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  • 13 Dec, 2022
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                                    This article was originally published in 

China is the leader of the developing world. So China says. China speaks up for all developing countries, from Cairo to Capetown,  Manila to Mexico, Hanoi to Hyderabad. China demands the rich countries do more to help the poor. On climate, China loudly demands the rich countries  pay trillions of dollars to poorer countries to compensate for all the loss and damage caused by a rapidly heating climate.

Yet China remains by far the world’s biggest polluter, biggest greenhouse gas emitter, biggest user of raw materials from around the world, all enabling China to be the world’s factory, selling to the world everything manufactured from those globally sourced raw materials, made with all that pollution, sold globally  as China’s  great gift to the world.

Although compensation for loss and damage is top of the agenda at the COP27 climate talks in Egypt, China refuses to be part of any loss and damage payments, and insists its emissions will continue to rise until 2030, and only then gradually start to decline. That gives China more years of rising pollution at a time when everyone else is trying to reduce emissions. The scientists say effective action must be taken before 2030 if we, as a planet, are to avoid climate heating spiralling out of control. Yet China continues to build more and more coal fired power stations.

China’s ever rising emissions could cancel out the efforts of the rest of the world to reduce emissions within this crucial decade, before it is too late.

In Tibet, China sees an abundant source of hydro power, solar power, wind power, oil and gas, all to be exported to the heavy industrial users of lowland China. In Tibet the climate is warming faster than most,  as the jet stream in the upper atmosphere diverts around the plateau, which is such a massive island in the sky that it affects even the jet stream. Globally, the increasingly common droughts, forest fires, also extreme downpours and floods are intensified by the increasing meandering of the jet stream. Yet China sees only a payoff, a dividend it collects as the Tibetan Plateau gets wetter and warmer, its glaciers melt, the great rivers of Tibet increase streamflow, and China benefits.

That is one among many reasons why China has lost interest in environment, beyond repeating platitudes which are usually about how it is up to everyone else to fess up and pay up. Environment turns out to have been a luxury issue, for the good times. No longer is China experiencing those good times when all that seemed to matter was fine tuning those global supply chains that ensured timely delivery of African raw commodities to Chines ports, and ships laden with Chinese manufactured products going back to Africa. That globalised, just-in-time, seamlessly connected logistical value chain is faltering. China’s economy is faltering, investors are pulling out their capital, the Belt and Road no longer finances big infrastructure projects in Africa, there aren’t enough jobs for graduates of China’s universities, drought has hit hydro electricity generation, energy shortages, rigid pandemic lockdowns and American sanctions cripple production. Suddenly, nothing that seemed certain is certain any longer. 

All that is solid melts into the rapidly heating air

Xi Jinping was crowned emperor a third time in October 2022, probably for life, just as these polycrises were boiling up. While he effortlessly purged all competitors within the Chinese Communist Party, and the highly scripted coronation stuck to the script, the vista ahead is  complex, contradictory and full of risks. In these circumstances environment, and especially effective climate action, are luxuries that can be forgotten. There is just too much else to do, starting with urgently building more and more coal fired power stations, and turning Tibet -China’s far west- into a giant solar and wind power generating and electricity exporting zone.

A measure of how quickly Xi Jinping’s problems have multiplied and metastasized is in the new meaning of one of his favourite  phrases, that the world is in the midst of “great changes unseen in a century”, 百年未有之大变局, bÇŽinián wèi yÇ’u zhÄ« dà biànjú. Xi invoked this historic phrase often, signalling his special ability to recognise China’s big moment has arrived, and he knows how to masterfully take full advantage of new opportunities.  It signals the end of humiliation by foreign imperialists, the passing of China under Mao standing up and under Deng growing rich. It signals the dawn of a new era of strength, with Xi at the helm.

Despite the gnomic, enigmatic nature of this slogan, everyone understood it optimistically, as intended. One of the very best of Sinologists, Rush Doshi, built an entire 2021 book, of great depth, framed by this phrase.(1) The book came out as newly-elected Joe Biden took the US Presidency, and Doshi was promptly recruited to the Biden China team, a smart choice.

