China and the United States account for nearly half the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy, while the two countries’ resource consumption is among the biggest threats to global biodiversity. These issues make China and the US major targets for environmental activists like Greenpeace, one of the world’s most prominent advocacy organisations.
Despite the difference in political systems between China and the US, Li Shuo, Senior Climate and Energy Policy Officer at Greenpeace China, says the approach Greenpeace uses in China “is actually not too different from elsewhere.”
“It is an art and craft to build trust, and trust is the most essential ingredient in our business – it is what brings the other side closer to you, a state that even if others disagree they respect where you come from,” Li Shuo told Mongabay during a recent interview.
Similarly, Li Shuo says that both countries seem to be lagging behind on their climate commitments.
“The US and China are rhetorically both for climate action, but my concern is what they are doing in practice is still a far cry from what’s needed to keep 1.5C in sight,” he said. “The US wants to cut 50-52 per cent emissions by 2030. China wants to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. But neither side has so far put concrete policies behind these goals. The climate will not be fooled by big targets if they remain only on paper.”
“There is no climate solution without the G2 rolling towards the same direction,” Li Shuo continued. “The US can do all it can to reduce emissions. It won’t solve the problem as long as China doesn’t comply, and vice versa.”
Another near-term opportunity for China and the US to collaborate on a pressing environmental challenge is the upcoming U.N. Conventional on Biological Diversity (CBD). The event, originally scheduled for October 2020, has now been split into two parts: an online “high level” session in October and a face-to-face conference meeting in spring 2022 in Kunming. The CBD aims to set the post-2020 biodiversity framework, a little more than a decade after the CBD met in Japan to establish the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which today are mostly viewed as having failed to slow the global extinction crisis.
Li Shuo says that like previous climate accords, “the CBD has been good at setting aspirations but weak on implementation.”
“The key thing to watch is whether Kunming will make any difference on implementation and resource mobilisation,” Li Shuo said. “It risks becoming Aichi 2.0 if it doesn’t.”
“There is little sign of Kunming tackling the harder question of ‘how to get there.’ If this does not change in the next few months, Kunming will unfortunately become another stop on the long journey of CBD’s systematic weakening.”
Li Shuo spoke about these issues and more during an August 2021 exchange with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
An interview with Li Shuo
Mongabay: What inspired your interest in the environment? And how did your career path unfold?
Li Shuo: I grew up watching Discovery Channel and National Geographic. My interest really started from these documentary films. As a city boy from Beijing, sadly there’s not much easy access to nature, but these films brought me far. I was in awe of nature.
In college, I studied international relations and law. I always wanted to combine my academic interest with my interest in nature. So in 2011, when Greenpeace was looking for someone to cover the UN climate negotiations and China’s environmental politics, I thought that’s the dream job. I jumped on board fresh out of college. The next ten years proved to be a rewarding journey. I had the privilege of being on the frontline of international climate diplomacy and witnessing its ups and downs. In the meanwhile, the 2010s is a dynamic period for China’s domestic environmental politics. We started with the airpocalypse and huge environmental deficits. To be at the center of these challenges and work towards their improvements is what makes me proud.
Mongabay: What is Greenpeace’s focus in China? And how does Greenpeace engage with the government?
Li Shuo: Greenpeace is one of the largest NGOs in China. We started our presence here 16 years ago and have more than 80 colleagues now in our Beijing office. We work on almost all the pressing environmental challenges in China. Climate change, air and water pollution, forest, ocean are some of our priority areas over the last decade.
Policy advocacy is a big part of our job. For that, we need to engage regularly with the government. A big part of how we do it in China is actually not too different from elsewhere, but it certainly requires more time and effort. It is an art and craft to build trust, and trust is the most essential ingredient in our business – it is what brings the other side closer to you, a state that even if others disagree they respect where you come from.
Mongabay: In a recent presentation you mentioned that opposition to transitioning away from fossil fuels is emerging in China. Is this akin to the sort of campaigns and lobbying we’ve seen for the past few decades in the US? And how powerful is this movement?
Li Shuo: If one sees through the different ways that politics manifests itself in different countries, the core is not that different. There are industries that will lose out in the low carbon transition in the US and they create political resistance. There are similar forces in China. They may not employ exactly the same tactics of the Koch brothers, but what they want to achieve is essentially the same.
The Chinese industrial opposition is actually a sign that the country’s effort of decarbonisation is steering into deep water, that the interests of certain industrial groups are being touched. So in a way, it represents progress. The question that needs to be solved is how to balance divergent interests. In the west, there is the “just transition” discussion. In its own ways, China is getting to that discussion too. It can learn from the experience elsewhere and contribute back.
Mongabay: In March, bilateral talks between China and the United States took place. The conversation was reportedly frosty and it does not appear that there was much progress on climate. Do you see climate as an area of potential collaboration, where the two superpowers put aside their differences to address what could be a very significant threat to both?
