The Geopolitics of Climate Change Will China Become the Green Superpower?

At the UN climate summit in Durban, China has signalled for the first time that it could sign up to a binding global agreement on CO2 emissions. Indeed, fighting climate change will be impossible without the future superpower on board. Taking a green approach to economic development could bring China massive benefits -- if Beijing decides to go down that road.

A coal-powered power plant on the outskirts of Beijing: China has to decide what course its future development will take.

A coal-powered power plant on the outskirts of Beijing: China has to decide what course its future development will take.

China's rise to superpower status seems unstoppable. But what course will it take over the coming decades? Let's take a look at two very different scenarios for the China of 2025:

  • Under the first scenario, China has become the largest economy in the world, due to a close trans-Pacific alliance with the US. The People's Republic mainly generates its wealth by providing its American neighbor in the Far East with cheap money and cheap consumer goods. But the toll for this strategy is high: Chinese CO2 emissions are now higher than the emissions of all other nations combined. Per capita emissions have soared even above the levels of the United States. As droughts, floods and food shortages increasingly ravage the planet, billions of people perceive Beijing as the main culprit behind climate change. More than 100 nations, including the EU, have formed an official alliance against "Chimerica," as the two superpowers threaten to destroy the biosphere. There are warnings of an impending "climate war."
  • Under the second scenario, China has become the largest economy in the world, due to a close Eurasian partnership with the EU and India. The People's Republic mainly generates its wealth by developing and exporting green technologies. In collaboration with the EU, Beijing has put in place rules against excessive indebtedness, which apply both to financial and "ecological" debts. The cost to the environment is now integrated into how Eurasian nations calculate their gross domestic product. CO2 emissions are beginning to decline around the world, except in the United States. The former superpower is culturally incapable of modernizing itself ecologically and is losing its power due to its addiction to cheap oil. Eurasia has become the new superpower, with China as the dominant force.

These two scenarios are at the core of the United Nations Climate Summit in Durban. Will the world climate of the future be heated by Chimerica or cooled by Eurasia? In a way, the talks in South Africa are all about whether China will choose the first or second option. At first glance, the climate negotiations may appear to be gatherings of technocrats who are supposed to deal with the consequences of the pollution caused by our prosperous industrial society. But that is only true at first glance. In reality, the summits are about a much larger question: the role China will play as the new superpower in the coming years and decades.

Unofficial Alliance

"Climate change is not a topic in itself -- it is embedded in the new distribution of global power," says German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen. What that means was already visible at the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen: Back then, the US and China -- which are closely linked together through intensive trade and debt arrangements -- formed an unofficial alliance to stop a global climate treaty, because of fears it would interfere too much with the two countries' current and future levels of energy use and consumption. It was made brutally clear to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders just how powerless they are when Chimerica decides to flex its muscles. Ever since, Europe has been haunted by fears that this configuration might repeat itself in other areas. US President Barack Obama's recent talk about a "Pacific century" has certainly strengthened these fears, despite his critical remarks about China.

In Durban, however, things now look different from Copenhagen: China surprised the world by announcing that it might become part of a legally binding global agreement. This contrasts strongly with the US position in Durban. The Obama administration is effectively paralyzed when it comes to action on climate change. It has no chance to get any agreement through Congress, which is dominated by Republicans who deny the findings of climate scientists and act on behalf of the powerful fossil-fuel lobby.

China has remained vague about what it really meant with its announcement, and EU politicians like Norbert Röttgen question whether it really represented a breakthrough. But it seems that there are at least powerful forces within the Chinese leadership who would like to see their country move ahead and endorse progressive action on CO2 reductions, including binding targets for China itself. Chinese negotiators even tried to win over India ahead of the Durban talks -- another sign that the country is serious. The last hours of the summit will now reveal what China really wants. If the country agrees to join a global treaty in Durban or anytime soon, then this might open up the path towards a Eurasian climate alliance.

"If China and the EU get together and generate positive changes in climate policy, this would mean a fundamental shift in the global political landscape with many consequences," says Environment Minister Röttgen.

A Difficult Choice

China is in the process of deciding how its transformation from a developing nation to a superpower will play out. The country is already becoming increasingly influential in terms of foreign policy. Its strong presence in Africa gives it a reach far beyond Asia, and two aircraft carriers are under construction which will put China back on the military naval map for the first time in 500 years. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao offered Europe a "helping hand" in the financial crisis in June, it became obvious how much global power has already shifted to China. It is no longer a question of whether China will become a superpower, but of when and how.

Beijing faces a difficult choice. A trans-Pacific alliance with the US in the form of Chimerica promises a fast track towards Western-style wealth. By ensuring a steady flow of consumer goods to keep the Chinese population happy, it would provide social and political glue to help stabilize China's current system. New coal-fired power plants, millions of large cars and a construction boom without any focus on energy efficiency would bring the traditional American way of life to China. But that approach would come with a price. China would face growing risks to its food security caused by runaway climate change. It would also risk a political storm directed against itself as the largest emitter of CO2 in the world.


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