other forms, including climate change. This issue brings with it an obvious risk, enough to obliterate the survival and development potential of countless future generations and their civilizations. Therefore, the burden of preventing species extinction inevitably falls on the shoulders of contemporary people. And as long as all human beings and species live together on one planet, the important task will continue. Climate change is a problem that needs to be solved as soon as possible, because the cost and difficulty of climate governance will rise with the increase in global temperature, and may reach a certain critical point. Once the tipping point is reached, humans will have no choice but to try to adapt to greenhouse life. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change in 2021 clearly warns of this urgency.
However, there is still a leadership vacuum in climate governance. The United States is torn apart on this issue, and its two major political parties have serious differences of opinion, and are unable to formulate or maintain continuity policies between the Democratic and Republican governments. Because the domestic economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuel exports, Russia has a negative attitude. The EU wants to play a leading role, but it does not yet have enough political power to assume this role alone. India and many southern countries around the world are stuck in the mindset of supporting “common but differentiated responsibilities”, trying to make Western countries pay for the air pollution left over from history, while delaying fulfilling their own responsibilities for current greenhouse gas emissions. Human beings are all on the same “ship” named “Earth”. Water has already started to accumulate in the “ship” (in certain areas). It may be unwise to refuse to repair the loopholes or extend a helping hand. It’s even catastrophic.
Some scholars believe that China has so far been more inclined to support the position of the countries of the global South in emphasizing “common but differentiated responsibilities” and the right to development. Although people have not generally realized the connection between the use of fossil fuels and the earth’s climate change until recent decades, the above-mentioned views still have a certain moral rationale. Of course, although China is still a major consumer of fossil fuels and its consumption is still increasing, China has made major adjustments to its domestic policies and is in a leading position in the development of green energy such as wind, solar, and nuclear energy. China has pledged to strive to reach the peak of carbon emissions by 2030, strive to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and start its carbon trading plan in 2021. For a long time, China has always believed that the right to development takes precedence over tackling climate change, which has restricted China’s ability to cut coal consumption more quickly. If we regard climate change as an opportunity, we will have new opportunities after adjusting our views and strategies. The international community should have full confidence in China’s existing climate commitments to promote green, low-carbon, and sustainable development.
2. Golden Opportunity
If China seizes the opportunity, it will have an excellent opportunity to contribute to its own country and all mankind. Judging from the status quo of the international community, the leadership role in the field of climate change is absent. Most environmental powers are either unwilling or unable to assume this role. China can take critical steps in time, and China is fully qualified to take the more urgent actions called by the IPCC seriously. China can not only lead this forward-looking important issue, but also serve the people all over the world. 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, and perhaps there is no better centennial gift than this.
First, China has the ability to achieve this goal in a way that the United States, Russia, India, and the European Union do not have. China has vigorously promoted environmental protection policies at home, and has the financial and technical capabilities to accelerate the realization of the promised economic decarbonization target. If China can be backed by action and use the severity and urgency of climate change as its discourse framework, even a slight acceleration of existing commitments will bring about huge and positive symbolic effects. At the same time, the tasks to be completed in the environmental field will also give full play to China’s advantages in engineering, infrastructure, and supervision.
The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy can be achieved either by increasing investment, or by discouraging provinces and cities from continuing to build fossil fuel power plants. At the same time, China can do more to curb methane emissions from industry and agriculture (as highlighted in the IPCC 2021 report) and to comprehensively improve the country’s energy efficiency (including responses to existing buildings and the construction of new “green cities”). More and better. Such measures can give full play to China’s political mobilization capabilities, and to a large extent can lead economic development better than other countries. In the “14th Five-Year Plan”, China is intensifying its macroeconomic regulation and control, which not only involves intensifying the regulation of large enterprises, but also involves priority attention to social equity and national security. The author believes that on this basis, we can also increase the macro-control on provincial-level localities. Responding to climate change issues is in line with the goals of social equity and national security, especially in responding to large-scale emergencies brought about by climate change, which can fully reflect the country’s advantages in economic leadership. To achieve the above plan, China can formulate specific steps and timetables for the 2030 and 2060 goals.
In terms of philosophy, the urgency of tackling climate change fits well with China’s contemporary and traditional values. This will inject rich content into the concept of a “community with a shared future for mankind” advocated by China. The same is true for the traditional Chinese concept of “Tianxia”. As a unique traditional Chinese concept, “Tianxia” may be the first time that people think about climate change as a powerful analytical framework. After all, climate change threatens “everything under heaven” in a very profound and comprehensive way, which is difficult to describe and analyze with the Western concept of international relations. This political approach to climate change is also in line with Yan Xuetong’s “benevolent way” and “kingly way”, and his views are also borrowed from Chinese classical thought.
