China is absolute world leader in transition toward renewables: former UN official
Published: Dec 02, 2023 10:35 AM
Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

Illustration: Liu Xidan/GT

Editor's Note: The COP28 is underway, amid anticipation toward a worldwide inflection point in the transition away from fossil fuels to a renewable energy economy. The main responsibility of the climate crisis rests with the developed world, but the good news is that big developing countries are acting, Erik Solheim (Solheim), former under-secretary-general of the United Nations and former executive director of the UN Environment Programme, told Global Times (GT) reporters Li Aixin and Qian Jiayin in an interview. Solheim gave two suggestions to developing countries on coping with climate change - putting maximum pressure on rich countries to live up to the expectations to pay for climate damages, and taking actions that benefit both the economy and environment like China. 

GT: What do you expect from COP 28?    

I think two issues will take center stage. One is the loss and damage fund, which is demanded by developing countries and was agreed at COP27. The other issue is the phasing out of oil, which has been highlighted because the conference this year is taking place in the United Arab Emirates, a major oil nation. 

I don't really expect any major outcomes from the talks. That's the bad news. The good news is that it may not be so important, because the main reason for coming together is to bring together business, political leaders and activists to have discussions. Business deals will be made, contacts between political leaders will be made. A lot will happen, even if the diplomacy will not bring a lot of new developments. 

GT: In October, the UN Environment Programme issued a report saying there's "no credible pathway to 1.5C in place" today, despite legally binding promises made at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference. How would you interpret it?

It's a very strong warning to political and business leaders - it's time to act. It is a call to action, urging people to move faster. 

We know from other technological shifts in the past that people tend to be fairly slow until they go very fast. That was the case with the information technology revolution, as well as the first and second industrial revolutions. We are now exactly at that point. Solar, wind and other renewables are not being taken up at a very high speed globally, except in China. We will see massive positive developments in the years to come, but this serves as a very important warning to all of us. 

GT: With this warning as the backdrop, what do you think is needed most to make a difference? 

First, we need to change the energy systems from coal-based to solar, wind and other renewable sources. Second, we need to transition from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric cars. Third, we need to plant more trees and take much better care of mother earth. And fourth, we need to move toward a recycling economy - not to throw away items like shirts, plastics and electronic waste such as cell phones, but recycle them into new products rather than just wasting them. 

GT: As you mentioned, COP28 will discuss phasing out fossil fuels and the transition to renewables. How would you comment on China's efforts in this regard?

It is clear to everyone that China is the absolute world leader (in this transition). Between 60 and 80 percent of all renewable technologies are now happening in China alone, including solar, wind, hydro power, electric cars, buses, trains, batteries…

As an example, I recently attended the 2023 China International Photovoltaic Industry Conference, held in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. China has at least 80 percent of the global market share in solar manufacturing capacity. The rest of the world needs to get up very early in the morning if they want to compete.

GT: Still, there are Western media reports and observers doubting whether China is doing enough to combat the climate crisis, and they tend to blame the crisis more on developing countries. On Monday, the EU climate chief said non-G7 states need to pay up on climate. What's your take on the view?

Historic US emissions per capita are eight times those of China, and 25 times the emissions of India. And if you compare it to Africa, the difference is even greater. So how can anyone blame developing nations like China or India or even Africa for climate change? Climate change is caused by Europe and North America and a few other developed nations. 

But the good news is that the big developing nations like China and India are not just saying America or Europe need to make a move. They are not the world leaders. China is the world leader in all green technologies. India and other giants of the developing world are also coming forward very fast. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is launching new green missions for India. 

So while the main responsibility rests with the developed world, the good news is that big developing nations are acting. Look at China's promise to hit a carbon emission peak before 2030. In all likelihood that will happen in 2025. It may even happen in 2024 simply because renewables in China are now so massive.

GT: On X, you wrote that "the richest 1 percent were responsible for the same carbon pollution as the poorest two thirds of humanity - 5 billion people." Why do you think some other Western people do not see it that way? 

Sometimes big companies or political leaders want to blame someone rather than taking action themselves. This makes me crazy. It's not a woman at the water pump in Africa trying to feed her children who is causing climate change. It's the multibillionaires in Wall Street and Europe and also some rich people in developing nations. These people are driving climate change through their extravagant lifestyle. 

But we are in this boat together. Everyone needs to play their part. The more affluent and strong nations need to act more because they are the most responsible for the crisis and they should never blame the crisis on other parts of the world. 

GT: You also touched on the key takeaway from COP27 - the establishment of a fund to help developing countries cope with climate change. How do you view rich countries' record and the likelihood of meeting their climate funding goal?

I am sorry to say that the rich countries do not have a good record in living up to climate promises. 

Developing nations should thus do two things at the same time. One, put maximum pressure on North America and Europe to live up to the expectations to pay, because climate adaptation can basically only happen through government. Governments need to prepare for cyclones, sea level rises and changing patterns in agriculture. Adaptation will need funding.

But I will also give a recommendation to developing nations - please look at what China and India are doing. They see the climate change also as an opportunity. They will capture markets and grow their economies. It's not just a problem. It's an enormous opportunity. 

China, for example, did not have a brand of any significance in the old automobile industry that could be compared to Volkswagen or Toyota. What did China do? It made a leapfrog into the electric car industry. BYD is now the world's largest producer of electric vehicles by number of vehicles produced. About 10 Chinese companies, including Geely, Nio, Hongqi are now competing for the global market for electric cars. CATL holds the largest market share in China's EV battery industry. 

Rather than waiting for others to act, China has acted to the benefit of the Chinese people, the economy and the global environment. Developing countries need to fight for climate justice, and at the same time look for opportunities where the economy and the environment both benefit.

GT: China and the US recently agreed to restart their collective efforts to combat the climate crisis. What significance does it have for the global response to climate change, and what's the most critical issue that the two countries need to address right now on climate cooperation?

The most important thing is to open up for mutual trade and investment, because that will drive the green economy. General Motors and Ford are seeing how fast BYD and other Chinese companies are moving in the electric car industry. They want to compete. They want to do better, but they may need Chinese batteries to do this faster. The more trade there is and the more exchange of technologies there is, the faster the green transformation will happen. 

China and the US should also look into what they can offer, such as providing more technological support to the developing world. To me, it's an absolute no brainer - every big issue in the 21st century, climate, environment, restarting the economy after COVID, creating peace in Ukraine or in Palestine - whatever the issue — we are much better off if China and the US work together. 

Allow me to comment on President Xi's speech at the forum in front of American business leaders in San Francisco. That was such a positive speech. It showed a lot of respect to the achievements of the US and to the achievements of the American people. That's exactly what we need because Americans should show respect to China, and China should show respect to the US. Then we can get a much better world.