Yet less than two years later, as 2022 ends,  “great changes unseen in a century” now signify the myriad risks and threats facing China and Xi’s new era, too many to explore here beyond a quick list. Domestically a disgruntled newly rich middle class no longer allowed to pay for their child to be crammed with competitive advantage by exam cram tutoring, no longer getting richer because their real estate investments only go up and up; a disgruntled working class tired of being treated as expendable factory fodder and gig workers doing bullshit precariat jobs; a disgruntled peasantry lagging further and further behind the wealth concentrated in cities, unable to legally stay in cities or bring their child to a city school, or elderly parents to a city hospital because of the endless cruelty of the hukou household registration system. Globally, governments are getting tougher on China’s human rights record, theft of intellectual property, subsidies to China’s national champion corporations, rapacious harvesting of the world’s oceans, tropical rainforests and rare wildlife, and much more.

China’s response to the dangers of those “great changes unseen in a century” is to intensify securitisation, doubling down on surveillance, lockdowns, grid management, predictive policing and the top-level design that supposedly handles, in real time, the torrents of data in order to identify the security threats, triggering immediate policing. This securitisation of everything only alarms the rest of the world more, and the “great changes unseen in a century” only get more unfavourable to the Xi new era. 

The phrase has come full circle. Xi Jinping borrowed it from Li Hongzhang, 150 years ago, for whom it summed up the urgency of responding to the 1860s threat to China, and the urgency of modernisation.  Xi Jinping reversed its emotional valence, from great danger to great opportunity, but now it again signifies danger. This is a major reason central leaders now have more pressing concerns than ecological civilisation.

This doesn’t mean China will stop talking about climate, biodiversity and environment. Talk is cheap. It’s the action on the ground that is now missing.

China’s talk is always that climate change is not China’s fault, nor is China responsible for the loss and damage due to climate change, not even in its close ally Pakistan, where extreme weather recently flooded  tens of millions of people out of their homes. China’s primary message is encoded in its key phrase: “common but differentiated responsibilities.”  China’s diplomats have worked relentlessly for over a decade to get this slogan inserted into UN statements and treaty negotiations, with much success. In practice, what this means is that it is entirely up to the richest countries to finance global climate adaptation, mitigation, mass migrations forced by climate extremes, and compensation for loss and damage. That is the differentiated responsibility of the richest countries.

Meanwhile China will continue to aid countries of the global South, especially if it  enhances China’s exports of electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels, hydro dams and the power grids needed to get the electricity they generate to market. These are all industries China’s dominates, and they all rely on sourcing key raw materials from Africa, and from Tibet.

China presents this as benevolent South-South cooperation, nothing to do with loss and damage compensation. China is generously sharing its dominant technologies and the global South should be grateful.

The COP27 global leaders gathering in Egypt to decide the future of our plant is in its last days, due to end on 18 November. These are the last days of negotiations which have failed to finance the transition to a decarbonised future, failed to slow climate warming below a point where it all goes out of control. In these last days there is not enough focus on any long term concerns, including climate change, wildlife extinctions and the world’s wetlands, because the powerful people with the loudest voices as usual are focussed only on the short term.

China says it is the great failure of democracy that short term always wins out over long term. But China now faces many immediate and short term challenges, and is neglecting the long term.

China wants it  both ways: to be both the world’s factory and leader of the global South, to be both developed and developing, to deploy those differentiated responsibilities to duck doing anything to even begin reducing emissions until the end of this decade, a decade which the scientists say is our last chance to avoid the climate tipping point, beyond which global heating takes on an uncontrollable momentum.

Africa has its share of national leaders who seldom think of the long term, and China stands ready to do deals with them. The deep corruption that enables China to mine and ship cobalt and copper from Congo to China is enabled by a state willing to do deals that keep the regime in power.

