Written by Yan Bo.

China used to be a latecomer to international regimes, especially before the 1990’s. It is a different case for China and the global climate change regime. China has participated in global climate change governance from the very beginning and attended all the international negotiations leading to UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol as a full party. Under the Kyoto regime, China was classified as a non-Annex I developing country and was not required to take on internationally binding commitments of reducing emissions but agreed to conduct emissions measures and submit regular reports to UNFCCC. Meanwhile, developed nations committed to reduce key greenhouse gas emissions during the period 2008-2012.

Although often described as a “conservative”, “uncooperative” and “recalcitrant” player, a subtle change has taken place in China’s positions in international climate change negotiations. Before 2007, China insisted that developed countries should take the lead in addressing climate change and was against the issue of developing countries’ voluntary commitments being on the agenda. After 2007, although it still insisted that developing countries should not take binding commitments of reducing emission, China admitted that developing countries should take positive measures to control the growth of emissions in accordance with their capabilities and national circumstances. China announced in 2009 before the Copenhagen Conference that it was going to voluntarily reduce its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2020 by 40 to 45 percent compared with the level of 2005. Different from the target of the EU, it is a domestic legally binding target, but it is the first time that China has undertaken such numerical commitments. The adoption of decisions in Durban and Doha implies China has already been drawn into the process of the institutional transformation of the global climate regime, which will transform from the asymmetric distribution of responsibilities between developed and developing countries to a common framework for all countries to reduce emissions.

In the transformation of global climate regime, China has been a defensive player against her western counterparts. Principally, China has been strongly against developed countries’ proposal of evolving and dynamic interpretation of the Convention principles, especially CBDR. At the Doha Conference at the end of last year, China underscored that the ADP is not a venue to “renegotiate, rewrite, or reinterpret” the Convention principles. Against Japan’s proposal of not applying CBDR on emissions from fuel used for international aviation and maritime transport, China stated that CBDR is a basic principle of international climate change negotiations and should apply to international aviation and shipping. Earlierr, at the Durban Conference in 2011, China stated that one of her conditions to agree to an international legally-binding agreement is “the definition of a post-2020 regime respectful of the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities and equity, of countries’ respective capacities.”

As for specific rules, China has showed flexibility on issues such as CDM、“2C”、“MRV” and ICA in negotiations, which contribute to the adoption of international agreements. But China has always refused to take legally binding commitments internationally. The G8’s call for a global emissions reduction target of “at least 50%” by 2050 compared to 2005 and G8 nations to cut carbon emissions by 80% was firmly rejected by China at the Copenhagen Conference, which was cause of much international criticism.

How to understand China’s roles in different issues of global climate change negotiations? What forces drive China’s climate policy and behavior in the transformation of the global climate regime?

Without doubt, the frequent interactions between China and international society have enhanced China’s willingness to engage in climate governance in the past three decades. China is eager to be regarded as a responsible power in the field of the global environment. Meanwhile,  domestic forces have played an increasingly large role in shaping China’s behavior. Faced with the conundrum of protecting the environment and further development, China attempted to transform relations between environment and economy especially after 2003. More importantly, China began to incorporate Greenhouse emission reductions into her own agenda for development. In the 12th five-year plan for national economic and social development (2011-2015), a target for reducing carbon dioxide was added, that is, the carbon dioxide per unit of GDP will be reduced by 17% from 2011 to 2015, the first target of its kind. The continual economic growth also contributes to China’s increasing efforts to address climate change.

However, China’s cooperative capabilities are still limited, especially compared with that of developed countries and relative to binding international commitments. Although China’s economic growth has been rapid, China is still at a relatively low level of economic development. According to UNDP’s Human Development Report 2013, China ranks 101th on human development indices among 186 countries (and districts). In addition, China is one of the few countries whose primary energy mix is dominated by coal and the carbon dioxide emission intensity of China’s energy consumption is relatively high. At the same time, China’s energy production and utilization of technology is backward, resulting in lower energy efficiency and higher greenhouse gas emission intensity. Therefore, it is more difficult for China to lower her intensity of carbon dioxide as her coal-dominated energy mix and consumption structure will not change substantially for a long time yet.

More importantly, China is not capable or confident enough to play a bigger role in the uncertain transformation of the global climate regime. Although China’s level of climate science and technology has been enhanced due to her own efforts and international cooperation, it is still far behind an international leading level. Mainly dependant on the scientific findings of developed countries makes China feel uncertain and lack confidence in international negotiations.

As for negotiation capabilities, China has not developed sufficient capabilities in rule-making in international institution design. China believed that she has good reason to oppose the G8’s proposal of global targets because it is against the principle of CBDR and ignored the huge difference of historical emissions between developed and developing countries, as well as the difference of emissions in base year. The proposal actually permits much larger potential emission space per capita for developed countries than developing countries. According to one Chinese leading expert, “If this proposal becomes an international agreement, it would be an unfair and evil treaty in history”. But when China said “no” to the proposal, she could not put forward fair and specific proposals at the same time due to her limited capabilities. Therefore, when China strongly opposed developed countries’ proposal without constructive suggestions for further global cooperation, it was described as a “wrecker” of the Copenhagen Conference. When China stresses CBDR in international negotiations without further operational proposals or plan, developed countries regards the principle as an empty incantation and an excuse for China to avoid responsibility.

Last but not least, although China’s competence in making climate-relevant policies and climate-specific policies has improved with the capacity-building of international organizations in the last decade, the general effectiveness of these policies is still at a low level due to the deficiency of her relevant institutional capacity. This could be seen from the policy distortion of China’s implementation of the targets (to save energy and reduce emissions) fixed in the 11th Five-year plan. It is hard to imagine if China is unable to achieve her domestic binding targets, that she will be able to accept international ones.

Yan Bo is Associate Professor in the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University


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