Is China a Leader or Laggard on Climate Change?

A ChinaFile Conversation

As ongoing climate talks wind down at COP21 this week, participants in and observers of the summit in Paris wrote in to share their assessment of the message coming from the official delegation from China, currently the world’s largest emitter of the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. —The Editors


In a series of temporary buildings erected on the bleak and windy site of a former airport in the suburbs of Paris, 189 countries are burrowing down into a text that aims to offer humanity a future by avoiding runaway climate change. From the breathtaking scale of the headline ambition, the activity comes down to a few thousand exhausted negotiators arguing over commas, square brackets, and single words in a repeatedly revised text. On the ground it is an intense process, every nuance of which is tracked and relayed by several thousand others—businessmen, politicians, press, and civil society activists.

At the center of this is the relationship between the world’s two biggest emitters—the United States and China: the United States, with per capita emissions at 16.5 tonnes a year, and China with per capita emissions at 7.2 tonnes. The E.U. per capita equivalent is 6.8 tonnes, and coming up on the flank, India, with per capita emissions of around 2 tonnes, seems determined to emulate China’s carbon heavy industrialization, while simultaneously planning to install an ambitious solar program. This will never be other than a complex play of interests that requires maximum political will to avoid breakdown.

After the disastrous COP 15 in Copenhagen, China was widely blamed for the failure to reach a deal, although there was no shortage of possible candidates. Then, as now, China had promised in advance to support an agreement, but come the closing hours, China seemed unable or unwilling to bring new ideas to the table to overcome the impasses, and could not embrace the fast moving flexibility that the final stages of such negotiations demand.

Since then, China’s climate policy has been transformed: a more mature economy, a need to move up the technology value chain, and its own domestic environmental crisis have all played a part in China’s conviction that it has more to gain than to lose by decarbonizing through active mitigation, and that, as the primary producer of low carbon technologies, a carbon constrained global market it is in its economic interest.

How far this has translated into a constructive role in the negotiations themselves is less clear. China has again promised to help secure a deal but, behind closed doors, China sometimes has aligned with recalcitrant Saudi Arabia, for instance, in opposing the inclusion of the ambition to keep global average temperature rises to 1.5 degrees centigrade. (Until now, the target has been 2 degrees, and the accumulated national promises that countries have brought to Paris fall well short, even of that.)

In these closing hours and days, countries bring forward initiatives that they have held back until they were needed and everyone is expected to give a little, and to think creatively when crisis threatens. Large players run scenarios to prepare for such moments. But there is a palpable anxiety in the corridors, not only that China’s positions once again seem inflexible, but that China seems to regard the flexibility of others with suspicion. China is expert at blocking negotiations, a skill it has repeatedly demonstrated. But leadership demands more: it requires flexible and constructive engagement, and a willingness to compromise. The time to show off these skills is now.

It’s been six years since the disastrous Copenhagen climate summit and international climate politics is in a different place. This time the stars are aligned. The domestic politics of the U.S. and China are in much better condition.

The outcome of the Paris agreement and China’s role in it should be judged based on both what happened over the past two weeks in Paris and the two years leading up to the COP21 summit. The two U.S.-China climate statements have made a particularly strong contribution. On the most difficult question—how to reflect a developing country’s evolving capabilities while at the same time honoring developed countries’ historical responsibilities—the U.S.-China agreements ventured far beyond reiteration of old positions to provide new guidance for interpreting differentiation across key issues. On many of these issues the final deal is certain to bear a strong U.S.-China mark. This could be seen to be the result of Chinese leadership of a diplomatic sort.

To reach a fair and objective assessment of China’s role in the past two weeks is a much more difficult task. One at least has to cut through the media noise and differentiate political PR shows from actual positions. Using the example that Isabel raised, on agreeing to 1.5 degrees as the temperature goal of the new agreement, there is a lot of nuance in terms of how the goal is expressed in carefully crafted legal language. There also is a wide spectrum of positions, from active objection to tacit consent to enthusiastic support. To state that China opposes the inclusion of the 1.5 degree limit might be an oversimplification. In fact, as of Wednesday there is growing consensus on properly accommodating most vulnerable countries’ concern and we are likely to see reference made to 1.5 degrees in the final deal.