Somehow this is all OK because after all China leads the Global South, speaks for it at global climate conferences, loudly demanding the rich countries pay the bill.  China has even come up with a lovely  moniker for this club it presides over, of governing elites worldwide: The Like-Minded Group of Developing Countries. Is that the best we can do?

Whatever happend to Wetlands and biodiversity?

China’s loss of interest in “constructing ecological civilisation” leaves much hanging.

The most immediate impact is in the three COPs of three UN Conventions that add up to the world’s best efforts at respecting nature, and winding back the harm we humans have casually and cruelly done to nature, as if it can infinitely absorb all we do to it.

This is an immediate crisis of leadership, as China actually chairs and runs the agenda of two of the three COPs all running in a tight few weeks. While the climate COP of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change gets the headlines, we have almost simultaneously the COPs of the UN Convention on Wetlands, known as the Ramsar Convention (5 – 13 Nov 2022); and the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD 7 – 19 December). They are just as important as the climate COP, but nobody is paying much attention, since a mobilised global focus on 3 crucial meetings at once, in three quite different locations, is just too much.

The main reason all three are happening so late in 2022 is that they were delayed and delayed due to the pandemic, and especially because the Chinese hosts (Yunnan Kunming for the CBD, Wuhan for Ramsar) caused ever more delays as China relentlessly prosecuted its zero covid shutdowns of entire cities, starting with Wuhan, where this virus first jumped from animals to the lungs of humans. After repeated postponements, China finally repudiated hosting altogether. The CBD hastily found a new host in Montreal, which is where the CBD’s permanent staff are.  Geneva stepped up to replace Wuhan.

China refuses to acknowledge the Covid pandemic started in Wuhan, and is due to humans pushing too hard into wildlife habitats. China recently, with no publicity, legislated to allow the ongoing “farming” of wildlife in cages for animal parts used in making Chinese medicines.

Mobilising for effective Global Response

But China’s role wasn’t just  hosting Ramsar and CBD.. The hosts also decide who to invite. If the whole point of a COP is to get beyond tech talk among specialists, to get some real action, and commitments from national leaders with power to turn words into deeds, you need to invite the top leaders, and if necessary shame them into coming, with the help of UN Secretary-General Guterres.  He did a great job of getting the right people to attend the climate COP in Egypt, with the UK, convenor of the 2021 Glasgow climate COP, and Egypt in charge of invitations and agendas.

But the Ramsar and CBD COPs have sunk into obscurity, largely because China is no longer interested in long term problems, and has dropped the ball. With the focus of world media, activists and scientists on the climate COP in Egypt, those  Geneva and Montreal COPs come and pass by almost unnoticed.  They remain the focus of specialists and the bureaucrats of Environment Ministries sent to quibble over the exact wording of any eventual agreement, yet lack the power to do anything ambitious or imaginative.

Tibetan Impacts 

For Tibet these state failures are consequential. There is widespread awareness that the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau are melting fast, and Tibet is warming rapidly. There is growing awareness that almost al the major rivers of Asia rise in Tibet and that their year-round stream flow, many months after the monsoon rains have withdrawn, rely on those glaciers; yet Tibet remains voiceless in all UN deliberations, spoken for by China. A few brave and skilful Tibetans do speak up. (@53mins).

What is much less well known is that China quietly  benefits from the heating of the Tibetan Plateau, especially from glacier melt causing greater flow along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. The many Tibetan lakes of a flat plateau that have no outlet now overflow. The highest, driest and coldest part of Tibet, which is furthest inland, farthest from monsoon rains coming in from the Indian and Pacific oceans, is speedily getting warmer and wetter, turning alpine desert into  well vegetated plains that are more productive, and better suited to agriculture with Chinese characteristics.[1] It may take decades of dividend glacier melt before the glaciers are gone, but the long term trend is for a much wetter Tibet, which China welcomes. If you look at the website of the official China Meteorological Administration, or read scientific reports,  all speak optimistically of Tibet becoming more like China. Could this be a reason why China no longer emphasizes its “arduous struggle to construct ecological civilisation” as much as it used to?