Second, it is in China’s direct interest to accelerate actions to address global climate change. China is not immune to the consequences of climate change. The north is prone to drought and the south is prone to waterlogging. Coastal areas are prone to disasters caused by rising sea levels. Several major cities in China, especially Shanghai, are located on fragile deltas just like major cities in the world such as Mumbai, London, New York and Boston. Although China can solve its own local environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, without coordinated global action, it will not be able to cope with such a huge challenge as climate change.
Third, it concerns China’s long-term political interests, that is, China can improve its political status in the international community and further prove the superiority of the political system. This is because China has risen in the international society dominated by the West, so it has to play a defensive role in the international society for a long time, and protect itself with the help of sovereignty, “non-interference principle” and “Chinese characteristics” concepts. The uniqueness of politics and culture. In recent decades, China has achieved great success in creating wealth and enhancing strength, and it has become more and more confident in advocating the possible benefits of its own political and economic model for other developing countries. To a certain extent, climate change is the ideal topic to further promote this proposition. On the one hand, it demonstrates the ability of a country and the economy to respond to major threats for specific purposes; on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, it can demonstrate the ability of a country to think and plan in the long run. Because of short-term considerations of politics (focusing on the next election) and profit (focusing on shareholders’ requirements for returns), Western countries often find it difficult to achieve this, and this defect has been fully manifested in the response to climate change. Although they have responded to the IPCC’s growing call, their actions have been extremely slow. In contrast, from the perspective of the nature of governance, the Communist Party of China has a longer-term governance mindset. The Communist Party of China has developed a sustainable, predictable and stable governance system in the process of constantly adapting to changes in the domestic and international environment and the integration of the regime. It is precisely because China is in this governance system that it has both the responsibility and the need to look at climate change from a long-term perspective. Therefore, China has sufficient advantages to construct intergenerational responsibility as an important part of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and can make it a value shared by all mankind. As mentioned above, cultivating and strengthening the sense of responsibility that can connect the present and future generations will be the key to addressing the challenge of climate change.
Fourth, if China develops in this positive direction both in words and actions, the impact on the rest of the world will far exceed its efforts. The author pointed out in other articles that the international order is rapidly shifting from the Western-centrism order that dominated the 19th and 20th centuries to the post-Western “deeply pluralistic” order. Deep pluralism refers to the wider dispersion of wealth, power, political and cultural authority. In this order, the Western world has not disappeared, but will become one of several centers in an increasingly decentralized international society. Unfortunately, this deep and pluralistic order is currently developing more in a competitive rather than coordinated manner. The most obvious is the increasingly fierce competition between China and the United States. The author believes that this kind of competition is very unfortunate for the stability and management of the international community, but it does create opportunities for China to lead the solution of climate change issues. Because of this competition, China is in a favorable position that can bring a powerful demonstration effect to the global South and Western countries. If China takes the lead, other countries are likely to follow suit. The EU may follow gratefully, because it has finally found a partner who values its position enough. The United States will be forced to do so because it may not be able to accept the reality of being surpassed by China in this area. Of course, China needs to be cautious in its rhetoric and discourse so that climate change actions become part of the political system competition. If China can include climate change and sustainable development standards in the “Belt and Road” initiative, this will encourage and help countries in the global South to make more efforts to reduce their own emissions, and enable the United States to choose to either keep up with this standard or be Left behind. In this regard, China needs to accelerate its export transformation to the global South, that is, from exporting products based on fossil energy to products based on renewable energy. Obviously, if China plays a meaningful and solid leadership role, it will also benefit from the synergies, thereby prompting the world to better respond to the IPCC’s urgent appeal. It can be seen that leadership in the field of climate change is relatively easy to obtain, and it will not threaten anyone except some major exporters of fossil fuels.