Two days before the final gavel, it is still difficult to predict the outcome, but one thing is clear: China realizes its growing responsibility and is reacting to global expectations. By agreeing to take upgraded actions, essentially it is carving out a middle space just for itself under an architecture that traditionally draws a clear and bifurcated line between developed and developing countries. This bears significant implications for subsequent negotiations as well as for global geopolitics.

In international climate change negotiations, China’s role is an issue of perennial concern. In particular, the lack of quantitative, absolute emissions commitments from China has been the focus. In line with changing domestic and international contexts, China is recalibrating its stance and strategy. Its participation in international climate change negotiations has evolved from playing a peripheral role to moving gradually to center stage. This is reflected clearly in its hard commitments to cap its carbon emissions by 2030. This was considered a pleasant surprise when it was announced. From this perspective, China is not a laggard. This holds true no matter whether or not China agrees to 1.5 degrees centigrade becoming the temperature rise limit of the new agreement.

Whether or not China is a leader is in the eyes of beholders. It is premature to jump to the conclusion that China is inflexible purely around the discussion of the 1.5 degree limit. To some extent, China’s dilemma in Paris is self-created, just as it was in Copenhagen, although the two situations are very different. In my view, China was not well prepared at the Copenhagen climate change conference. But as for the Paris conference, China may have acted too early or gone too far in the run up to Paris, leaving it too little room to show flexibility once at the summet. Let me explain why.

At Copenhagen, China was blamed for the first time for dragging out international climate negotiations, blame previously leveled at the United States. It was widely reported that failure to get an agreement on 50 percent reductions in global emissions by 2050, or on 80 percent reductions by developed countries, resulted from China’s veto.

It is not so hard to understand why China rejected the two numbers, but rejecting a long-standing, widely-reported proposal without putting forward an alternative created a bad image for China. Observers were left with the feeling, pushed in the Western media, that rich countries should forgo announcing their unilateral cuts. This was very bad for China.

By contrast, this time, China made the commitments to cap its emissions by 2030 public well in advance of the Paris conference. However, given China’s current stage of development and its coal-fuelled economy, its carbon emissions are projected to grow beyond 2030, despite energy-saving policies. Even if it maintains its Copenhagen pledge, achieving a carbon intensity reduction rate of approximately 3 percent annually from 2016 to 2050, its carbon emissions would not peak until 2040. Peak-carbon in 2030 means that China would need to bring its current target forward at least a decade.

This commitment is ambitious, but it would not be enough to avoid a global surface temperature rise of 2 degrees centigrade by the end of 2100. This would require a peak in 2020–25. China’s emissions must decrease very quickly for the target to be achieved. So even if China were to peak in 2030, the necessary emissions reductions afterward are unlikely to be achieved.

Clearly, China has set a very high bar for itself by giving up a great deal well in advance of the Paris event. This raises great expectations, but leaves China very little room to negotiate in Paris. In hindsight, China might have been better making less ambitious commitments prior to Paris then elevating its commitment levels in the last minutes of the negotiations. Had that been the case, the commitments would be very much the same in the end, but China would not be perceived in Paris as being inflexible. This also illustrates the inappropriateness of judging a country without taking a comprehensive view of its overall commitments. It is inappropriate and wrong to jump to the conclusion that China has been inflexible or a laggard in Paris.

For many reasons, Paris is not Copenhagen. The weather is milder, the negotiations are being masterfully orchestrated (so far), and China is now a leader on climate change.

In these final hours of the negotiations three core issues remain: ambition, support, and differentiation. China and the United States are much closer to agreement on all three issues than they were back in Copenhagen. As Li Shuo mentioned above, differentiation is one of the fundamental issues that must be addressed in the context of a Paris agreement. The United States adamantly wants to move away from the bifurcated world of Annex I and Non-Annex I countries, while recognizing that any agreement will require recognition of differing national circumstances. China continues to emphasize the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, but seems open to an agreement that includes real action from countries on both sides of the former firewall.

Other issues remain challenging, including the topic of transparency. A rigorous transparency framework will be crucial given that there now are over 180 parties that have submitted INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) that are based on national conventions but use a variety of accounting methodologies and metrics to report different types of targets. For example, as I discuss in a recent Science article, China’s non–fossil energy target was estimated using a methodology that no other country uses—one that is distinctly different from the guidelines set out by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)—and yet it is not transparently reported in policy documents. This is an example of why promulgating requirements for increased transparency to facilitate comparison and analysis would greatly improve our collective understanding of different targets.

