COP15′s success shows China can play a role in bridging divisions on environmental progress


It was a very strange turn of events for China to be playing host to a United Nations biodiversity summit in Montreal the past two weeks, at the end of a year in which its relationship with Canada has grown increasingly tense.

Even more improbable is that this makeshift arrangement, hastily pulled together after plans for the COP15 conference to be held in the Chinese city of Kunming were scrapped because of COVID-19, ultimately proved a success – culminating in a landmark agreement on Monday revolving around ambitious new global conservation targets.

The deal is encouraging news in itself, a starting point for collective action on nature protection that’s comparable to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, with hopes that in this case the follow-up action will be more swift.

But the process, in which China seemingly played a constructive leadership role despite the potentially embarrassing circumstances, might also be cause for some optimism about the place it will occupy in international environmental relations in the future.

No matter how much other countries need to safeguard themselves against various forms of aggression by a Chinese government shifting further into autocracy, the climate and ecological crises are not going to be solved without the planet’s second-largest economy playing a role.

Heading into Montreal, China had not exactly embraced the responsibility that comes with its power – and not just because its officials sometimes keep their heads down at international meetings, such as the recent COP27 climate gathering in Egypt.

Where it has been especially reticent is on the issue that increasingly dominates and defines these summits: the flow of money from the developed to the developing world, where countries suffering many of the worst climate consequences and needing to be at the forefront of ecological protection lack financial resources to make the necessary investments.

“China has an identity crisis in the global community,” said Li Shuo, a Beijing-based senior policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia who was in Montreal for the conference. “Its diplomatic history is comprised of solidarity with developing countries. Now, its growing status calls for it to take similar responsibilities as developed nations.”

In other words, China has tended to want to be a recipient of climate and environmental funds flowing from richer countries to poorer ones, rather than one of the contributor countries, despite now otherwise being a leading investor in some of the developing nations (particularly in Africa) most in need of the money.

COP15 did not resolve that conflict exactly. By nature of its presidency at the event, China was in the somewhat fortuitous position of being expected to stay relatively neutral during negotiations.

But to Mr. Li, the convening function that China played in Montreal – on the path to a deal that ultimately included an annual commitment of US$20-billion for developing countries by 2025 and US$30-billion by 2030 – may have pointed to how it could play a useful role ahead, by virtue of straddling the two sides.

“The Chinese presidency stood between talks that often pitted the Global North against the Global South,” Mr. Li said. “And that middle zone turned out to be Beijing’s sweet spot. It capitalized by brokering a balanced and solid deal, which should give its environmental diplomats more confidence.”

If there was a key moment in that regard, which other observers in Montreal noted as well, it came last week when Brazil led a group of developing countries to walk away in frustration over the state of the financing talks.

China’s representatives intervened and seemingly succeeded in de-escalating the situation and getting them back to the table – helped to some extent by their ability to express sympathy with the frustrations, while also wielding the clout of a big and powerful country.

Neither that, nor the subsequent process toward the final agreement that went more smoothly than these events often do, should be overinterpreted as a sure sign of a Chinese pivot in environmental diplomacy.

For one thing, Canada got at least as much credit from attendees for how this summit played out.

Not only did Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault step into a weird situation and rather artfully manage to take a co-leadership role without clashing with Beijing. He also led by example with a series of new Canadian commitments to nature protection that put pressure on other countries to step up, and successfully pushed for some key components (especially Indigenous rights) to be included in the agreement.

And it’s anyone’s guess whether China will continue trying to lead when it’s not in as much of an official leadership role, and doesn’t risk as much embarrassment as if this conference had ended without a deal.

As countries and institutions start to drill down into how the promised US$30-billion will flow – and what more will come, since that sum is clearly inadequate for the scale of the challenge – Beijing could prove unhelpful or even obstructionist.

That could be all the more the case during debates about bigger dollar figures to fight climate change, and compensate countries bearing the worst of it.

There is also the matter of China’s domestic record on nature protection, which (as on climate) it needs to significantly improve to build and maintain international credibility.

But there’s now a sense, at least, of how China might be able to help build bridges over divides that perpetually threaten to derail global environmental progress, if and when it chooses to do so.