Climate and Energy

China faces questions over double standards on climate commitments

Beijing's commitments to tackling emissions at home overshadowed by investments overseas

Despite big commitments made inside the boundaries of the venue, China could not avoid questions at the COP21 in Paris over environmental double standards – on the one hand reducing emissions with green policies at home, whilst on the other expanding the range of high-carbon projects in Latin America.

The Chinese government’s approach to climate seems almost unrecognisable compared to how it was in Copenhagen in 2009. Since then, the country emerged as a leader in climate diplomacy and one of the main protagonists pushing for the global climate deal that was reached on Saturday. However, this change has coincided with an huge increase in mining, oil and transport infrastructure projects in Latin America.

“China has a growing carbon footprint in the region and throughout the world. If it really wants to do something about climate change, then its investment portfolio should reflect this. It needs a coherent focus,” said Mariana Panuncio, Latin America director of WWF. “But there are two parties to agreements, Latin America also accepts what China proposes,” Panuncio told Diálogo Chino.

In a show of commitment by China to reach a climate deal, President Xi Jinping attended the opening of the climate summit, the first time a head of state (rather than a prime minister) has participated. At the same time, Xi and the Chinese delegation spoke less about China’s supposed right to underpin economic development with high-polluting technologies, the path set out by the US and EU.

China’s 13th Five-year plan that will cover the period from 2016-2020, suggests that the country will head in low-carbon direction in the next few years. Between 2005 and 2014 China’s energy consumption per unit of GDP fell by around 30% and its carbon emissions fell relative to the size of the economy by a similar amount. Alongside Barack Obama at the APEC summit in Beijing last year, Xi also announced that emissions would peak in 2030.

That promise created an air of optimism at the COP, with many countries subscribing to the idea that if China can do it, everyone can. But NGOs think this optimism is based on false arguments, given the high emissions and environmental impacts of the big projects China is supporting in Latin America. China’s special climate envoy Gao Feng initially avoided a question by Diálogo Chino about China’s contrasting positions on the environment at home and abroad, first passing the the microphone to a South African delegate but eventually responding.

“I’ve heard these commentaries, they’re not positive. If you carry out a big project in any part of the world, it’s going to generate emissions and cause pollution. It’s impossible to have zero emissions,” Gao said at a press conference, before adding; “we want to make to progress in this area and that’s why we’re working on South-South cooperation. We want to push more green projects in Latin America,” Goa said.

China effectively confirmed that it won’t contribute to the Green Climate Fund and will focus its efforts on the South-South Cooperation Fund, an initiative aimed at helping developing countries to reduce their emissions.

China pledged to give US$ 3billion to the fund, which it will compliment with other cooperation initiatives as of next year. But that’s not enough for green groups, who fiercely questioned the Chinese-backed projects in Latin America during the climate conference, including at the Environmental Tribunal for the Rights of Nature.

Environmental shift

According to the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), China is classified as a developing country, and as such is not obliged to report on its greenhouse gas emissions with the same regularity as industrialised countries such as the US and the EU.

China, the world’s largest emitter, has only produced two national communications on climate change to the UN since 1992 which detail emissions and strategies on how to bring emissions down. The last report was from 2012 but uses data from 2005.

China is responsible for 27% of the world’s GHG emissions, so greater compromise on its climate position will be an important element in the Paris agreement. It is already the country that invests most in renewable energy. But the lack of emissions data has been questioned by developed countries, who are demanding more transparency.

China’s influence in Latin America has grown considerably in the last decade, mainly through importing the region’s commodities and exporting manufactured goods. This increase trade has been accompanied by strategic alliances with many countries on energy and infrastructure projects, many of which concern environmentalists.

According to estimations from the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, every year since 2005 China has committed an average of US$ 10billion in foreign direct investment to the region. However, this is principally linked to projects that exploit mineral resources in the region, especially the oil and gas and mining sectors in Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Chile and Ecuador.