Obscuring those remote lands

For the Tibetan Plateau the sting of China’s state failure is sharper when we look at wetlands and biodiversity. There are many wetlands across the Tibetan Plateau, since the entire plateau was uplifted four kilometres into the sky, surrounded by mountains, but basically still almost flat. Those wetlands are crucial for migrating waterbirds on their annual plant spanning seasonal flight.  Plovers, for example, leave Siberia as autumn arrives, stopping over in Tibet en route to  far distant nesting in Australia.

Wetlands in Tibet require not only flattish terrain and enough rain or snow to replenish what was evaporated by the intense heat of summer, they also need underlying permafrost frozen soil to retain moisture, which may melt away in spring, returning in autumn. Wetlands often hold a lot of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that lifts in to the atmosphere as warming accelerates. China made this much worse by draining many wetlands, such as the Dzoge (Ru’ergai in Chinese) wetlands at a great bend in the upper Yellow River where the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu meet. In recent years China has recognised that excavating ditches to drain this huge water meadow was a mistake, and is now trying to make it a tourism destination. Other wetlands are officially under protection, but get little attention. Meanwhile the waters rise, the lakes overspill, all of it, in Chinese eyes, a direct payoff from climate change.

Biodiverse hotspot becomes a not spot 

Biodiversity is a similarly contradictory story. The diversity of plants and animals native to Tibet -an area the size of Western Europe- is amazing, especially in the warmer, wetter, rugged landscapes of eastern Tibet, Kham, a big area currently split into no less than four Chinese provinces. Although Kham has long been recognised as  one of the planet’s biodiversity “hotspots”, very little of it is protected, and some landscapes that are officially protected such as the UNESCO World Heritage Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan are mapped by China to exclude the actual rivers, allowing them to be dammed for hydropower. As you climb the steep valleys of Kham you pass from subtropical to alone on the one densely forested slope, so no surprise biodiversity, including innumerable medicinal herbs, is so great. Yet Kham is unprotected.

Instead China has redlined an area the size of Germany, prime pastoral lands, in the name of biodiversity and water provisioning, steadily removing the nomadic Tibetan pastoralists who have for thousands of years prevented overgrazing and land degradation, while never endangering the sustainability of the seasonally migrating herds of antelopes, gazelles and many other species. In the name of biodiversity Tibet is being depopulated, then rebranded as Chinese landscapes with Chinese backstories, part of the Yellow River Culture of the distant lowlands, making these emptied lands ready for mass domestic tourism.

Off the agenda, out of sight 

If China had chosen to exercise its global strength to ensure the Ramsar and CBD COPs pulled in the political leaders, mobilised mass support and galvanised the scientists to generate timely reports, the COPs might have achieved much. The contradictions between China’s words and deeds remain outstanding, acknowledged almost nowhere.  If the CBD COP and the Ramsar COP worked as intended, Tibetans might have found a voice to speak up for nature and challenge China’s use of Tibet as water dividend, and scientific rationale for enclosure and exclusion of the customary custodians.

This is all the more important because the Climate Convention holds a COP every year, but Ramsar only once every three years, and CBD once every two years. Only once in a decade does CBD renegotiate its targets for all wildlife on earth and the last time that happened was in 2010. Since then everyone now agrees those targets were inadequate, insufficiently ambitious, and wildlife continues to retreat as the human dominance further expands. So well before 2020 renegotiating CBD with planet-wide agreement on targeting what is actually needed was crucial. Now at the end of 2022 that renegotiation is finally happening, chaired by China, but with minimal input or profile needed to press leaders to act for the long term survival of our fellow sentient beings.

On the agenda: China's Wuhan and Kunming declartions 

What China did push for at Ramsar was for its “Wuhan Declaration” to be adopted, and it got its way.    The Wuhan Declaration, in keeping with China’s influence operations, is vaguely worded, and is about “rational use” of wetlands as well as conservation. Having emplaced the Wuhan Declaration in the Ramsar official outcome, China lost interest.

