Home / Blog / China using Canadian think tank to bolster its green image: critics

China using Canadian think tank to bolster its green image: critics

Jun 13, 2023Jun 13, 2023

'Its purpose is to bring in money and legitimacy to China's often feeble attempts at combating local pollution and climate change overall'

Funded by the federal government, a Canadian think tank has for four years been acting as the international secretariat for a Chinese environmental agency headed by one of Beijing’s most powerful Communist Party leaders.

Its little-known role adds to an unusual, longstanding and controversial collaboration between Canada and the Chinese government-founded agency. Touted as an advisory body for policy makers in Beijing, the council is accused by critics of being part of China’s vast global influence machine.

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Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development helps carry out Canadian-led projects for the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), manages its international donations and appoints advisers, according to the council’s website.

The institute started doing the work in 2019, months after China detained two Canadians in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a Huawei executive in Vancouver, plunging relations between the nations into a prolonged deep freeze.

It took over the secretariat job from B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, which had run the office since 1992.

The Canadian government spearheads the project and has provided about $1.5 million a year in funding under both Conservative and Liberal prime ministers for 30 years — similar to China’s own contribution, said an Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesman.

Proponents say it’s important to engage with the advisory organization given that China is key to combating climate change. It has the world’s highest output of carbon emissions, the numbers rising sharply since the 1990s and not expected to plateau until 2030.

But some analysts charge that the council uses foreign environmentalists and governments — and their cash — to bolster the country’s green image. The group’s chair is Ding Xuexiang, China’s vice premier, a former director of President Xi Jinping’s office and member of the party’s powerful Politburo standing committee.

“It is, above all, a political institution and its purpose is to bring in money and legitimacy to China’s often feeble attempts at combating local pollution and climate change overall,” Czech sinologist Filip Jirous said in an email interview. “By making foreigners and foreign organizations invest in this political venture, they effectively silence them.”

Conservative MPs called earlier this month for Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to resign as executive vice chair of the council, a position also held by previous Liberal and Tory ministers. Guilbeault is scheduled to meet with the council on a trip to China this week.

Founded under former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, the Manitoba-headquartered institute defended its work with the council, arguing the Chinese agency is making a real contribution to the climate-change battle.

“As the world faces the interrelated crises of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss — threats that cross all borders and require urgent international cooperation — CCICED has been a meaningful forum for global sustainable development efforts,” the institute said in a statement to the National Post.

Samuel Lafontaine, an Environment Canada spokesman, also called the relationship valuable.

“Existential global environmental challenges cannot be effectively addressed without China’s contribution, given its size, population and carbon-intensive economy,” he said.

Critics, however, see little reason for Canada to essentially help run and finance a Chinese state agency.

It might have made sense decades ago for Ottawa to fund the council as an inducement for Beijing to do the right thing environmentally, but there is “no way” the world’s second-largest economy needs the aid today, said David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to Beijing from 2009 to 2012.

By making foreigners and foreign organizations invest in this political venture, they effectively silence them

Meanwhile, the whole world is paying a price for China’s “addiction” to burning coal, he said. The country continues to build coal-fired generating plants, though they are the biggest emitters of climate-altering carbon.

“Canada’s funding is, I believe, a rather pathetic way of keeping our foot in the door in Beijing,” said Mulroney. “Unfortunately, it also helps sustain the fiction that China is somehow unable to act in its own self-interest, much less in ours.”

While it undoubtedly does some good work on green issues, the CCICED is also the leading organization in China’s campaign to essentially co-opt environmentalists around the world, wrote Jirous in a report last fall for the Washington, D.C.-based Jamestown Foundation. He detailed how some of its top officials have backgrounds in agencies involved in projecting China’s influence globally.

Western environmentalists who work with Chinese groups like the CCICED tend to blunt or avoid sharp criticism of China, his report documented. Greenpeace, on the other hand, has no apparent ties of that sort and seems more than willing to criticize, Jirous wrote.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development says it took on the secretariat role for the Chinese agency after a competitive bidding process run by Environment and Climate Change Canada. But none of the federal money it gets ends up in the coffers of China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment or any Chinese entities, said a spokeswoman.

Neither China nor Canada is a standout in the preeminent environmental issue of the day — the drive to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that climate scientists say are heating the Earth to dangerous levels. Both countries earn a “highly insufficient” rating from the Climate Action Tracker group.

China does have the distinction of being by far the world’s largest generator of carbon dioxide emissions, with the United States second — but first per capita — and Canada 11th, according to 2021 data on the Statista website. Though Beijing has invested heavily in renewable energy and electric vehicles, it continues to add new coal-fired generating plants.

But Caroline Brouillette of Climate Action Network Canada defended this country’s work with the council, saying politicians and pundits often use China as a convenient punching bag for climate change, while ignoring their own country’s lack of response.

“We cannot solve the climate crisis without international cooperation — which means continuing engagement, even when tensions are high,” said Brouillette. “CCICED has played an important role in fostering this diplomatic dialogue with China over the years.”

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