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By YU HONGYUAN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-05-19 07:34
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China should assume a greater role in climate governance in Central Asia

The climate and environmental challenges facing the world have become severe and urgent. The continuous deterioration of the environment affects the utilization of resources necessary for the development of human rights and the economic and geopolitical relations of various countries. Therefore, in recent years, climate and environmental cooperation has become the main axis of cooperation strategy and a core issue between countries and regions.

Looking back, the countries of Central Asia were nodes of the ancient Silk Road. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative during his visit to Kazakhstan and today, the Belt and Road Initiative has become the world's most concerned initiative.

Central Asia's cooperation with China involves various aspects, among them cooperation on climate and environmental issues which is being further deepened.

Over the past few decades, Central Asian countries have made remarkable progress in reducing poverty and achieving economic growth based on natural capital. But in natural resource-based economies, land use has also become unsustainable, leading to soil erosion and degradation, water depletion, and reduced potential for carbon sequestration. At the same time, Central Asian countries are also among those hardest hit by climate change, with the rapid melting of glaciers, intensification of desertification, and threats to biodiversity. Such environmental pressures further aggravate the challenges Central Asian countries face in reducing poverty and achieving shared prosperity.

China has always been a strong promoter and active practitioner of global climate governance and a provider of regional public goods. China is also taking bold measures to address climate change and respond to pressure from international public opinion. With the United States and the European Union having begun to withdraw from their leading roles on environmental issues, the need for China to take the initiative in climate and environmental governance in Central Asia has become more prominent.

When then Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi attended the Third China+Central Asia (C+C5) Foreign Ministers' Meeting last year, he elaborated on 10 major cooperation points with Central Asian countries, of which point eight mentions: promote green and sustainable development, share environmental protection experience and technology, and build a beautiful home where man and nature live in harmony.

The current climate and environmental cooperation between China and Central Asian countries has begun to bear fruit. Progress has been made in the new multilateral dialogue and consultation mechanism established under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; bilateral climate and environmental cooperation projects have become increasingly active with the participation of major international organizations, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The 100-megawatt photovoltaic power station in Kapchagay, Almaty, Kazakhstan, is one of the landmark projects. The power station is Kazakhstan's largest photovoltaic power generation project, which can reduce carbon emissions by 160,000 tons annually. In addition, China has also undertaken projects such as the Khamaina Hydropower Station, the 100-megawatt photovoltaic power station in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and the Bukhara wind power station.

However, climate and environmental cooperation between China and Central Asian countries is not all smooth sailing, and many contradictions need to be resolved. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, it has seriously jeopardized the economic capacity and governance capacity of Central Asian countries.

China and Central Asia are both Asian countries, but they have different social systems and cultures and an economic gap between the two sides exists, so it is challenging to achieve institutional docking.

The Belt and Road Initiative, as China's main avenue for cooperation with Central Asia, is politicized by the US and other Western countries for "pollution diversion" and being "neocolonialist". Although the local governments and elites in the region are generally enthusiastic about the benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative, there are still concerns among the local populations about its potential social and environmental impacts. These have considerably impacted Chinese investment and social stability in Central Asia.

Building consensus, discarding suspicion, and establishing institutionalized cooperation are the top priorities for strengthening climate and environmental cooperation.

Specifically, in response to the urgent energy transition requirements of Central Asian countries, combined with China's industrial advantages, Central Asian governments should focus on constructing an "integrated energy system", cooperating on the development of the renewable energy sector in Central Asia, and realizing regional energy integration

Hydrogen energy is the most important green energy in the era of climate change for Central Asia. The cooperation on green hydrogen energy production between China and Central Asia is replacing technical equipment and 5G as the main focus for cooperation. The China-Central Asia Hydrogen Energy Cooperation Demonstration Zone is under construction. Other renewable energy projects are already in operation. For example, the Zhanatas 100-megawatt wind power project invested by China Huantai Energy Corporation has been successfully connected to the grid.

It is estimated that the energy investment needed to achieve green growth in the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation region (excluding China) is about $339 billion. At present, only one-fourth of this investment has been realized, with most of it from the public sector, and the use of public investment to stimulate private investment and attract foreign capital is the fundamental guarantee for promoting cooperation. With green finance cooperation, China can help Central Asian countries to ease the contradiction between water resources and energy, help Central Asian countries to build hydropower stations and reservoirs for seasonal pumped energy storage, develop electrolytic water to produce hydrogen and hydrogen storage, and realize an energy-food-water nexus.

China and the Central Asian countries should enhance their coordination as climate and environmental cooperation requires continuous and long-term efforts.

The author is a professor and the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Innovation at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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