Will China’s new climate negotiator Zhao Yingmin be a breath of fresh air?

Echo Xie

China’s new chief climate negotiator Zhao Yingmin has taken on the role at a time when the country’s policies are likely to face intense scrutiny in the year ahead.

The failure to reach agreement at the UN talks in Madrid this month is likely to heighten calls for someone to take the lead after the United States pulled out of a global agreement to limit emissions.

With scientists warning that the world is heating up more quickly than previously forecast, Beijing’s decisions could now prove critical.

Zhao, 55, is seen as having big shoes to fill after replacing Xie Zhenhua, a widely respected veteran who led the Chinese delegation for more than a decade, at the inconclusive Madrid talks, also known as the COP25 summit.

Zhao, an environment vice-minister, has plenty of experience in pollution control and people who have worked with him describe him as can-do and professional – attributes they hope will stand him in good stead during the “overly politicised” negotiations that lie ahead.

In contrast to some officials, he does not stand on ceremony. Wang Canfa, the founder of an Beijing-based organisation that provides legal aid to pollution victims, said Zhao loved to hear a wide range of views and wanted to ensure his ideas were grounded in reality.

Wang described how Zhao was a member of an active WeChat discussion group for environmental policy specialists and officials in contrast to other ministers who are reluctant to sign up to such things.

Zhao Yingmin led the Chinese team at the Madrid climate talks. Photo: Xinhua

Wang, who is also a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, continued that Zhao had been a regular attendee at seminars on air pollution before his promotion and had a strong grasp of the real problems that need to be tackled.

“He is a can-do man, in the sense of very focused on solutions instead of problems, basically identifying the way forward,” said Patrick Verkooijen, chief executive of the Rotterdam-based Global Centre on Adaptation, which this year opened its first regional office outside the Netherlands in Beijing.

He also has a strong track record in combating pollution.

“Zhao is one of the major officials [in this area], where he showed great progress,” said Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“The most noticeable work is tackling air pollution, with results that can be both reflected in the data and recognised both domestically and internationally.”

In 2008, when Zhao was in charge of the environmental standards department, China started revising its air quality standards and incorporated more pollutants, including one of the most harmful small particulates PM2.5, into the measurements.

Four years later, he oversaw a shift in policy goals so that rather than simply reducing pollution, the aim was to improve the overall quality of the environment. This measure has since been adopted as official policy and set the benchmark for the current five-year plan that runs until next year.

Since 2013, when Zhao took charge of the pollution prevention department, China has started campaigns to fight air, water and soil pollution and introduced a series of new prevention plans and laws designed to tackle the problem.

UN climate talks in Madrid close with no agreement on carbon markets

But his new brief brings with it an even greater set of challenges after the Madrid talks ended without agreement on some of the most urgent items on the agenda.

These include establishing a new international market for the trading of carbon permits, paying for climate-related loss and damage and building a long-term climate fund for developing countries.

Ahead of the Madrid summit, scientists warned that the world was heating up more quickly than expected and the key question for 2020 will be whether countries can agree measures designed to limit the rise in global temperatures to between 1.5C and 2C.

While China’s approach to tackling climate change has generally been viewed favourably by the rest of the world – one of the few areas where it has received a positive response in recent years – recent shifts back to coal production and its rising carbon emissions mean that perceptions could change quickly.

“What China does or does not do in 2020 will largely shape China’s image abroad. If China doesn’t grasp this opportunity, the international narrative on China’s climate actions might undergo a systematic change,” Li Shuo, a senior global policy adviser with Greenpeace East Asia, said.Although these decisions are ultimately political ones, policy specialists believe Zhao can play an important role in shaping them.

His predecessor Xie had a similar background in environmental standards and pollution prevention and control and the two men have known each other since the 1990s when Zhao worked as one of his aides at the State Environment Protection Administration.

“Speaking of experiences of climate negotiations, no one can compete with Xie Zhenhua, but the new negotiator China chose is young and capable, and he has abundant experience in dealing with domestic pollution,” said Ma.

COP25 summit: China leads four-nation attack over ‘imbalances’

Greenpeace’s Li said the hundred million dollar question was whether China would stick to its climate commitments next year, adding that it also needed to promote its domestic carbon trading system and green finance schemes.

It is also planning a comprehensive update of its climate adaptation strategies and Verkooijen said these should cover everything from infrastructure and food security to nature-based solutions and finance.

He said China was recognised as a global leader on adaptation, and could help by “putting concrete solutions on the table”.

Verkooijen continued: “Zhao is from the world of action. It is extremely important in these overly politicised negotiations that we have leaders involved.”

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