China’s climate policies were represented in the China Pavilion at the COP25 UN climate change conference in Madrid, Spain, in 2019. Photo: Karoliina Hurri
The Arctic Institute China Series 2023
The AR6 synthesis report published in March 2023 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlines yet again the hurry we are in regarding climate change mitigation: the window for halting the warming of the globe to 1.5˚C is closing rapidly. The Arctic, a highly vulnerable region to climate change, is impacted not only by the actions of the major emitters but also by the geopolitical tensions accelerated by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. China plays a crucial role in both of these contexts due to its roles as the greatest emitter of greenhouse gases and the key player in international relations. The 2022 invasion challenges international collaboration, without which climate catastrophe cannot be tackled. In contrast to the seven Arctic states besides Russia (A7), China has not condemned Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It has sought to balance Russia and the West, which has certainly harmed its image in the eyes of the latter. Due to these challenges, it is crucial to discuss to which extent the 2022 invasion influences the implementation of China’s climate policy, particularly with a focus on the Arctic.
China’s climate policy and the Arctic region
China’s role in global climate governance is contradictory. Due to its status as the world’s largest carbon emitter, China is often framed as climate irresponsible or even a climate villain. Yet, there have been multiple positive developments in China’s climate politics during the post-Paris era. Having ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016, China has followed the agreement’s commitments by enhancing its nationally determined contribution in 2021 by promising to peak its emissions before 2030. The state also submitted a long-term strategy (LTS) to the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with a carbon neutrality goal for 2060 and nationally prepared a 1+N Policy Framework to ensure the fulfillment of these 2030 and 2060 goals. In response to Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit in the summer of 2022, China suspended Sino-American climate collaboration. At COP27 in Egypt in November 2022, however, the two countries seemed to be rebuilding a collaborative dialogue about climate.
China’s increased motivation for climate action has not manifested in the Arctic context, where it has become an increasingly active stakeholder over the past decade. China’s first-ever Arctic strategy published in January 2018 did not introduce additional measures regarding the implementation of its climate responsibility, nor has China participated in international collaboration in the reduction of black carbon. In fact, China seems to be particularly interested in new economic opportunities in the Arctic, especially opening shipping routes and Arctic energy resources in the Russian Arctic. Undoubtedly, halting climate change requires China to enhance the ambition of its climate targets and implementation.
Influence of the Ukraine war on implementing China’s climate goals
China has framed the combination of its 2030 and 2060 mitigation goals as the effort to achieve ”the world’s ‘sharpest drop’ of carbon emissions, using the ‘shortest time’ to go from the carbon peak to carbon neutrality”. Achieving green and low-carbon transition in a relatively brief time requires, according to China’s LTS, tackling more severe challenges than developed countries are facing. These challenges are visible in China’s energy transition. With multiple indicators, China is a forerunner in renewable energy, but the continued dependency and investments in fossil fuels have caused speculation about the credibility of its 2030 and 2060 targets. China’s justifications for the continued dependencies and investments include the necessity of energy security, the development of clean, low-carbon utilization of fossil energy, and the effort to advance carbon dioxide capture, utilization, and storage.
The contradiction between the aim to achieve the fastest drop from carbon peak to neutrality and the interest in fossil fuels has accelerated since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. China has not participated in the Western sanctions against Russia. Instead, the energy collaboration between the nations has intensified, and Russian exports of oil and gas to China have broken several records. In November 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that ”China is ready to work with Russia to forge closer partnership in energy cooperation”. Nevertheless, in the Xi-Putin meeting in March 2023, the failure to finalize the agreement on the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline indicates that there might be a limit to the energy collaboration and China’s support for Russia.
Influence of the Ukraine war on China’s Arctic collaboration
In the Arctic, the influence of the 2022 invasion on collaboration is clear. The beginning of the war in 2014 did not yet break Arctic collaboration. However, the 2022 invasion has escalated the geopolitical tensions in the Arctic: as a response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the seven other Arctic states have refused to participate in official collaboration under the auspices of the Arctic Council. Consequently, many Arctic scientific projects and other collaborations have been on hold, and especially research on Arctic climate change has become challenging, if not impossible.
While Chinese scholars can continue their research collaboration with Russian colleagues, the pause of the Arctic Council during Russia’s chairmanship also prevented Chinese diplomats and scientists from participating in regional collaboration. If the activities of the Arctic Council working groups fail to be resumed, there are no regional platforms where China and other non-Arctic states could contribute to regional governance and implement their political agendas in the Arctic. Without Russia’s participation, however, the development of new forms of collaboration will be difficult in reducing black carbon, for instance. These challenges of collaboration, particularly in the case of prolonged war, ignore the urgency of climate change and the scarcity of the remaining carbon budget.
Importance of global climate dialogue between the A7 and China
Although China has refused to join the Western sanctions against Russia and the security landscape in the Arctic has changed dramatically due to militarization and NATO enlargement, it is important to maintain good diplomatic connections between China and the A7. For the time being, climate change is the most urgent security risk in the Arctic, and mitigation of adverse impacts of the climate crisis is not possible without China’s participation.
After almost three years of strict coronavirus restrictions, it is again possible to meet in person and continue the dialogue at various Arctic conferences and other gatherings. Political, scientific, economic, and social collaboration is paramount to increasing trust and launching new climate change mitigation and adaptation collaborations between China and the A7. Therefore, the organization of the 8th China – Nordic Arctic Cooperation Symposium in Guangzhou, China, in December 2023 is a positive sign.
In light of intensifying tensions between China and the US, climate change seems to be one of the rare sectors of international politics where the established and rising great powers have shared interests and prospects for collaboration. The sector’s importance was underlined by Xie Zhenhua, China’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, in a press conference at COP26 on 10 November 2021: according to him, “in the area of climate change, there is more agreement between China and the US than divergence making it an area with huge potential for our cooperation.”
For the sake of the resilient future of the Arctic region and the entire planet, Sino-American great power leadership on climate change should be fostered as soon as possible. Such dialogue is also important in maintaining international peace and security.
Karoliina Hurri is a postdoctoral researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland and a visiting researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. TAI’s Sanna Kopra is also a Senior Researcher at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland. Kopra and Hurri collaborate on a project “Climate Responsibility as a Normative Cornerstone of Multilateral Cooperation?” funded by the Kone Foundation during 2022–2025.