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China is already the world's leading manufacturer and installer of solar PV. Installation of solar panels on the Hongqiao Passenger Rail Terminal in Shanghai, China. Photo: Jiri Rezac / The Climate Group via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
China is already the world's leading manufacturer and installer of solar PV. Installation of solar panels on the Hongqiao Passenger Rail Terminal in Shanghai, China. Photo: Jiri Rezac / The Climate Group via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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Letter from Marrakesh: is China the world's new climate leader?

Natalie Bennett

15th November 2016

With European climate policy in post-Brexit lockdown, and US delegates gripped by uncertainty (even for their own jobs) following Trump's election, a new global climate leader is emerging, writes Natalie Bennett. China is stepping up as the country with the finance, technology and industrial might to take forward the Paris Agreement - and for its companies to reap the benefits.

It's not just in the 'soft power' of climate leadership that China is pushing ahead - it could also be in technology and economic opportunity. Here at the Marrakesh climate talks, the underlying story is one of inevitable, fast-moving change.

As you might expect, the election of Donald Trump as American president has cast a pall over the climate talks in Marrakesh.

On Saturday I was sitting at working tables across from a journalist speaking to his editor, trying to sell him or her a story. I don't understand Spanish, but it wasn't hard to distinguish the name "Donald Trump" regularly peppering his side of the conversation.

At the NGO stalls, and those of government officials, "what will he do? what can he do?" is a regular topic of conversation. Will he take the 'nuclear option' - and unfortunate term but an apt one - and withdraw entirely from the UNFCCC?

Will he start the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement - something that could take four years, and not take effect until the end, hopefully, of his presidency?

But as one American here said to me, since his election he hasn't said anything about climate change. And back in 2009 he was on the "right side", calling for action to cut emissions. Unpredictability and inconsistency in this case might work in the planet's favour.

But whatever Trump does, there's a mood of determination here in Marrakesh. The urgency of slashing our carbon emissions before we exceed the biological limits of this one fragile planet is obvious to everyone here - as it is increasingly obvious to the world.

We must all press ahead with tackling climate change in every way possible

Whether it's discussion of the need to promote and support small-scale, carbon-efficient agriculture that can also secure food security in areas of the world that desperately need it, the focus on coral bleaching that threatens to destroy one of the world's natural wonders, and foundations of crucial food supplies and ocean health, or the realities of air pollution that kills millions every year (and is closely related to pneumonia deaths in children) and is closely correlated to greenhouse gas emissions: action needs to happen today (although yesterday would have been much better).

What's evident at every turn is the fast-growing importance of China to COP - and in the world. I was in a plenary session last week at which nations were reporting on their progress towards their Nationally Determined Contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The chair said: "I call on the delegate from China." It was only a routine question for the Estonia delegation about the monitoring of their emissions, but you could feel the level of concentration in the room rise immediately. The changeover started to happen in Paris. China, which had been a drag on the progress of talks up to then, started to become a leader, and that's even more evident now.

The EU is weakened by its internal troubles, Britain's Brexit vote, political and economic instability. It is still an important source of technical leadership and expertise.

Particularly the Nordic countries are inspirations in their roll-outs of renewable energy and city transformation focused on active transport and public transport, and their international aid programmes for the Global South are seen as effective and inspirational.

I've just been listening to a talk on important Nordic work on NAMAs as a contributor to INDCs (unfortunately COP does have a language all of its own). But politically here, the EU seems to be not turning back but not striding out either.

US delegates just hoping to keep their jobs

The American official delegation is being treated compassionately, but as one delegate said to me "understandably they're mostly concerned about whether they'll have a job."

American universities and NGOs are still important for their capabilities - I've just been talking to the Centre for Biological Diversity, and looking at the work of the Scripps Institute. Their expertise is clearly going to continue to be important, whatever happens in US politics.

The Global South is here, increasingly inventive, increasingly aware - but everyone's worried about where the money's going to come from to fund projects if Trump pulls out America's cash.

So increasingly it is from China that the big political push for action to deliver at least something like the highly ambitious but essential restriction of warming to something close to 1.5C agreed in Paris.

As we go into the second week - the sharp end of COP - when important decisions will be made, the mood isn't one of despair. There's not a lot of buoyant optimism, but then there wasn't at this stage in Paris either. A scoreboard of the progress of the first week comes up with mostly orange lights - a lot still too do but not the red of despair.

The lack of global media attention here isn't surprising - Paris was the big splash event, this is a step towards delivering on the promises there - promises it is worth remember were made by every country on this planet.

Climate leaders will also be the economic leaders

And if China does lead here, that's a reflection, and very likely an indication, of the shifting plates of geopolitics. If Beijing is leading in pushing reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, it is likely its industries, its companies will benefit.

The US sometimes seems to be trying to under-develop itself - failing to invest in the education of its people, in its essential infrastructure, and if Trump does drag it away from climate mitigation measures, then its companies and people will be poorer for it in the future.

Although on the other side of the balance, the racing advance of renewable energy, particularly solar, in being cost-competitive with coal and gas, may pull American companies and industries towards low-carbon options despite the government.

And the fast advance of battery storage has huge possibilities for individual households. The ability to live off-grid, self-sufficiently, is likely to prove irresistibly to many - pushing forward for reasons other than the environmental.

The US better hope that its companies and individuals can provide this leadership, for otherwise it risks being left behind in a fast-changing world. It's not just in the 'soft power' of climate leadership that China is pushing ahead here - it could also be in technology and economic opportunity.

Here at the Marrakesh climate talks, as is the case across the world economically, socially, environmentally and politically, the underlying story is one of inevitable, fast-moving change.

 


 

Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party of England & Wales, is at COP22 in Marrakesh with the Green Economics Institute.

 

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