Li Shuo: There is no climate solution without the G2 rolling towards the same direction. That’s certainly not what we saw during the Trump administration. With the Biden administration, the US and China are rhetorically both for climate action, but my concern is what they are doing in practice is still a far cry from what’s needed to keep 1.5C in sight. Both countries have put relatively strong targets on paper. The US wants to cut 50-52 per cent emissions by 2030. China wants to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. But neither side has so far put concrete policies behind these goals. The climate will not be fooled by big targets if they remain only on paper.
As for US-China climate cooperation, people need to recognise that the bilateral relationship has changed significantly in recent years. That will limit the space for working together. I believe the minimum that needs to be secured is “engagement”. This means no matter how the relationship unfolds, Beijing and Washington will keep the line of communication open for climate change and separate it from the toxic bilateral dynamics. Leaders on both sides need to understand a simple idea, that unlike other issues on the bilateral agenda, climate change is an issue that they could truly not decouple with each other. The US can do all it can to reduce emissions. It won’t solve the problem as long as China doesn’t comply, and vice versa.
Mongabay: China was supposed to host the CBD last year, but the meeting got postponed due to the pandemic. Where do things stand now on CBD in terms of the government’s appetite supporting meaningful efforts to conserve biodiversity?
Li Shuo: The latest is they will have a two-part COP. The first part featuring a high level segment will take place online in October. The second part, which will see face to face negotiations and the adoption of the post-2020 biodiversity framework, will be arranged next spring.
This delay is not ideal, but the real question now is how to use the extra time to beef up the quality of the deal. For decades, the CBD has been good at setting aspirations but weak on implementation. This syndrome is still prevalent in the Kunming round. The key thing to watch is whether Kunming will make any difference on implementation and resource mobilisation. It risks becoming Aichi 2.0 if it doesn’t.
Mongabay: Do you think Covid will have any sort of lasting impact on China’s policies around wildlife?
Li Shuo: Covid had a short term positive impact on the wildlife protection agenda. New regulations were passed in 2020 that will improve wildlife management. But the real test is over the long term: Making sure enforcement does not wane over time will be a big challenge.
It is also important to realise that the reforms in 2020 did not touch on the most difficult issues, such as wildlife breeding, habitat loss, and reducing market demand. These issues, if not tackled further, could still be hotbeds for zoonotic diseases in future.
Mongabay: What would you see as the best case outcome from CBD?
Li Shuo: Many people like to see Kunming being the Paris moment for biodiversity. The truth is Kunming will not be Paris if it only sets out some targets. The Paris Agreement not only commits the world to “where it needs to be” (as in the 1.5C/2C targets), but also did the groundwork of “how to actually get there” (by having a rulebook and mobilising climate finance).
There is little sign of Kunming tackling the harder question of “how to get there”. If this does not change in the next few months, Kunming will unfortunately become another stop on the long journey of CBD’s systematic weakening.
Mongabay: BRI is a major part of the Chinese government’s plan to expand China’s influence and power around the world. At present, are there any regulations governing the social and environmental impacts of overseas investment and operations by Chinese companies, including SOEs?
Li Shuo: There is an increasing realisation in China that BRI should not be about quantity but quality, including its environmental sustainability. Over the last year, there have been quite a lot of moves in that spirit. For example, the perception of overseas coal projects is changing. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the largest state owned commercial bank, has recently pledged to set a roadmap and timetable for the gradual phase out of coal finance abroad.
Chinese ministries are also issuing soft guidelines to steer companies away from coal and to other low carbon projects. As a result, 2021 has registered no notable overseas coal projects supported by China. Many are hoping that these “bottom up” moves could amount to a “top down” announcement by Chinese leaders – potentially a moratorium for BRI coal projects – before the COP26 climate summit in November.
Mongabay: China also has a significant impact on global fisheries, but much of this activity occurs on the high seas, making it difficult to control or regulate. What levers would drive the Chinese fishing fleet toward less damaging practices?
Li Shuo: Much of the environmentally destructive fishery still exists because of the distorted economics. Our planet has long passed the point for industrial fishing to actually make money. The only reason that industrial fishing is still there is because countries subsidise their fleets heavily for them to go far in search of depleting resources. So for a problem that is intrinsically difficult to oversee (once the boats leave port, there is limited oversight), tackling the economics is the key. That is why the WTO negotiations to reduce harmful fishery subsidies must make progress this year.
Mongabay: What advice do you give to young people who are concerned about the trajectory of the planet?
Li Shuo: Get involved and take action. We are in a planetary emergency, anyone who’s concerned about the environment can’t sit on the sidelines any longer. Convince your peers about environmental activism, and convince your family, and think about how powerful it could be if an entire generation is defined by environmental issues.
The more I work on the environment, the more I believe that changing people’s minds is necessary but not enough. We have to change people’s hearts. Young people are probably best positioned to achieve that.
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