Research, development and innovation (R&D&I) into clean technologies are vital in the global transition to net-zero, and to ‘building back better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic. For China, further integrating its R&D&I policy with climate action would contribute to the country’s leadership in raising climate ambition and accelerating climate diplomacy, says Lucie Xia, summarising the progress being made and where China’s next moves should lie.

Integrating R&D&I and climate action

The Made in China 2025 strategy, published in 2015, features prominently in China’s R&D&I policies. It articulates how China aspires to become a world leader in high-tech industries, strengthening domestic innovation and reducing its reliance on foreign technologies while moving up in global value chains. China’s national innovation system is coordinated by the Ministry of Science and Technology, which works with relevant government departments to improve incentive mechanisms for technological innovation. R&D&I policies are crucial to the major acceleration in the clean energy transition that is necessary for the country to reach its target of carbon neutrality by 2060.

However, to date, China has tapped into only a fraction of its technology and innovation potential. Its R&D spending accounted for 2.4 per cent of the country’s aggregate GDP in 2020. More financial support to R&D&I is necessary for the implementation of a synergistic policy system that addresses the climate crisis.

With a view to providing dual support for climate mitigation and climate adaptation, China should reorganise and reprioritise its climate-related R&D policies and initiatives, and aim to turn itself into a global R&D&I power that is able to influence global standards, supply chains and drive innovation in technologies that will help combat climate change. Its R&D priorities to 2025 should focus on energy storage technologies, zero-carbon fuels and energy conversion processes.

Solidifying R&D&I and climate diplomacy  

More strategic alignment between China’s domestic R&D&I policies and its pursuit of science diplomacy and enhanced international climate cooperation is now required. The urgency of the climate challenge necessitates technological innovation and there is an international imperative to strengthen concerted diplomatic efforts in climate-related R&D&I.

Cooperation between China and the EU on climate-related R&D&I is underpinned by the Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement signed in 1998, and was strengthened by the renewal in 2018 of a joint Agreement for Science and Technology. Recognising that innovation is at the core of both their strategies for sustainable development, China and the EU are currently negotiating a new Joint Roadmap for the Future of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Cooperation, which aims to raise the level and intensity of EU–China bilateral research and innovation cooperation. These R&D&I dialogues and initiatives feed into the annual High-level Environment and Climate Dialogue (HECD) between China and the EU, launched in 2020, which elevated the EU–China climate dialogue that started formally in 2005 to ministerial level. The HECD acts as a key platform for both sides to show climate action leadership and to enhance bilateral cooperation on climate change.

The UK–China dialogue on climate and energy that commenced in 2006 is another important aspect of China’s climate diplomacy and international cooperation on R&D. The UK–China Joint Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation Cooperation was officially launched in December 2017, and is the first bilateral science and innovation strategy developed jointly by China with another country. At the 2021 China–UK Joint Commission on Science, Technology and Innovation Cooperation, both countries agreed that their respective STI strategies, including China’s 14th Five-Year Plan for Science, Technology and Innovation and the UK’s Research and Development Roadmap, offer synergies. China and the UK confirmed a common vision in addressing climate change and biodiversity, and the ambition for strengthened cooperation in the future. It is encouraging to see that science and innovation are taking centre stage in cooperation between China and the UK on climate change, given that both countries need now to accelerate the technological, social, economic and political change that will enable them to reach their net-zero targets.   

The internationalisation of China’s R&D policy is also embedded in China’s commitment to the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and UN-led climate diplomacy. The 2030 Agenda highlighted science, technology and innovation as key means that can facilitate the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). China’s role in the UNFCCC’s Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) has been instrumental to its recent work, promoting collaboration in climate research and systematic observation and acting as a link between scientific information from expert sources.

China should continue to support global cooperation on climate mitigation technology through accelerating and expanding these actions in Track 1.5 (governmental and non-governmental mixed diplomacy) and Track 2 diplomacies (non-governmental diplomacy). For example, China should continue to take a leadership role in Mission Innovation, an ambitious initiative launched by 20 countries including China, India, the US, Indonesia and Brazil alongside the Paris Agreement in 2015, with the aim of bringing together governments, public authorities, companies, investors and academia to work on making clean energy affordable.

Taking a strategic route forward

As Article 10 of the Paris Agreement states, “Accelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development”; China should be more confident and strategic in leading the way in climate-related R&D&I to achieve a net-zero, climate-resilient and nature-positive future.

This commentary draws on the Policy Insight Internationalism in climate action and China’s role, published by the Grantham Research Institute on 31 January 2022.

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