Despite remaining challenges over transparency, there are many signs that we are moving in the right direction. For example, anyone at COP21 wanting to better understand China’s energy sector need look no further than the China Pavillion adjacent to the negotiating rooms. Open to the public, the Pavillion features an all-star lineup of some of the world’s foremost experts on energy and climate issues in China, from top technical experts and academics to high-level government officials. China’s climate negotiators are frequent speakers at the Pavillion, and have done a great job easing any lingering concerns about China not being a team player in these talks. At an event last week on U.S.-China climate change cooperation, negotiator Su Wei said that China’s leaders are committed to reaching an agreement in Paris, and that they would work with the United States to make sure this happens.

Cautious not to be cast the villain as it was in Cophenhagen, China is a noticeably more confident actor in the climate negotiations in Paris, and this has translated into its willingness to pay a more constructive role.

How did Chinese leadership contribute to the successful Paris Agreement? Generally, the Chinese have shied away from the term “leadership.” The Foreign Ministry described the Chinese negotiating team as “responsible, cooperative, and constructive,” presenting themselves more as team players than as leaders. While Xinhua in English said China played a “leading role,” it went on to present that role as one of cooperation with U.S. and French negotiators. Not only do references to Chinese leadership not appear in the Chinese-language press, but Chinese negotiators and academics are quick to argue against using the term when it’s raised. In fact, until this recent set of negotiations, it almost always has been used by international observers urging more leadership on China.

The lead-up to Paris was different, and we’ve seen a number of observers, including Li Shuo, pointing to Chinese leadership. Yet during the negotiations themselves, we heard many different stories, including those that made accusations that I think Li Shuo rightly labels as “PR shows.” We need to recognize that negotiations are carried out not just behind closed doors, but in the press, and no one who speaks to the media in the middle of the fray does so as a disinterested party. As I noted early on in this meeting, the Chinese are tough negotiators. Just because China wanted to see a positive outcome didn’t mean that it was going to agree with other negotiators on all points and all language. As we’ve seen over and over again regardless of topic, Chinese negotiators like to push right down to the wire. Moreover, the United States, in particular, was advocating a rather complex position, wanting strict accountability on the monitoring side without legal commitments in other areas that would force Senate ratification. While it is easy to understand the political realities of the U.S. position, it also is equally understandable why other countries might wish for different levels of obligation than those for which the U.S. advocated.

So what does Chinese leadership mean, and how did China exhibit it? There were many kinds of leadership needed for a successful outcome:

  • Long-term leadership: Leadership in transforming energy technologies. Fossil energy produces the majority of climate gases. China’s leadership in recent years in improving energy efficiency and developing its renewable and nuclear sectors has been critical to getting to a point where such a deal was even possible. The fact that coal use actually dropped in 2014 and that the Chinese government can see the pathway to peaking total greenhouse gas emissions has obviously been crucial to China’s own ability to commit. These technologies also offer options for other countries, both developed and developing and have been critical to driving down the cost curve.
  • Setting the stage: The agreements China signed leading up to the Paris talks, most crucially with the United States in November 2014 and September of this year, but also with a the Europeans and other partners, created an atmosphere of goodwill and provided not just momentum, but also specific language, leading up to the Paris talks. Without these bilateral understandings, reaching agreement at Paris would have been more difficult.
  • Roles in the negotiations: The question that really has been raised is whether or not China was a leader within the negotiations context. This always has been an area in which the Chinese have been less nimble than many Western players. For one thing they are ill suited to the outside game, played largely in the Western press. As Joanna mentioned, the Chinese pavilion was nicely set up, but as far as I could see, even six years after their first pavilion at Copenhagen, few Western journalists visited. Thus, the push and pull with Western countries, which is the very nature of negotiations, was portrayed largely from the point of view of other countries. What the Chinese appear to have learned is that trying to play that spin game (which they did so unsuccessfully in Copenhagen) is very hard, and what works for them is staying quiet and waiting to see the final result.

