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HomeAsiaWhy Canada Needs to Cooperate with China on Climate Change

Why Canada Needs to Cooperate with China on Climate Change

Image credit: “Athabasca Glacier, Canada” by

By Sarah Sutherland

This article was originally published in The Hill Times.

Domestic growth needs to be matched with international cooperation, and China will play a critical role in this.

With growing concerns over climate change and heightened discussions about environmental protection, there is no question that Canada must remain engaged with key actors like China to advance the global policy discussion.

Both nations have domestically pursued environmental initiatives aimed at reducing their respective carbon footprints. From a Canadian carbon tax increase to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stated commitment that China will unilaterally aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, the shift towards green economies is clear.

However, pollution knows no borders, and isolated domestic action without global cooperation will only achieve limited results. For Canada to be a leading voice on environment and climate change on the world stage, it is crucial for Ottawa to engage with China, among other countries, to encourage bilateral and multilateral cooperation on environmental protection, research and development in green technologies, and emissions reduction.

However, Canada-China cooperation will not be easy amid bilateral tensions, Canadians’ negative public attitudes toward China, and ongoing U.S.-China competition.

Tensions between the two countries rose to new heights following the 2018 arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Vancouver, and the apparent retaliatory arrests of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in the same year. Both nations have accused the other of unfairly detaining their citizens, essentially freezing bilateral discussions. Despite these tensions, Canada will still need to maintain its relationship with China due to the size of the Chinese economy and its central role in global supply chains, particularly relating to the environmental sector.

China is, and will continue to be, a critical player in the fight against climate change, as it is among the world’s largest energy consumers and carbon producers, thanks to its population of roughly 1.4 billion people. To pursue collective action against environmental degradation, China must be involved in the discussions. That’s why President Xi’s push towards a greener domestic economy is so significant.

The China of 2021 provides a stark contrast to the China of the early 2000s, which overtook the United States to be the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases in 2007, and emitted a staggering 28.5 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions by 2018.

Ottawa has continued to pursue co-operation with the Asian power on key environmental issues since the 1980s, as it has become increasingly evident that all parties must be involved in the global shift towards a greener economy.

The two nations have previously engaged in high-level discussions on issues relating to the environment, which culminated in the Memorandum of Understanding on Climate Change. The goal of the memorandum was to focus bilateral co-operation in areas such as greenhouse-gas mitigation, the development of clean technology, and encouraging increased partnership in other multilateral forums.

In 2018, it was thought that, by 2030, the global transition to a low-carbon economy could be worth nearly US$26-trillion, generating almost 65 million jobs worldwide. The Trudeau government has taken steps to ensure that Canada remains part of this global transition by creating a $2-billion Low-Carbon Economy Fund, which leverages investments in green projects and helps create Canadian jobs in the sector. However, domestic growth needs to be matched with international co-operation, and China will play a critical role in this.

Within the past 10 years, China has produced a significant portion of the globe’s renewable energy. In 2018, Chinese investment in renewable energy peaked at $125-billion, and although investments fell to $83.4-billion in 2019, it still accounts for roughly 23 percent of the global total. China has also supported 12,622 megawatts of solar and wind energy projects in South and Southeast Asia alone. Chinese publication of green and sustainable science and technology research papers, including on energy and fuel consumption, have also increased by more than 138 percent between 2005 and 2019. With such pronounced growth in the Chinese renewable energy sector—far exceeding green investments in the European Union and the United States—it is clear that Canada should cooperate with China to develop global best practices in the green sector.

The environment is also one of the main areas that remains open for global multilateral cooperation, despite increasing tensions between China and the United States. It appears that all sides understand that critical issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss cannot be fixed without the cooperation of all relevant parties.

In fact, one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first acts as president was signing an executive order to rejoin the Paris climate accord. In the coming months, Biden will also likely initiate a project to refocus American environmental policy. This shift presents an opportunity to refocus global policy discussions despite the ongoing great power rivalry.

As Canada remains a key middle power, and continues to engage in domestic improvements to its carbon footprint, it will need to ensure that the global green agenda becomes a critical pillar of its foreign policy. Its continued engagement with China will allow it to efficiently pursue global policy discussions on key environmental issues going forward.