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3 Ways to Harness Environmental Cooperation with China at Stockholm+50



By Cecilia Springer and Rebecca Ray



Environmental cooperation has been a key bedrock of successful collaboration between China and Western countries, starting with the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden 50 years ago. Cooperation, not isolation, brought China to the table for the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, and inspired China’s net-zero emissions pledge in 2020. China’s 2021 pledge to end overseas coal finance also enabled the G20 to make a similar pledge shortly thereafter.

Given today’s pressing need for urgent global action on climate and conservation, the 50th anniversary and bicentennial convening of the Stockholm environment conference from June 2-3, known as Stockholm+50, should serve as inspiration to resist the rhetoric of division and instead redouble cooperation efforts to pursue joint climate and environment goals with China.

China’s journey to global environmental governance

Global environmental cooperation seeded China’s own environmental policy. In 1972, the same year the first Stockholm conference brought countries together to address environmental issues, the average per capita GDP in China was just $132. At that time, China was emerging from the disastrous environmental effects of the Great Leap Forward. Under Mao Zedong, China’s approach to reshaping and overcoming the natural environment was termed a “war against nature.” In 1972, China had joined the UN, while many within China still viewed environmental problems as unique to capitalist societies. However, China’s participation in the 1972 Stockholm conference marked a turning point in China’s environmental history and spurred the emergence of Chinese environmental policy and regulation. The year after the conference, China’s State Council convened its own Conference on Environmental Protection, followed by increasing bureaucratic structure to support environmental policymaking.

Another global environmental convening contributed further to the development of China’s environmental policy. The 1992 Rio Summit (officially, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) again gathered countries from around the world, including China, to address the emerging concept of sustainable development. As detailed by Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate envoy and former head of what would become the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), this led China to set a domestic sustainable development agenda, and in 1998, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (now MEE) was established by elevating the former bureau to the ministry level.

Not only have these multilateral environmental fora spurred environmental policymaking in China, but as a global economic powerhouse, the country now plays a key role in successful environmental cooperation on a global level, and demonstrated leadership via convening in its own right. China first hosted a UN environmental conference in 2017, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, which took place in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. China is also slated to host the second part of the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP) later this year.

As China’s global footprint expands via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is increasingly paying attention to environmental governance not only domestically but also outside its own borders. A recent guidance on green BRI development demonstrated China’s commitment to applying principles of sustainable development to its overseas activity. Going forward, cooperation via multilateral environmental fora will be more important than ever to mitigate the environmental impacts of the BRI.

Three areas of opportunity

At Stockholm+50,  attention to three areas can help harness this moment of cooperation for other countries, especially Western countries, to work with China for the better of the global environment.  

1. Intensify climate cooperation

China has been highly willing to cooperate on specific areas of climate mitigation, such as reducing methane emissions, which was a focus of the US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, released last year at the Glasgow climate talks known as COP26. As China seeks to decarbonize its overseas engagement, there is room for climate cooperation to move the BRI from brown to green energy and meet growing demand for sustainable, climate-compatible infrastructure in developing countries. Venues such as the annual climate talks and the G20 will remain important platforms for Western countries to engage with China and raise new commitments. Deeper cooperation will entail moving towards co-financing mechanisms, such as creating new joint climate or clean energy funds or scaling up engagement in existing ones that China contributes to, such as the Green Climate Fund.

2. Reduce biodiversity risks

Last year, China announced the Kunming Biodiversity Fund for protecting biodiversity in developing countries. China and other countries can move this fund towards operation by contributing additional capital and identifying key projects that require funding. Beyond the Kunming fund, China and other countries should raise their financing commitments for conservation efforts. To go along with financing commitments, China has developed regulatory frameworks to govern risks to biodiversity for BRI projects that go beyond host country requirements towards international best practices. Ongoing cooperation on how to monitor and achieve these international best practices is needed, and triangular exchange between China and countries with a longer history of overseas engagement could improve regulatory frameworks in host countries.

3. Increase cooperation for infrastructure development

More financing for sustainable infrastructure development in the Global South is needed. An estimated 2 percent of global GDP will need to be devoted to sustainable infrastructure each year through 2030 to meet development goals. Through mechanisms like triangular cooperation, development finance institutions (both bilateral and multilateral institutions) can share risk to minimize exposure for each participating institution, reach more regions and sectors and increase the amount of finance for sustainable development. China has taken a strongly cooperative tone in its recent green BRI guidance, calling for partnership with the Global South and the Global North. Chinese financing institutions have also established co-financing funds with multilateral development banks and cooperation MOUs with non-Chinese bilateral financing institutions in recent years. Other global infrastructure initiatives, such as the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative and Global Gateway, should consider the benefits to be gained from cooperation with China in terms of the provision of global public goods.

Scaling up cooperation across these three areas can set the tone for the next 50 years of progress on environmental issues, which have become only more urgent since the first Stockholm conference in 1972. With China now playing a major role in the course of global climate, biodiversity and development outcomes, environmental cooperation is more necessary than ever.