Climate change action in China is "about science and not politics"

After COP24, there are big questions remaining about the global response to climate change. DW spoke with Li Shuo, who coordinated Greenpeace’s engagement on the UN climate negotiations, about China’s important role.

The truth is never black or white. You see on the one hand that China is the biggest developer of new energy. On the other hand China is investing in fossil fuel infrastructure all over the world. The science is clear, we have 12 years to cut back global greenhouse gas emissions. That does not allow any more space for coal-fired power plants. The Chinese government needs to hear that message and needs to reverse its course on the Belt and Road initiative in terms of fossil fuel infrastructure investment.

Are there climate skeptics in the Chinese government, as in the US?

I think whether they believe it or not, climate science is abundantly clear. We need to get global greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030 or the middle of the century. In many other countries, the climate issue is a political issue. But in China it is not a polarized issue. We don’t need to start a climate conversation from science 101 basic science. So that is very different from the US situation. I think the Chinese decision makers understand the science very clearly, and there is no one that would be considered seriously if they were questioning or doubting climate science bodies.

The sustainable driving force that I see in the next few years or decades in order for China to continue and double down on climate action is actually domestic interest. It is abundantly clear that we need to gradually shift away from our coal dependence. It has already generated tremendous air pollution and has huge implications for water. For its own interest China should continue developing climate action.

Is there a “coal culture” in China?

Regarding coal culture, it is similar to West Virginia in the US – we have our West Virginias in China, we have our Polands in China. This is in the middle part of the country, where the local economy heavily depends on coal mining and there are generations and generations of coal miners concentrated there.

How would “coal culture” affect the removal of fossil fuel from China’s energy profile?

I think those communities gradually realize that coal is not the future, although coal consumption has been growing by double digits over the past two decades. However, we have hit the tipping point already and coal consumption is plateauing and as a result of that, there is less demand for coal mining. So a lot of those communities are now suffering.

Where does the role of Chinese civil society come in? With lack of transparency, how can a climate-friendly message be communicated to communities that depend on coal?

I think the market is already conveying that message – that the country doesn’t need that much coal and that it drives the price down. A lot of those communities are suffering economically. So they realize that it is not sustainable in the long run to rely just on coal mining. A lot of those communities are trying to diversify. It is not an easy process, but I think a lot of them are embarking on a transition away from coal.

Did China play a constructive role this year at COP24?

I think the rule book will never be finalized without China’s support. The underlying politics behind the rule book is the politics of differentiation and flexibility. I think it is a huge step forward that we now have a solid rule book, with common rules, transparency and review.

That is a huge step forward from the current climate regime that we have. So it is a valuable achievement in the current turbulent geopolitical field.

I think we should give them and all the countries that participated in the recent COP24 in Poland negotiations credit. However, I think on the other hand we need to realize that we have a fundamental ambition deficit. Again, we are heading for a 3.4 degree warmer world and even if we only see a 1.5 degree rise, it will have serious consequences.

What would the consequences be for China with temperature rise?

If we shoot up to 2 degrees, that means that all the glaciers in the western part of China will be gone. It is as simple and as dramatic as that, and I don’t think a situation like that is in China’s interest. So it is imperative for China and all the other countries to take climate action.

The outcome from here is not sufficient in our view. I think all the countries should go home, do their homework and prepare to announce their highest ambitions next year in September at the UN Secretary General’s climate summit.

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