How was COP23 reported locally?

How does the German media view China's shift towards greater climate leadership? Asks Zhang Dongfang 

Germany hosted this year’s United Nations climate talks (the 23rd Conference of Parties or COP23) in Bonn over the past two weeks on behalf of Fiji, but media reports on the talks in week one were dominated by coverage of  Trump’s trip to Asia and Germany’s domestic coalition talks.

Of course, COP23 made a splash worldwide, with China frequently featured in reports, whether for its development of renewable energy or its role in shaping a new form of climate governance. The key questions asked by outlets included: With Trump taking the US out of the Paris Agreement, can China become a new climate leader? And with Germany saying farewell both to coal burning and the internal combustion engine, is China’s progress on renewables and electric vehicles a threat?                                    

New leadership

On China’s willingness to take over leadership on climate action,  Spiegel Online, one of Germany’s top current affairs magazine, said in an article entitled How the US plans to outwit China that “in comparison with Obama’s America, China’s “bridge-building plan” (coined by China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, which refers to strengthening ties between the two countries), indicates less willingness to make sacrifices: it stresses its own status as a developing nation which is therefore unwilling to accept obligations.” And “without a strong sense of responsibility and fulfilment of obligations, China cannot become a world leader in climate change negotiations.”

This reflects one aspect of the conflict between two camps: developed and developing nations.

The regional German newspaper Badische Zeitung, wrote in Developing nations feel mislead on environmental issues that there is a crisis of trust: “From the first day of the talks the lack of trust between developed and developing nations has been apparent.”

The same article went on: “The developing nations don’t want to take action towards the 2020 goals, as the earlier Kyoto Protocol still applies, which gives the developed nations responsibility to act… At the first meeting China and Iran asked to put pre-2020 action on the agenda.” Fiji’s proposal on delaying discussion of pre-2020 action until next year sparked conflict.

“One Indian diplomat said in an interview that the proposal was unacceptable: it means India, China and other developing nations would have to implement tougher climate policies.”

“Staff from environmental group Friends of Nature stressed that the proposal removes the distinction between developed and developing nations.”

That means “the precondition of breaking the deadlock is more action from developed nations prior to 2020.”

Naturally, when looking at the developed nations, the German media starts at home: “Environment minister Barbara Hendricks was applauded for saying Germany will continue to spend 50 million Euros helping poor countries respond to climate change; however she must explain if German prestige has suffered due to being unable to meet 2020 climate goals.” For example, reducing emissions by 40%.

And it’s not just a matter of prestige – it affects the struggle ongoing between the two camps.

The bluntest critic of the developing nations was German national newspaper Die Welt, in Developing nations do too little on the environment, which had this to say on China:

“China is buying mines and companies around the world and investing in infrastructure in One Belt, One Road nations. But at the climate change talks this superpower is happy to describe itself as a newly industrialising country.” And “What can developing nations and newly industrialising countries do, beyond negotiating for money at international talks? Clearly, they have not done enough.”

The article cited figures from Bloomberg New Energy Finance: A study of renewables investment in non-OECD nations between 2010 and 2016 found that “between 2010 and 2015 investment grew constantly. After the Paris Agreement, investment dropped from US$151.6 billion to US$111.4 billion” and “three quarters of that drop came from China.  But spending by the rest of the non-OECD countries also fell by 25%  from the 2015 level, it added.

However, China does have a positive image in the Chinese media when it comes to climate governance.

Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung’s China, environmental protection’s new pioneer, quoted environment minister Barbara Hendricks as saying at the talks that “We can rely on China. China itself has the interest and the will to take the lead,” before explaining that Hendricks “is qualified to judge, having visited China several times since taking office. She is clear that China’s turnaround on climate governance springs from its own interests.”

In an interview with environmental expert Reimund Schwarze, research body Helmholtz took a deeper look at China’s leadership role. When asked whether China is willing to take on a bigger climate leadership role, Schwarze pointed out the difficult position China holds:

“The latest reports show that globally, we expect 2017 to see carbon dioxide emissions to increase, which is largely due to China. This does not mean that China is not seriously interested in more environmental protection. China has been very constructive throughout the negotiations. The Chinese can justify not achieving their climate goals in much the same way as our Chancellor does for Germany: It is extremely difficult and economic growth should not suffer. However, both countries have made no concrete commitments to how they want to improve.”

A new threat?

Another topic has been China’s rise in the new energy sector – of particular concern for Germany.

A Focus magazine article, The Bonn climate change talks will decide if we can trust our climate policy, explained Germany’s concerns over its future energy policy: “First, nobody knows what kind of climate policy Germany will have after the ongoing coalition talks; second, everyone knows Germany has no chance of meeting 2020 climate targets.”

Against this background, German worries are focussed on whether or not it is time to bid farewell to coal-burning and the internal combustion engine. And when criticising Germany, reports recognise China’s gains in new technology markets: China’s efforts on renewables and electric cars have left Germany far behind.

In China: from climate criminal to climate saviour, Deutsche Welle compared China and Germany: “Last year China invested US$78 billion in solar energy, Germany invested US$13 billion. By 2020 China will have invested US$361 billion – far more than any other nation.”

TV channel ZDF used “China’s green ambition” to describe the scale and progress of China’s efforts on solar energy.

But it wasn’t all one-sided. Deutsche Welle’s China, an over-estimated climate champion pointed out the other side of China’s renewables development: “From 2015 to 2016 China’s solar power generation grew 80%, but still accounted for no more than 1% of total generation. Wind power was a similar story: 18% growth, but only 4% of the total. Coal-fired power generates 65% of all China’s electricity.”

On one hand, China’s strong development of renewables. On the other, enormous energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions which far outstrip those benefits. There is much hope, but also concerns. And this is why China, like the elephant in the room, cannot be ignored.