December 13, 2016 1:33 pm JST

China ready for climate leadership says UN

Beijing forced to change tack by environmental side-effects of industrialization

PETER GUEST, Contributing writer

From Norway to the world: Eric Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Programme. (Photo by Peter Guest)

SINGAPORE -- In December 2015, negotiators emerged exhausted but triumphant from all-night negotiations in Paris with an ambitious global climate change treaty. Buoyed by an uncharacteristically sympathetic U.S. administration and a willing Chinese government, traditionally progressive countries got a deal that committed its signatories to reduce carbon emissions to avert catastrophic climate change.

It was a high point after years of stalemate. A year on, the election of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump -- who has stated on several occasions that he does not believe in man-made climate change, and will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement -- has stunned the international community.

Eric Solheim, a former leader of Norway's Socialist Left party who took over as head of the United Nations Environment Programme in June, is one of those tasked with rallying climate change campaigners demoralized by America's dramatic reversal.

"I think [the process] is much more resilient than people thought, because the entire rest of the world is moving ahead," Solheim said in an interview on the sidelines of the U.N.'s Responsible Business Forum in Singapore.

Earlier that day he had delivered a rousing speech to the conference in which he had largely avoided the topic of America's president-elect, instead choosing to focus on positive examples of multilateral progress on environmental issues such as acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer.

That progress, however, was built on the kind of consensus that Trump has threatened to unwind, and on leadership from the developed world. For example, it was Europe, the U.S. and Canada that used their collective market power in the 1990s to ban the use of environmentally-damaging chlorofluorocarbons in the manufacture of many products worldwide.

With populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic calling for more focus on immediate self-interest, and the election of a U.S. president who once called climate change a Chinese plot, a degree of fatalism has crept into public discussions on the subject.

Solheim believes that this pessimism is misplaced, and that the old narrative -- that European or North American leadership is needed to drive action on global issues -- no longer holds. China, now the world's largest carbon emitter, is prepared to lead on climate change, he said.

"I think China has changed a lot more than people think. It may be true that 10 years back you needed the European Union to lead. But China has now stepped forward to provide global leadership in many areas," Solheim said.

"Deng Xiaoping once wrote that China should hide its capabilities and bide its time, but China cannot any longer hide its capacities, nor can it bide its time. China is needed for any global issue, whether it's trade, disarmament, peace, or environment. They understand the step up."

Time is not on the world's side. In November, the World Meteorological Organization said that 2016 is likely to be the hottest year on record, at 1.2C above pre-industrial levels. The Paris agreement commits governments to try to limit global warming to 1.5C.

Temperatures in some parts of the Arctic have been measured at several degrees above average, and a November report from the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, found that the region's climate is changing at an alarming rate.

Clogged and polluted

Although the challenge is global, the drivers for Beijing's action on the environment are principally domestic, Solheim said. The country's dramatic economic growth has left its cities clogged and polluted, while there are real concerns over the sustainability of its water-use for agriculture and industry.

"Whenever I have a conversation with people in the big cities in China, it's more or less always the same. I say: 'You must be so lucky, there is enormous progress since Deng Xiaoping started his reforms in China, the most rapid economic progress of any people anywhere in history,'" Solheim said. "But then they will say: 'Yes, I'm happy with that, but I want to see the sun. I don't want my children to experience this pollution.'"

The direct and visible side effects of China's industrial development have had a profound impact on its domestic and international policy, according to Dabo Guan, professor of climate economics at the University of East Anglia, and an expert on China's environmental politics. "Air pollution, water pollution, all the other environmental crises that China faces now, will require them to move their economy to a cleaner, low carbon economy," Guan said.

China is in the midst of a transition away from reliance on heavy industry and toward a more balanced, higher technology economy. The country has already become a world leader in the manufacture of solar panels, driving down costs to the point where many economists believe they will soon be competitive as an energy source with carbon-based fuels -- perhaps even with cheap coal.

As Haoliang Xu, assistant secretary general of the U.N. and director of the regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific of the U.N. Development Programme, said: "Economic basics will induce countries to go for greener production of energy and economy. Anyone who does not recognize this kind of change, and continues to go for coal-based technologies, they will just be driven out of the market."

That move away from polluting, carbon-intensive industry presents enormous opportunities for China's private sector, according to Alan Li, CEO of China Merchants New Energy, a clean energy subsidiary of China Merchants Group, a sprawling state-owned conglomerate.

"A new era is coming," Li said. "It's the entire replacement of the old economics with the low-carbon economics. The new economy will be as big as the old economy, or even bigger."

Li believes that this compelling commercial prospect could bring the U.S. president-elect around to the idea that climate change is an opportunity, not simply a cost.

"I think Trump is a businessman," Li said. "If the new era is coming, that means a lot of opportunities will come. Why would you refuse that business?"

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