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President Xi Jinping’s speech at the start of the Paris climate summit on Nov 30 was the most anticipated of the entire event. This was due not only to the commitments already made by the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but more importantly came from the anticipation of Xi articulating China’s new role in global climate governance.
The ambitious message was reinforced, and to a certain degree even summarized, the next day by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who said: “Paris is not Copenhagen, and China now has a new, more proactive role to play in the world.”
Indeed, the Paris conference, known as COP21, has become China’s climate moment, its opportunity to help usher in a new era of global governance, one in which climate change is arguably the most pressing challenge.
The 2009 meeting in Copenhagen was widely seen in the West as a failure, and China was often blamed as the primary culprit. Many still recall the dramatic diplomacy between the world’s two top emitters leading up to the conference.
At the start of 2009, newly inaugurated US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Beijing with only one stated theme: US-China cooperation on climate change and clean energy. Then, in the middle of the year, a distinguished cavalcade of US leaders arrived in the Chinese capital: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who led a five-member delegation from Congress; the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry; two Chinese-American members of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate, and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.
They had all come to China to discuss bilateral cooperation on the same issue. Finally, at the end of the year and less than three weeks before the Copenhagen summit, Obama himself visited Beijing, and once again climate and energy were the highlight of bilateral agreements.
Yet, in retrospect, the results of those exchanges were dwarfed by the unprecedented degree of high-profile diplomacy. Indeed, well before its negotiators and politicians even walked into the Bella Center, China was already in the spotlight on climate change, and often in an unfavorable and even unfair light. Therefore, Wang Yi is right in saying Paris is not Copenhagen.
A year ago, China and the United States surprised the world by signing the Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy. One major reason for its importance is that China, for the first time, committed to a target of absolute emissions control, something that had been demanded by developed countries for years. Under the agreement, China also committed to increasing its share of nonfossil fuels use to 20 percent of total primary energy consumption, which means that it must increase its power generation capacity by 1,000 gigawatts – equivalent to the generation capacity of the United States – over the next 15 years.
Vowing to build the largest low-carbon economy in the world, China has been leading the world in clean-energy investment since Copenhagen and now contributes 30 percent of the world’s share of clean-energy finance.
Two months before the Paris meeting, Xi announced, in another joint presidential statement with Obama, that China would build the world’s largest nationwide carbon market by 2017 – this despite the fact the West has never recognized China’s status as a “market economy” in trade-related negotiations.
Furthermore, in the year leading up to Paris, China has signed a number of bilateral and multilateral agreements on climate change and clean energy, including with Germany, France, the United Kingdom and India. No other country has achieved a similar level of success in climate and clean energy diplomacy.
Considering the slow progress in international negotiations on climate finance, China has stepped up to the plate, and in a big way. First, it doubled its contribution to the South-South Climate Cooperation Fund last year, and recently it pledged 20 billion yuan ($3.1 billion; 2.9 billion euros) to further low-carbon initiatives in developing countries. For a country in which per-capita GDP is still a fraction of the US level, this shows a remarkable level of commitment to solving a global problem.
Only a decade ago, Robert Zoellick, a former US deputy secretary of state and World Bank president, exhorted China to be a more “responsible stakeholder” in the global system. With regard to climate change, and under the leadership of Xi, that is exactly what has been happening.
In previous years, some Western negotiators – half-jokingly and half-mockingly – nicknamed the Chinese climate negotiator “Mr No” for his consistent rejections of Western proposals. Today, China has given a resounding “yes” to climate leadership, demonstrating through actions that it is both willing and capable of building global governance.
From Copenhagen to Paris, China’s role in global climate governance has changed: from a seemingly passive participant to a proactive builder. Underlying this transition is the vision of a more inclusive system of international cooperation.
China’s new leadership has been advocating a vision of human beings as a community with a common destiny. Xi has stressed the need to recognize that all people and countries face common challenges, and through their actions will arrive at a common fate.
In the 21st century, the world will succeed or fail together. On no issue has this been more evident than on climate change, and nowhere has Xi’s leadership of China been more important at the global level.
This piece was originally published by China Daily.