What will it take for Beijing to meet its climate goals? Changing how it governs entirely

October 22, 2020, 12:32 PM UTC

On Sept. 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared to the United Nations that China would become carbon neutral by 2060, a bold pledge for the world’s largest carbon emitter.  

Xi’s pronouncement drew praise and scrutiny from experts. Some believe that China is showing its readiness to assume a leadership position on global climate initiatives, while others doubted the sincerity of Xi’s vow.

Skepticism aside, China’s ability to meet its pledge rests on whether its leadership is willing to fundamentally change how it governs, argues Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State.

In an Eastworld Spotlight conversation with Fortune, Huang argues that the Chinese Communist Party has long derived its legitimacy from its ability to grow its economy, which often comes at the expense of the environment. The party ensures economic dividends and earns the people’s support in return. China may only succeed at protecting the environment by embracing a different governing philosophy; one based on rule of law, he says. Huang also explains that the COVID-19 pandemic has tarnished China’s global image, but its vaccine diplomacy is a chance to assume more leadership on the global stage. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Fortune: Will China have to sacrifice economic growth to meet climate targets?

Yanzhong Huang: Despite the strong commitment to pollution control, to tackle climate change, the dilemma between economic growth and environmental protection is continuing in the Xi Jinping era. This dilemma has been reinforced in China’s post-COVID era, as local governments try to stimulate economic growth to make up losses incurred during COVID. We’ve actually seen the permits issued to coal-fired power plants increase in 2020, more than those that were issued in 2018 and 2019.

What changes does China need to make to meet its 2060 carbon neutral target?

They do have strong incentives to tackle climate change and environmental health issues. But the problem is that unless they are willing to fundamentally shift their legitimacy base, which focuses on delivering economic growth and [manufacturing exports], to a rule of law–based legitimacy, they will still have strong incentives to pursue economic growth to the detriment of the environment.

Does the U.S.’s lack of participation in international agreements like the Paris climate agreement and the COVAX vaccine initiative open up space for China on the global stage?

Exactly, it is not good news for U.S. global leadership. If you don’t want to engage with China, then you basically allow Beijing to be the standard-bearer or pace-setter in handling global challenges like the environment, pollution, or climate change.

How has China’s role in the world changed amid the pandemic?

China’s relationship with the rest of the world, and especially with the West, has fundamentally changed [amid COVID-19]. We see that in surveys, and even Chinese studies, which show how international public opinion has become significantly more negative towards China. China’s vaccine diplomacy, and especially its recent decision to join COVAX, is China’s response to international criticism, and [it’s] trying to improve its tarnished image during the pandemic. That is also good news for global equitable access to vaccines, but [China’s joining] is not good news to the U.S., unless it’s also willing to be part of this process.

Will China produce a successful vaccine? If so, who will take it?

My educated guess is that China will announce successful development of at least one of their vaccines. They have already been using vaccines to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people in China, and they are certainly going to use the vaccines as a tool for diplomacy, allowing some countries to have priority access.

I expect we will see a divided world in terms of vaccine use. You will find that OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries will prefer U.S.-made vaccines, and many developing countries will have no other choice but to use Chinese-made vaccines. A divided vaccine world is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the vaccines prove safe and effective. It’s just that the U.S. and China could have collaborated with each other in making vaccines a global public good. That would have done a better job in helping the world get out of the pandemic sooner rather than later.

This interview is part of Eastworld Spotlight, a series of conversations on matters of business, tech, and finance with executives, experts, entrepreneurs, and investors in Asia. Subscribe to Fortune’s Eastworld newsletter to get them in your inbox.