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China pollution concerns could drive rapid ratification of Paris agreement

China plans to close 1000 coal mines this year. Climate expert Lina Li tells DW that air pollution and associated health costs are boosting Beijing's involvement in the international climate process.

DW: The Paris climate agreement has been described by many as a milestone and a turning point. How does that look from the Chinese point of view?

Lina Li: I think we share the vision that the Paris agreement has been a historical diplomatic achievement, especially in comparison with Copenhagen. It has restored people's confidence in the multilateral climate process. But we also believe Paris is only the first step, and the most important thing is how we can implement Paris, and how we can do more. Because we know that so far the presented national climate targets do not meet up to the joint goal set up by the Paris Agreement. So every country needs to do more, not least my own country China, as it is one of the major emitters and economies.

Chinese analyst Lina Li.

Li says Paris was only the start of a long process.

When comparing the official view of the Chinese government and the views of civil society, is there a difference in perception or interests?

I do not see a distinct line. There is a gradual transition of the government perspective on the climate issue, since Copenhagen, also due to environmental pressure. For example, if you live in or travel to Beijing, you will know how the local people suffer because of bad air, and this is one of the negative consequences of the current economic and development model in China. Everybody can see it, breathe it and criticize it, so I think the government also has internal recognition of the impact or cost of this kind of economic model. So the international climate politics narrative fits well with the current political economic structure in China. That is why the Chinese government has been more open and active about climate action. It is not only about the international expectations, it also needs a clean and sustainable society and economy for its own people and citizens.

Do you think China will ratify the agreement soon?

I'm quite optimistic about China's ratification. The multilateral process still has a lot of attraction for China. It also depends on what the other major players, like the USA and the EU, do. I heard from US colleagues that they are optimistic the USA will ratify the agreement fairly soon, potentially before the United Nations signature ceremony in April, so hopefully China will do it at the same pace as the USA.

This year China has the Presidency of G20. Is climate anywhere on the agenda?

Yes, interestingly there are several entry points on the current China G20 agenda: especially with regard to climate, energy, and the financial angles, where you cover green finance as well as mobilizing climate finance. I think China needs to build on what previous G20 presidencies have already achieved, like the infrastructure initiatives and energy access initiatives. And given this is the first G20 summit after the Paris Agreement, China has to make sure the G20 high-level political commitments and new initiatives will be coherent with the Paris Agreement.

Families stay at home and monitor air pollution.

Families stay at home and monitor air pollution.

The year after that, Germany will have the presidency. Do you see any bilateral cooperation between the two countries on the agenda?

I have a lot of hope on that. I think it is mutually beneficial for both the G20 presidencies to coordinate. It will also benefit the global compact and the actions needed to deliver on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) agreed on in 2015, as well as the climate promises made in Paris. I think there are existing bilateral channels to explore to make this coordination happen.

Do you feel optimistic about environmental and climate awareness when it comes to policy-making in China?

I think there has been a positive change in the past years. But this is being driven by something very sad: the impact of air pollution on people's health; the collapse of the coal industry in some areas, which has lead to unemployment and local economic difficulties. I think China like many other countries is entering the phase of reform, and it has to look into changing its economic, industrialization and urbanization models. I have to say I am still cautious, because this process is not a linear process. There is no existing success story at the national level, given the size of China's economy, population and energy consumption. So I think China is at the beginning of this path and there will be setbacks. There will be tradeoffs needed at different levels, there will be costs for different stakeholders. But the country and different stakeholders need to be willing to continue this process, because in the end it will bring the country and society to a better level.

In terms of stakeholders, what scope is there for civil society or NGOs?

In the past five to ten years, due to international processes and the emerging of domestic NGO capacities, I see things changing. The government also sees the possibility of letting NGOs play their roles, be it as policy suggestion providers or providers of information, or helping with advocacy on certain issues, engaging citizens, and with education. The NGOs also need to do more in their own capacity to make their voices heard and explore the way that their vision can be achieved in the Chinese context.

Lina Li is a Chinese analyst specializing on climate and environment with Berlin-based Adelphi . Over the past eight years she worked with Chinese and German NGOs. The interview was conducted by Irene Quaile at the Germanwatch Fast Forward conference in Bonn.

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