China in focus as biodiversity talks reach critical juncture

A poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, for World Environment Day celebrated on 5 June. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Wu Hong)

Amid souring global attitudes over hardline diplomacy and scrutiny of its environmental commitments, Beijing may look to shepherd COP15 negotiations with an eye toward remaking its image.

The UN biodiversity summit, which launches virtually today, comes at a crucial moment for host country China, which continues to grapple with troubled bilateral relationships and the diplomatic fallout sparked by Covid-19.

During the first of a two-part high-level conference under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), China is looking to coax countries on “multilateral cooperation to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity”.

Beijing hopes to favourably position CBD talks for potential adoption of an enhanced biodiversity framework by the time the UN Biodiversity Conference – to take place in Kunming, in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province – convenes in person in the Spring of 2022.

The resumption of official talks on a new framework comes as the coronavirus pandemic continues to scramble diplomatic timetables – and relations between governments. Now, according to the head of China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Huang Runqiu, time is of the essence for countries to regain political momentum toward forging a strengthened UN agreement on biodiversity.

“Tackling biodiversity loss has never been more urgent”, said Lin Li, director of global policy and advocacy at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “Environmental issues are fundamental. Building out a framework for the next 10 to 30 years is critical, and implementation is key.”

Beijing confronts its damaged standing abroad

China’s role as host of the delayed meetings takes place against the backdrop of souring global attitudes toward the country, Communist Party General Secretary and President Xi Jinping in particular. Survey data from summer 2020 by Pew Research Center reveals a remarkable uptick in negative sentiment toward Beijing, with clear majorities of the public across East Asia, Western Europe, and North America having no confidence in Xi’s China to do the “right thing” in world affairs.

Punitive measures taken by Beijing against countries big and small over the course of 2021 have not done the Xi leadership any favours. Beijing halted key imports from Australia in response to Canberra’s call in April for an investigation into China’s initial handling of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Prior to that, it sanctioned a grouping of EU and British parliamentarians, as well as prominent researchers and think tanks, in a retaliatory move for coordinated sanctions applied to Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region. And until recently, relations between Canada and China were frozen as Beijing demanded the release of a prominent telecommunications executive, Meng Wanzhou, who was detained on behalf of the US in 2018 and embroiled in extradition proceedings.

The subsequent rupturing of diplomatic ties with important economic partners prompted a subtle change of tack in Zhongnanhai earlier this year, with Xi encouraging China’s diplomats, public figures and high-level experts to disseminate a narrative of the country conducive to “making friends” and creating “a favourable external public opinion environment”.

China’s position on biodiversity

Despite headwinds, China’s maneuvering to assume a global leadership role in environmental protection – and multilateralism more generally – should not go unnoticed. Externally, Xi’s proclamations are China’s official diplomatic stance, and Beijing has made grand gestures to demonstrate its commitment to mitigating biodiversity loss and protecting ecological health. The state has for instance pledged to safeguard over a quarter of the mainland from development, and going carbon neutral by 2060.

China’s recent commitments, however, are more low-hanging fruit than bold policy. More than 70 countries have adopted a goal of protecting nearly a third of natural land from development. Those having made the pledge include high-income, developed economies as well as large, developing states with substantial growth potential, such as India.

Last month, Xi Jinping declared to the UN General Assembly that China would cease construction and financing of new coal power plants abroad. Energy capacity is a main pillar of Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but China has long been criticised for exacerbating developing countries’ dependence on fossil fuels.

In the context of the global pandemic, and despite China’s lack of cooperation with the WHO in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak in central Hubei province, Xi Jinping has repeatedly touched on “the interdependence between man and nature” in remarks seeking to galvanise countries to stem losses in global biodiversity.

For China, home to one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, the effects of environmental destruction and biodiversity degradation resulting from the country’s meteoric socioeconomic rise are profound. Demographic pressures and the needs of a growing middle class have exacerbated the worsening state of the country’s biodiversity.

By state media’s own admission, citing the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are more than 1,000 species in China deemed as “critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable”. Moreover, the country’s wetlands and portion of arable land have shrunk considerably in recent decades as a consequence of largely unfettered economic development.

The Kunming Declaration: what it says – and doesn’t say – about China’s commitment to biodiversity

Xi Jinping presides over a China that is gradually steering away from a resource-intensive and heavily polluting economic growth model. Even so, and despite its urging to act swiftly on adopting a post-2020 biodiversity framework by next spring, Beijing has been assailed for what many see as a lack of ambition and political will in enforcing biodiversity protection.

Despite criticism from abroad, Li says that political leadership in Beijing has changed the way in which it takes stock of ecological assets.

“China has gone from development at any cost, and has changed tack and prioritized ecological protection,” she said.

When it comes to the draft Kunming declaration submitted by China in August, Li said that while the text covers a lot of ground, the real impact of its eventual adoption lies in getting the text into the final agreed biodiversity framework as well as addressing outstanding issues, such as plugging an estimated $700bn gap in annual biodiversity financing and forging a robust implementation system.

The US-China angle

The state of US-China relations looms large in the sphere of multilateralism, as both Washington and Beijing stress their commitment to cooperate on issues of international concern even as they gear up for sustained competition.

Last week, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, who sits on the Communist Party’s second highest decision-making body, met in Zurich to discuss the way forward on “managed competition”. Key outcomes from the six-hour meeting included an implied decoupling of contentious issues plaguing the bilateral relationship from climate cooperation, and an agreement for presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping to meet virtually by year’s end.

However, any thawing of the Sino-American relationship is unlikely to see the US sign onto an eventual agreement to protect nature, despite the Biden administration devoting more attention to biodiversity loss domestically.

As the US is not among the 196 signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity, its diplomatic weight has been weakened, yet it still retains some influence through its observer status and alliances with other countries, according to Li. In this geopolitical context, China’s assumption of the COP presidency from Egypt this week offers Beijing the chance to speak out more resolutely on “the direction of travel” in getting framework negotiations over the finish line, Li added.

“China understands that biodiversity is a global common, and is keen to work on a multilateral basis, under the umbrella of the UN, to deliver on biodiversity.”

Kellen McCullum is based in Switzerland and covers China’s diplomatic presence and activities in Geneva-based multinational organisations. He is also an editor for the China BIG Idea newsletter and a research fellow at the Center for Security Analyses and Prevention (CABP).