Making Economies Green Again: From Beijing to Tehran
While the Trump Administration forges ahead on its doctrine of America First by exiting the Paris Agreement, powers like India and China remain committed. China, in particular, has invested billions into green energy, not only at home, but also abroad. While the U.S. is in diplomatic disarray, China is eager to fill in the leadership gap. China has the potential to shine in a leadership role on climate, through the practice of ‘green diplomacy’–it offers the global power increased influence and engagement with formerly isolated states, notably Iran.
From Washington to Beijing
Iran’s newly re-elected globalist President Hassan Rouhani stands in stark contrast to the election of the nominally nationalist President Donald Trump. Trump’s announcement of withdrawal from the Paris Agreement reflects his administration’s current isolationism and American retrenchment. In regards to both Iran and climate policy, the U.S. has ceded its leadership to China. While the U.S. wavers on the idea of rapprochement with Iran, China is happy to continue engagement.
Encouraging stability in Iran is helpful for Chinese interests, considering Iran’s position in the Middle East as both a military and economic power. Engaging with Iran is but one step towards China’s increasing leadership role in the region. This will is reflected by their “belt and road” initiative, of which Iran is also a part. For this initiative, China is spending roughly $150 billion a year on infrastructure projects in 68 countries along the historic Silk Road. It is worth noting that the United States’ other geopolitical rival, Russia, also happens to be heavily involved in this project. Iranian interests coincide with Russia’s in the Middle East, pushing them towards closer cooperation. Indeed, Russia and Iran’s support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria illustrates this relationship. Regardless, China recently included climate goals in the program. The end goal is to create a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ by land and a ‘Maritime Silk Road’ by sea. The upshot is an increase in Chinese influence, particularly in Middle Eastern and South Asian states.
The key takeaway is that the absence of U.S. leadership threatens America’s place as Asia’s indispensable power. Considering Chinese oceanic ambitions and their potential threat to free and open seas through their nine-dash line initiative, it is imperative the U.S. rises to the challenge. Although the Obama administration attempted to do so with its ‘pivot’ to Asia, the current administration has sent mixed messages to South Asian allies, thereby threatening Washington’s credibility. This is undeniably troubling, for as America scrambles, China is fully prepared to engage with other states on common ground. An article in Zimbabwe’s The Herald highlighted that, as a fellow developing country, China does not “underestimate” its partner and that their investment is a “win-win.” As it stands, it would be difficult for the U.S. to compete with that level of praise. Green diplomacy offers additional avenues with which to engage with states like, in this case, Iran.
Iran’s Emerging Environmental Movement
Environmental deterioration in Iran has reached a tipping point with Iran facing soil degradation, water shortages, and some of the worst air pollution in the world. In February, water shortages and air pollution galvanized five days of protest in Ahvaz, a city who topped the World Health Organization’s air pollution list in 2013.
While poor government oversight has contributed to Iran’s environmental decline, international sanctions against Iran have contributed significantly to its domestic air pollution problem. Although Iran has vast petroleum reserves, Iran largely relied on imports of refined gasoline from places like Europe for individual use. When sanctions cut this supply, Iran had to adapt existing infrastructure into refineries to meet the needs of its populace, resulting in the widespread use of pollutant-laden, low-quality gasoline.
Iran’s fledgling environmental movement has not gone unnoticed by Iran’s top officials. Recent elections have featured concerned politicians touting their environmental efforts. During the 2016 Parliamentary elections, hundreds of candidates from around the country signed an environmental pact as an attempt to appeal to voters’ concerns for air and water degradation. Rouhani gained popularity four years ago by vowing to save the disappearing Lake Urmia and has cited its conservation efforts as a success of his administration.
While economic troubles ultimately define Iran’s elections, candidates of all ilk are including environmental issues in their platforms. This, however, should not come as a surprise. The World Bank estimated that air pollution costs Iran $13 billion a year. Iran is also a signatory of the 2015 Paris Agreement and includes environmental protection as a “public duty” in its constitution. Under the Paris Agreement, Iran has pledged to reduce its emissions 4% below business as usual by 2030. In the past, Iran has had trouble meeting its greenhouse gas mitigation targets and, as mentioned in their Paris INDC, they largely attribute this lack of progress to “unjust sanctions.”
Like many developing nations, Iran will rely heavily on assistance and some good faith from the international community to meet its environmental goals. It is one of ten countries that explicitly name nuclear power in their climate change mitigation strategy. It would therefore be very difficult for Iran to meet its nuclear energy goals without the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (i.e. the ‘U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal’). Currently, with regards to Iran, the JCPOA is in flux, with the Trump administration planning to “review” the deal. For Iran’s sake, the re-election of Rouhani reflects a referendum that reaffirms Iranian commitment to the JCPOA and globalism, with Rouhani pledging reengagement with the international community since his first term. Couple this with the government’s approval for foreign investment in renewables and Iran has fertile ground for green diplomacy.
Beijing Meets Tehran
To avoid harming the economy while working towards climate goals, Iran will require foreign investments to help grow its base of renewable energies. China is happy to invest, unlike the United States. China has invested heavily abroad from Germany and Brazil to Chile, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam, which in turn bolsters its own renewable sector.
The similarities between Iran and China’s domestic environmental issues could not be more striking. Both are experiencing crippling air pollution, which is affecting how the public views the government. In an attempt to do something about it, both governments have instituted driving restrictions to keep cars off the road and both have kept children out of school when air pollution reached dangerous levels. Poor government oversight is also an important contributor to environmental degradation in both countries. “The sky is high and the Emperor is far away” is a Chinese saying illustrating just that: Beijing, like Tehran, has difficulty monitoring local environmental officials, which leads to corruption. With these similarities, it’s hard not to draw conclusions that China is increasingly well-equipped to help Iran deal with its environmental problems.
Unlike Iran, China possesses the financial might to make changes necessary to address some of these domestic issues; it has shuttered coal plants and is investing billions into renewable energies. As China is already invested in Iran in other areas, like defense and infrastructure, it would not be much of a leap to include clean energy.
Brave Green World
President Trump specifically targeted the Green Climate Fund, which provides monies to developing countries to help them implement their INDCs, in his Paris-exit speech. But rather than a give-away, as the President framed it, investment in the Green Climate Fund should be seen as green diplomacy. It is a way for the U.S. to further diplomatic engagement with developing countries at a time when U.S. diplomacy is chaotic and its primacy in the world is uncertain. Chinese international investment has thus far provided China increased influence with little diplomatic backlash. China has continued to improve its image as a global leader on climate change while the U.S. falls behind, and clean energy investment in Iran would be no exception.
Arbiters Michaela Koke and Drake MacFarlane coauthored this piece. You can learn more about them here.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or the views of Arbitror itself.
Photo: “Tehran Pollution,” Originally taken by Matthias Blume with a CC license. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.