Likewise, with the Convention on Biodiversity, China had a “Kunming Declaration” ready to roll, its key feature being its heading: “”Towards an Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth” . That phrase is 100% pure Xi Jinping, and could mean just about anything. Having inserted in advance of the actual face to face CBD COP with China’s  CCP headline, again China lost interest, mission accomplished.

Neither the Wuhan wetlands nor the Kunming biodiversity Declarations are objectionable, merely vague, allowing any amount of wriggle room for governments with little interest in doing much. This is not a time for vague platitudes. Life on earth needs more than waffle with Chinese characteristics.

On climate, the world IS watching and demands effective action. If the CBD COP had happened in 2020, as scheduled, the world would have been watching, there had been a mobilisation of popular support and a torrent of scientific reports on the extinction crisis. With perfect timing David Attenborough’s Extinction doco aired just before the CBD COP was due. Only the timing turned out to be wasted, because, irony of ironies, the transmission of an unknown and unfamiliar virus from animals to humans, in China, froze the CBD COP . So it goes.

In October 2022, when environment reporters saw China had lost interest, they suggested world leaders may have to invite themselves to the Montreal CBD COP. On the other hand, those leaders might just take their cue from China, and not show up. By 19 December the two weeks of CBD COP will be over, shunted aside by the Fifa World Cup and prep for Christmas. Quite possibly the CBD COP, like the Ramsar COP, 5 to 13 November will come and go and no-one even notices. China’s indifference is a major reason why.

China drops ball, rich countries to follow? 

If  the outcome of the climate COP is disappointing, merely high rhetoric with little action or finance, it will be due to not only China but other big and rich countries also failing to walk the talk. China is preoccupied with “changes not seen in a century”, to use a Xi Jinping phrase that started life suggesting new opportunities, which has now morphed into a recognition of new risks. Those risks are now global. Adam Tooze sums it up: “The historical novelty of our situation should not be underestimated. We have not been here before. The extent of global leverage, the degree of interconnectedness, the rate at which interest rates are being hiked, the involvement of central banks around the entire world, the interlock with a new array of geopolitical tensions, all mark this as a significant moment of historical departure.”

The danger is that as today’s polycrisis intensifies, the poorer countries , including most of Africa, will be roadkill. Investors will refuse to invest in them, lenders will refuse to lend, capital will take flight, there will be no finance for climate change adaptation, or for preventing wildlife extinctions. The Tibetan Plateau will continue to melt, to get wetter, China will collect a rising streamflow dividend and look forward to a warmer Tibet better suited to settler colonisation.

“The world needs a breakthrough and a new roadmap on climate finance that can mobilise the $1 trillion per year in external finance that will be needed by 2030 for emerging markets and developing countries (EMDCs) other than China.”[2] Will investors, multilateral lenders and rich nation governments come up with the $1 trillion a year the experts say will be needed, if as a planet we transition away from carbon. Unlikely. Even more unlikely because China refuses to have anything to do with paying compensation for loss and damage done by the biggest polluters, none bigger than China.

End Notes:

[1] Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s grand strategy to displace American order. Oxford U Press, 2021

[2] Yupeng Fan , Chuanglin Fang, Measuring Qinghai-Tibet plateau’s sustainability , Sustainable Cities and Society 85 (2022) 104058

Zhiwei Wang ,, Shouqin Sun, Chunlin Song, Variation characteristics of high flows and their responses to climate change in permafrost regions on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, China , Journal of Cleaner Production 376 (2022) 134369

Jiarong Wang, Xi Chen,, Man Gao, Changes in nonlinearity and stability of streamflow recession characteristics under climate warming in a large glaciated basin of the Tibetan Plateau, Hydrology and  Earth System Sciences, , 26, 3901–3920, 2022

[3] Songwe V, Stern N, Bhattacharya A (2022) Finance for climate action: Scaling up investment for climate and development. London: Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science.

(Gabriel Lafitte has spent years living with Tibetans, in exile and in Tibet. Based in Australia, he researches the impacts of Chinese policies on the Tibetan Plateau, and regularly trains young Tibetan professional environmentalists and advocates.)