The big change from Copenhagen is that the Chinese appeared to have addressed their largest structural impediment—an inability in a system of collective leadership to stray from their negotiations instructions. In Copenhagen a great deal of what appeared bizarre to other negotiators actually was just Chinese avoidance of any situation where Premier Wen Jiabao might be asked to move from his State Council-agreed position. This time the Chinese made it clear they could reach President Xi Jinping, indeed, he even had a phone call with President Obama, and that they could maintain some flexibility in the negotiations. But that kind of flexibility still is distinct from the kind of creative freedom that allows some negotiating teams to suggest novel language to solve problems. Given collective leadership and the concerns about controlling officials, these limitations seem likely to continue.

So, was China a leader or not? Chinese leadership in both its long-term energy programs and its specific commitments in the lead-up to Paris seemed crucial to the success of the negotiations, regardless of whether or not Chinese negotiators led efforts to come up with new language during the negotiations. We weren’t in the room during the negotiations, and we’ve mainly heard some strategic leaks, so we really don’t know what happened. But we can at least recognize that tough negotiation was to be expected, and that China’s agreement to the final language was critical to the negotiation’s ultimate success.

Six years ago in Copenhagen, China was seen as the spoiler. A widely read article claimed that China had “wrecked” the Copenhagen deal. One of China’s lead negotiators suggested that American envoy Todd Stern was “ignorant,” lacking in “common sense” or “extremely irresponsible.”

What a difference a few years can make. On Saturday in Paris, China’s lead negotiator Xie Zhenhua was all smiles, glad-handing his way through the plenary room. Moments after the adoption of the historic Paris Agreement, he capped China’s two weeks at COP21 with a relatively statesmanlike performance before the plenary group (see here @ 44:17). The Paris Agreement, in his view, was “fair and just, comprehensive and balanced, highly ambitious, enduring and effective.”

“The agreement is not perfect,” Xie said, “however, this does not prevent us from marching forward with this historic step.”

Six years ago, China was still coming to grips with its newfound status as the global leader in greenhouse emissions. Its only official side event in Copenhagen was an elaborate scholarly exposition on why, by historical emissions standards, China still had carbon space, whereas the U.S. and E.U. had already entered carbon “bankruptcy.”

In Paris, China was now the dominant leader in greenhouse gas emissions, representing nearly 30% of global emissions (compared to about 16% for the US, 11% for the EU, and 6% for India).

But China had also undertaken a surprisingly expansive slate of climate change policies and programs to which leaders could point. Policies included:

  • A target to peak carbon emissions by 2030 (or sooner),
  • A target to obtain 20 percent of China’s primary energy from non-fossil energy by 2030,
  • A range of carbon, energy and pollution targets in China’s 12th five-year plan,
  • The introduction of a national carbon cap-and-trade program in 2017, and
  • Programs to promote lower-carbon strategic emerging industries.

China’s coal use fell for the first time in 2014. And it is hard not to be impressed by China’s advances in non-fossil energy investment. The Economist, for example, noted that last year:

[M]ore than half of [China’s] new energy needs were met using low-carbon sources, including wind, sunlight and nuclear power. Indeed, China invests more in renewable-energy production than America and Japan combined.

These actions and developments reflect, among other things, a fundamental (and hopefully durable) change in political will within China on climate change and the environment. As I have written about elsewhere (see here and here), greater official concern about the environment has primarily been driven by domestic concerns about “economic transformation” (shifting away from heavy industry to higher-value added industries and domestic consumption) and the social and economic costs of emergency-levels of pollution.

At the same time, it was clearly important to Chinese leaders to be seen as a “responsible major developing country” (负责任的发展中大国) at the Paris talks. Chinese leaders worked closely with the U.S. to orchestrate two major US-China announcements in the year leading up to Paris (2015, 2014) that helped to set a constructive tone for the talks and head off the skeptics (particularly in the U.S.) who took the view that China will never do anything on the environment. The China Pavilion at the Le Bourget negotiation site in Paris ran up to four events a day, with extensive participation from international experts (including several leaders from California state government), to highlight the progress China had made on low-carbon development, climate change mitigation, adaptation, finance, and a host of other topics.

With the success of Paris now behind us (see here, here, and here for very good commentary on the meaning of the overall agreement), our focus now shifts back to the domestic context. For China, I hope that the Paris Agreement will be a forceful domestic validation of those within China who have long pushed for climate change mitigation, environmental protection, international engagement, and the idea that environmental priorities are not incompatible with national prosperity.  

Now the hard work begins. As Xie Zhenhua said in Paris on Saturday: “The Paris Agreement is a historic landmark. The next step is implementation.”