Climate change

As the US dithers, China cements its climate leadership role, opening up green opportunities for Hong Kong

Christine Loh says with China playing a transformational role in uniting nations against global warming, Hong Kong has the chance to become its green, low-carbon vanguard, with partners in the Greater Bay Area

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 11:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 7:13pm

China’s increasing presence on the international stage was obvious at the just-concluded climate change talks in Bonn, Germany. The journey to playing a decisive role could be said to have started in 2009, at the annual UN governmental climate change meetings in Copenhagen, where differences in views and distrust between developed and developing nations nearly led to the total collapse of negotiations.

The resultant accord was a face-saving device for all. A new approach, and much better preparation, was clearly needed for future negotiations.

The post-conference assessment by the Chinese team was that China needed to play a greater role in international climate diplomacy, as well as strengthen plans to cut domestic carbon emissions, so that it could not be blamed for not doing enough as the world’s largest emitter.

China played a determining role in the run-up to, and during, meetings in Paris in 2015 that led to the now famous Paris agreement. The world finally agreed to keep global temperature rises this century to within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.

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Negotiations ahead of 2015 focused on building trust and consensus among countries with very different circumstances. China and the US, who together account for 40 per cent of global carbon emissions, worked together in a display of leadership that helped persuade others to commit to specific emission-reduction plans.

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The new approach was a success, as proven by the rapid ratification in 2016 of the Paris agreement. Despite the Donald Trump administration triggering the long process of US withdrawal from the agreement on August 4 – to take effect in November 2020 – China has made it clear it will continue to drive international cooperation.

While the US presidency dithers on climate science, Chinese President Xi Jinping has emphasised that no country can afford to retreat into self-imposed isolation and that China would continue to lead.

The Bonn meetings underlined the importance of the world going “further, faster, together” – as their theme went – on fighting climate change. Countries signed up for further dialogue in 2018 to review the progress in implementation of emission-reduction plans, so there could be a chance for additional negotiations, since the committed plans are insufficient to meet the Paris agreement’s temperature limits.

Moreover, the dialogue starting early next year will be informed by an expected new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN’s expert authority on climate science, which will no doubt emphasise the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, as well as the need for countries to adapt to a changing climate that brings about severe weather events, such as the devastating cyclones and hurricanes this year in North America and Asia.

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For sure, China will continue to play a key role. With the emphasis at the 19th party congress last month placed on meeting climate targets, China can be expected to move ahead faster on both the domestic and international fronts.

It will continue with its transition to lower carbon emissions domestically, through better energy efficiency, reducing the percentage of coal in its energy mix, pushing technological development, transforming its financial system to raise funds for this “brown to green” transition, and improving enforcement.

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At the same time, China has indicated a new approach in its overseas investment to respect the environment.

Hong Kong should take advantage of China’s climate leadership to collaborate with Guangdong province for the Greater Bay Area ,to adopt ambitious plans for low-carbon, smart living, and to stake a claim to become a green finance hub for the mainland, as well as Asia at large.

Christine Loh is an adjunct professor at the Institute for the Environment at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology