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3 Ways to Harness a Legacy of Environmental Cooperation with China

World leaders attend the bicentennial anniversary of convening of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden on June 2, 2022. Image via UNEP. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Cecilia Springer

Despite recently increasing and legitimate grievances, environmental cooperation has been a key bedrock for successful collaboration between China and Western countries, starting with the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden.

The bicentennial convening of the conference last week, known as Stockholm+50, kicks off a busy six months of key environmental summits, including the 2022 UN Oceans Forum; part two of the Council on Biological Diversity Conference of the Parties (CBD COP15) in Kunming, China; the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt; and other high-level platforms like the UN General Assembly and Group of 20 (G20) meetings. Ahead of this packed calendar, the convening of Stockholm+50 should serve as inspiration to resist the rhetoric of division between China and the West and instead redouble cooperation efforts to pursue joint climate and environment goals.

Consider that global environmental cooperation seeded China’s own environmental policy. In 1972, the same year of the first Stockholm conference, the average per capita GDP in China was just $132. At that time, China was emerging from the disastrous environmental effects of the Great Leap Forward. Under Mao Zedong, China’s approach to reshaping and overcoming the natural environment was termed a “war against nature.” In 1972, China joined the UN, but many still viewed environmental problems as unique to capitalist societies. However, China’s participation in the 1972 Stockholm conference marked a turning point in its environmental history and spurred the emergence of Chinese environmental policy and regulation. The year after the conference, China’s State Council convened its own Conference on Environmental Protection, followed by increasing bureaucratic structure to support environmental policymaking.

The 1992 Rio Summit, which sought to address the emerging concept of sustainable development, contributed further to the development of China’s environmental policy. As detailed by Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy and former head of what would become the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), Rio led China to set a domestic sustainable development agenda, and in 1998, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (now MEE) was established by elevating the former bureau to the ministry level.

More recently, it was cooperation, not isolation, that brought China to the table for the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, and inspired China’s net-zero emissions pledge in 2020. China’s 2021 pledge to end overseas coal finance also enabled the G20 to make a similar pledge thereafter.

Not only have these multilateral environmental fora spurred environmental policymaking in China, but as a global economic powerhouse, the country now plays a key role in successful environmental cooperation on a global level and has demonstrated leadership by serving as a convener first in 2017 and will do so again at CBD COP15.

At this year’s upcoming environmental summits, attention to intensifying climate cooperation, reducing biodiversity risks, and increasing support for infrastructure development can help harness this moment of cooperation for Western countries to work with China for the better of the global environment.

China has been highly willing to cooperate on specific areas of climate mitigation, such as reducing methane emissions, which was a focus of the US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s. As China seeks to decarbonize its overseas engagement, there is room to move the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) from brown to green energy and meet the growing demand for sustainable, climate-compatible infrastructure in developing countries. Venues such as COP27 and the G20 will remain important platforms for engaging with China and raising new commitments.

Last year, China announced the Kunming Biodiversity Fund for protecting biodiversity in developing countries. China and other countries can move this fund towards operation by contributing additional capital and identifying key projects for funding. Beyond the Kunming fund, cooperation via multilateral environmental fora will be critical in mitigating the BRI’s environmental impacts in the Global South. China has developed regulatory frameworks to govern BRI biodiversity risks using international best practices as a base. Countries should continue to collaborate on how to monitor and achieve these international best practices. 

Additionally, more financing for sustainable infrastructure development in the Global South is needed. Through mechanisms like triangular cooperation, development finance institutions can share risk to minimize exposure, reach more regions and sectors, and increase the amount of finance for sustainable development. China has taken a strongly cooperative tone in its recent green BRI guidance, and Chinese financing institutions have also established co-financing funds with multilateral development banks and cooperation MOUs with non-Chinese bilateral financing institutions in recent years.

Scaling up cooperation across these three areas can set the tone for the next 50 years of progress on environmental issues, which have only grown in urgency since 1972. With China now playing a major role in the course of global climate, biodiversity, and development outcomes, environmental cooperation is more necessary than ever.

Cecilia Springer, PhD, is the Assistant Director, Global China Initiative at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center.

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