China in Global Climate Change Politics

18. Jan 2012

One of the paradoxes that COP17 left us with to solve is that of how to really understand China as a global climate change player. China has become more and more sure of herself both politically and economically  in any global setting. But when it comes to global climate change politics, we see a very careful and non-committing China. At home China is, however, doing quite a lot to transform the Chinese economy from brown growth to green growth as the recent five-year plan revealed as well as the figures for investments in renewables, where China is among the biggest investors in the world and leading in some technologies. Why is it then so difficult for China at the global stage to act more in accordance with national actions? The world would surely welcome it! More than that, the world expects it, and is not late to shame China for any failures in global negotiations as happened after the breakdown of COP15. Here, it is not so important whether or not China was to blame, the point is, that Chinese leaders were very surprised and had a hard time understanding this negative campaigning. At COP16 and COP17 it was clear that China had done a lot to prevent a similar negative campaigning. Chinese public statements about Chinese climate policies has since become very positive and open – but they still sound hollow as only national not global action is taken by China. And the world has become increasingly aware that other important players should also be held accountable for the lack of success in global climate talks; namely the USA, Canada, India and Russia.

Much of the confusion over China can be found in misperceptions over Chinese international policies and priorities. (Communist) China is still a relatively young actor in global politics, and on many issues, the Chinese position seems to be: leave domestic matters for ourselves to work out. A question of classic sovereignty as defined by Morgenthau. Chinese leaders make us believe that China is indeed a unitary actor. So when China is put under international pressure to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and commit to a global legally binding agreement, many fail to understand how fragmented China really is, and how difficult it is for China to undertake a needed transformation from a coal based to a sustainable economy.

And although climate change politics is one of the Chinese leadership’s main concerns, it is primarily a domestic concern related to three interlinked issues; energy security, sustainable economic development, and social stability and progress. China’s primary international concern is, however, to protect China’s sovereignty. Within China there are many diverging interests and understandings of climate change. Regions, cities, Chinese and foreign companies as well as NGO’s each play their different part in China’s economic, social, and environmental development. Officially these non-state actors cannot play a role in Chinese foreign policy, but they are still part of what frames the international understanding that China is becoming greener, because the green actors and the central government have an interest in showcasing their green development – thereby attracting investments or gaining other co-benefits such as better public health.

Other actors in the coal industry and the majority of the production economy dependent on cheap and accessible energy should also be taken into account. These actors protect their vested interests and fight against moving too fast from a brown to a green economy. And coal is still by far the largest energy source in China.

So there are many incentives for the Chinese leaders to present China as green and going green, but it is far harder to achieve, because of the fragmented domestic scene.

The major reason, however,  for Chinese lack of global commitment is that an eventual implementation of a global legally binding climate change agreement will clash with priority number one: sovereignty. And it will furthermore have enormous consequences for China’s role in the developing world.

In the global institutional framework being negotiated there is a pressure from most of the developed world, including USA and Canada, to agree on a global standardisation of how to measure and report GHG levels and reductions. The argument is simple and persuasive: If we don’t have the same measures globally we will not be sure that we’re doing enough – we won’t even be sure about what needs to be done. This principle is called MRV – Measure, Report, Validate – and this clashed with the Chinese understanding of sovereignty in such a degree, that China is fighting the principle of MRV with all means. The Chinese leaders all to vividly imagine what the consequences would be, if an international corps of GHG-controllers were allowed to enter China and validate the Chinese statistics with access to even the smallest coal plant and factory. This in itself is not so scary, but the dangers are many; Chinese statistics could be full of mistakes (deliberate or not), which would mean more international shaming, but the biggest danger is that the principle of the international community gaining access to China to validate progress on a certain policy area means that soon enough, human rights would be mentioned as the next area.

A different kind of consequence of a Chinese commitment to a global legally binding agreement is that of a change in definitions of equity. One of China’s main arguments against Chinese commitment is framed as common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) meaning basically that climate change is a global problem and common for all to share the burden, but the developed world must bare the biggest burden and do most since historically and per capita the developed world is more responsible, etc.

China is still aligned with the developing world on this issue. But if China really opened up for discussions on binding commitments, equity and CBDR would have to be reinterpreted; by asking if equity is the same for all developing countries – are there not a substantial difference between the small island states and e.g. China, which would then – more true to China’s economic size and growth rates categorise China as an emerging economy? It would split up the world in many more categories than just the developed and developing countries with a much more differentiated understanding of responsibility than is currently attached to the principle of equity and CBDR.

Furthermore, a China with a different global identity will probably lose her ability to act as a leader of the developing world in international forums like the UN. And China would lose her status as a developing country within the WTO, which would mean losing benefits of subsidies, the ability to keep tariffs. And maybe China would also be more easily pressured into letting the currency float. This is in this light we must understand Obama’s phrasing of China as a grown-up.

So for all these reasons and Chinese imaginations of “what could go wrong”, China is doing what is possible domestically but resisting a global legally binding agreement on fighting climate change.

Lau Blaxekjær
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
Copenhagen University