By: Isabel Hilton

In 2009, the global climate conference in Copenhagen came close to disaster because of China’s obstreperous position on limiting carbon emissions. As leaders of 160 countries now convene in Paris on measures to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Centigrade, China is positioned to be on the side of angels.

The turnaround is a story of reevaluation of self-interest, opportunism and leadership in adopting tough decisions. A telling confrontation occurred during the final hours of the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen. The hoped-for ambition in the Copenhagen climate deal had been derailed by China’s insistence that meaningful targets – none of which committed the country to immediate action – be removed. These included peaking global emissions by 2020 and an 80 percent cut in industrialized country emissions, alongside a 50 percent cut in global emissions, by 2050.

Wen Jiabao, then China’s premier, remained out of sight during these negotiations, delegating an official to negotiate with world leaders, including President Barack Obama. When the Chinese official tried to remove mention of limiting global average temperature rises to 1.5C, the threshold that small island states regard as essential to their survival, it proved too much for Mohamed Nasheed, then president of the Maldives, a tiny country composed of 26 low-lying atolls in the Indian Ocean.

“How can you ask my country to go extinct?” he demanded, a David versus Goliath moment that put an end to China’s already threadbare claim as champion of the poorest against the world’s powerful developed nations.

The Villain in Copenhagen

China emerged as a villain of COP15: Its coal habits made it the world’s biggest emitter in 2005, and emissions continued to soar. Truculent insistence that China be treated like the poor developing country it had been at the start of Kyoto process in 1992 created difficulties for Obama’s hopes of generating US support for climate action. A few countries could singlehandedly wreck the world’s attempts to avoid climate catastrophe.

But China is among the main hopes for COP21, the climate conference taking place in Paris. The United States and China substituted cooperation for mutual recrimination more than a year ago, when their respective leaders agreed on a climate accord, one of the few bright spots in a troubled bilateral relationship. China has also begun a radical transition from its fossil-fuel dependent and polluting model of growth towards a low-carbon economy.

Furthermore, China has promised to peak its emissions by 2030 or earlier, a significant change in attitude since 2009 when the nation not only refused to name a peak year but also blocked others from naming theirs. China has become the world’s largest investor in national renewable energy and the world’s leading market for clean-energy finance, attracting US$54.2 billion investment in renewables in 2013, rising to US$89.5 billion in 2014.

China Drives Down Solar Costs

By manufacturing at scale, China has also reduced the global price of solar technologies by roughly two thirds. The country’s wind power capacity, just 126,000 kilowatts in 2005, reached 96 gigawatts in 2014, with installed solar capacity reaching 28 gigawatts.

China also announced plans to set up the world’s largest national cap-and-trade scheme by 2017 and installed green ambitions at the center of the 13th Five Year Plan launching in 2016. It pledges to set up a fund to help the poorest adapt to climate change.

The beginnings of China’s green revolution were present at COP15: Senior leadership had been well briefed on climate-change impacts and the toxic legacy of three decades of high carbon, highly polluting industrialization. But China was still building massive infrastructure, racing to expand cities designed around roads and cars, and churning out steel and cement, all fueled by the coal-fired power that provided more than 70 percent of the country’s energy.

Despite this unpromising panorama, the end of the era of cheap, investment- and export-led growth, the era of high GDP growth at all costs – was in sight. China was close to pricing itself out of the market in cheap goods, in part because of its success: wages had risen and labor, one of China’s competitive advantages, was less abundant, in part because of China’s extreme family-planning policies. The pollution crisis was becoming too great to ignore.