Opinion: How China could play the game of climate disaster loss and damage to its own geopolitical advantage

Protesters demand payment of climate reparations from rich countries to poor countries affected by climate loss and damage at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt on November 11, 2022.SeanGallup / Getty Images

It mentions “loss and damage,” or L&D, and most of the large polluting countries – those whose carbon emissions are largely responsible for cooking the planet – change the subject and leave the room.

The term refers to a new fund that remains more concept than reality. It would help compensate for the damage caused by catastrophic events linked to climate change, such as the floods that engulfed a third of Pakistan and severe drought in parts of Africa this year.

“We have droughts across the continent and where there is no drought, there are floods,” said Ikal Angelei, co-founder of Friends of the Earth Turkana in Kenya, at this month’s COP27 climate change conference in Sharm el-Sheik. , Egypt.

The L&D fund is separate from the climate change mitigation and adaptation funding launched in 2015 and is expected to pay $ 100 billion annually to vulnerable countries, but it has always been insufficient.

Rich and polluting countries have always resisted putting cash into the L&D fund for a variety of reasons, some legitimate and others less legitimate. They are concerned about endless demands for accountability from hard-hit countries. They know that L&D is difficult to define; they suspect that some of the claims may be routine environmental catastrophes that have nothing to do with man-made climate change, at least none that can be proven.

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Above all, they fear continuous spending that they could never afford to pay. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose country sparked the industrial revolution two centuries ago – and the sooty emissions that came with it – was blunt enough to say the price would be too high even if the developed world has the moral obligation to pay up.

“What we can’t do, I’m afraid, is fix it with some sort of repair,” he told the New York Times in a COP27 online forum.

But all is not lost, because some small countries – including Ireland, Denmark, Belgium – have endorsed the concept of L&D, to the point that each has pledged a few million dollars for the nascent fund which will need hundreds of billions of dollars. perhaps more, to repair the damage inflicted by climate disasters.

At least, it’s a start. But will L&D gain ground in the remaining days of COP27, which closes on November 18th? Opinion is divided, but the point of view is mostly pessimistic.

“It’s a big deal, loss and damage. You’re likely to see an aesthetic move, ”said Evan Siddall, chief executive of Alberta’s $ 168 billion AIMCo fund, in an interview with The Globe and Mail earlier this week.

The wild cards, as usual, are China and the United States, the world’s first and second polluter, and, to a lesser extent, India, another major polluter. India wants an L&D fund, as it is a developing country and its historical emissions are quite low. The United States, so far, has not been a protagonist of COP27 in the L&D debate. (To his credit, US President Joe Biden was one of the few leaders of a major carbon-erupting economy to make an appearance in Sharm el-Sheikh. The leaders of China, India, Russia and Canada did not show up. .)

And China? This is where it gets interesting.

The country is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for around 27% of global emissions, or well more than double those of the United States as the United States and Europe deindustrialize and strive to achieve net zero emissions. by the middle of the century or so, China’s share of emissions can only increase.

You would think China would have an obligation to create an L&D line in its budget, but it has coverage. It is officially designated by the World Trade Organization as a developing country and can legitimately claim that its historic emissions are low.

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Which is not to say that China does not support such a fund. In fact, Beijing’s main climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said on Wednesday that his country is willing to help poor countries, but will not send money.

“We strongly support the demands of developing countries, especially the most vulnerable countries, to claim compensation for loss and damage because China is also a developing country and we have also suffered a lot from extreme weather events. “said Xie. Paying for L&D “is not an obligation for China, but we are willing to contribute”.

Yet a cashless contribution could simply translate into China using L&D as another stepping stone to geopolitical advantage.

Mr. Xie seemed to suggest that China would repair climate damage in developing countries as a gesture of goodwill. But we all know that gestures of goodwill can pay dividends. They can acquire economic and political influence: in exchange for installing flood control systems or building dams, a flooded country it may feel compelled to reward China along the way.

The concept is no stranger to China, whose Belt and Road Initiative has been a phenomenal success. Launched a decade ago, BRI is a comprehensive infrastructure development strategy that has invested in everything from railway lines to ports in some 150 countries, including Greece, where it rebuilt the Piraeus container port.

Of course, the projects gain political and economic influence for China, help expand markets for its products and skills, and increase trade flows. The United States and many European countries are wary of the BRI, dismissing it as a form of Chinese colonialism, at best, or as a cynical example of debt trap diplomacy, at worst.

Could China’s contribution to L&D emerge as an extension of its BRI strategy? It could, and desperate, climate-hit countries would no doubt welcome any Chinese repair work, even if it comes with constraints. China wants to extend its global influence as it strives to become the world’s dominant superpower, and L&D could be a useful tool in this effort.

One way for the US to slow China’s rise would be to use L&D to expand its global influence. As the world’s largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, it has a moral obligation to do so.

But so far, the United States has signaled that it does not want to start writing checks for that purpose. China may not be dissatisfied with this.

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