Opportunities are often accompanied by costs, but if handled properly, some costs may also turn into opportunities. The decarbonization of the Chinese economy and trade with other countries are the most obvious costs. This transition to sustainable development must be carried out in a way that does not interrupt China’s development plan. China’s policy of reducing its dependence on fossil fuels has been introduced, so this is not a matter of principle, but a matter of policy implementation, that is, how to promote and accelerate the implementation of the policy, and at the same time, it must be linked to major changes in China’s diplomatic and wording stance. . China needs to show what it is doing, what it will do, and what new measures it will add to its existing commitments in order to greatly increase the priority of climate change in a global issue of a common destiny. It is not difficult to construct a change in wording and position. Of course, China also needs to adjust its current positioning, that is, it can decouple the problem areas marked by cooperation from the problem areas marked by competition, so that cooperation in areas such as climate change can be promoted, because It will have a major impact on the development trajectory of Sino-US bilateral relations and global interests. China needs to think deeply about where it can reduce emissions at the fastest speed and at the lowest cost. Although China’s efforts to reduce its dependence on fossil energy have been limited in the past, there will certainly be considerable room for improvement in the future, and these may have a significant symbolic impact.
China has fully demonstrated its ability to carry out large-scale and rapid changes in transportation, housing, and industry. As long as China is determined and prioritizes its commitments, it can be fully imagined that China has a way to accelerate the conversion from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Few countries can “concentrate power to do big things” like China. If other countries witness China’s actions, that is, a lot of extra effort to achieve the goal, the impact of related actions will expand.
Three, generalization and induction
The policy change proposed by the author includes two parts, one is declarative and discourse, and the other is practical and substantive. First, China needs to raise and strengthen its declaration of important concerns about global climate change. In the future, policies related to climate change can also be more closely integrated with the concept of sustainable development, and become a path with Chinese characteristics to address the threat of climate change. The concept of sustainable development has been widely supported in the international community, and the inclusion of the concept of “development” will help avoid a zero-sum game between development and the protection of the earth’s environment. Strengthening the declaration should also reflect the responsibilities of contemporary people to future generations. If handled properly, this will give China a unique propaganda advantage, which can further prove that its own political system is more capable of serving the people than other countries. Second, in order for the wording of the declaration to be supported by practice, China must strictly control the standards for measuring its own commitments and take concrete actions. In practice, it is particularly necessary to combine declarations and actions flexibly, so that they can jointly constitute a convincing driving force—promoting the United States and other environmental powers and countries in the global South to support China’s initiatives. To formulate the action of this plan, it is particularly necessary to think carefully. China is far from the only country facing difficult choices in tackling climate change without compromising its own development. If China has the courage to respond to the threat of climate change with this attitude, it will be able to seize the precious opportunity to show the world that China, as a major country, can surpass its own interests and represent the grand global vision of all mankind.
China’s verbal announcements and diplomatic actions regarding the policies that will be introduced in the future can be presented in a variety of ways, and thus can clearly compete with Western countries in highlighting the priority of climate change issues. This action can be implemented unilaterally, that is, China can use its status as a major power on climate change issues to improve its own standards and performance, and use this as a challenge to the United States’ major power responsibilities and good governance. This will include challenging the entire Western countries, especially the United States, about how these countries should respond to the growing threat of climate change that they individually or jointly face. The specific content of the challenge will be to formulate and achieve (or exceed) a series of specific targets aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. If China is more inclined to competition (rather than hostility), then the competition seeking to mitigate climate change will be safer, more active, and more constructive than competition in the field of military technology and actual deployment. This will be a non-violent competition to test the quality of different government systems in dealing with mass crises.
Alternatively, China can also focus on functional areas and promote international cooperation through the COP process. This will become a major diplomatic activity. China will lead by example to help and encourage other countries to take on more responsibilities to contain the imminent threat to all mankind. The key to this is that for those countries that are least able to afford the cost of large-scale adaptation to climate change, reducing the threat is the most effective way to solve the problem. The above-mentioned course of action shows that even if there are huge cultural and ideological differences among major powers, the pluralist (or “multipolar”) global order can support cooperation in common, functional areas. This is exactly what China’s foreign policy advocates. . It can be said that climate change is an almost ideal topic for achieving this kind of cooperation. This is not the only threat facing mankind as a community with a shared future. There are still common threats like the global economy, epidemics, network security, and nuclear proliferation. However, in a deeply diversified international society, the space for cooperation in these areas is much smaller, because they may have been partially or fully “weaponized” in the context of Sino-US competition. Climate change has nothing to do with ideological or cultural differences. It is difficult to be weaponized. The threat posed by it is structural. This threat not only exists now, but will still exist in the foreseeable future.
These two options are not mutually exclusive. They can have various combinations, and these combinations need to coordinate the government’s priority goals to complete. Such huge and attractive opportunities are rare in the field of international politics, and such opportunities have high returns, relatively low costs, and low risk of conflicts. China is by far the country most capable of seizing this opportunity. If it can, China will win the respect and gratitude of the international community.