China in international climate politics: a U-turn?

Smog in Chongqing, China

China is deeply engaged in shaping the international climate regime, and is engaging in domestic climate actions and an energy transformation. However, even the most optimistic observers would call Paris just a first step. In this regards, China still has a lot more homework to do, says Lina Li (adelphi) in her blog article for the IPG Journal.

2015 saw the climate topic again jump to the top of the international political agenda when world leaders endorsed in December the Paris Climate Agreement. Many, not least Lord Nicholas Stern, say that China is now leading the world in action on climate change, making the country both a competitor and inspiration for other nations. It is indeed true that without consent from the US and China, the success in Paris would not have been possible. To those who still remember how China fought till the last minute against an agreement at the climate conference in Copenhagen the question is: Has China made a U-turn in international climate politics in the past years?

A rising sense of responsibility and openness

Indeed, China has recently experienced a major shift in its sense of responsibility. This is characterized by involvement from its top leadership, as well as a more and more active agenda on south-south cooperation. 

Seven years ago, China’s then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao participated in the Copenhagen summit; the year 2009 was also named as China’s first year of climate. In the lead-up to Paris, the name of the top Chinese leadership, President Xi Jinpin, became connected with climate change with unprecedented intensity. This included the announcement of China’s emission peak by 2030, the announcement of the launch of a national carbon market for 2017, the offer of 3.1 billion USD of south-south climate funding, and Xi’s participation at the Paris climate summit.

China’s stance on climate has also become more and more open. Examples include a shift from intensity-based climate targets to absolute, from solely demanding developed countries provide climate finance, to more actively driving south-south cooperation and providing south-south climate finance. Paris also witnessed China’s flexibility regarding transparency and global temperature goals. China has also enhanced its bilateral climate efforts. In 2014 and 2015, it signed a series of joint declarations with major countries and groups such as the US, UK, France, Germany, EU, India, Brazil etc.

Why has this happened?

Multiple factors have contributed to the shifts. China’s international climate stance echoes the overall strategic move of the Xi administration to build China as a responsible great power and to participate in global governance. China is concerned about its international image and would not be called ‘blocker’ of the climate change negotiations. In October 2015, the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China stated that “China will … actively undertake international responsibilities and liabilities, take active part in negotiations in response to global climate change, and take active part in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”  

The US-China climate agenda is another key driver for China’s international climate attitude shift. The relationship with the US is one of the most crucial bilateral relations that China cares about, with strong multiplying and spill-off effects on other bilateral or even regional relations. The US has intensified its climate diplomacy work to the extent that this topic has become top of the agenda between two sides and ‘one of the few things’ that they could actually collaborate on.

Fundamentally, the change of China’s attitude is because the alignment of the domestic interest of combating pollutants with the international climate action demands. There has been ever-present and worsening smog across China, with other local struggles that are close to people’s lives, such as those affecting food, water, land, and health, all continued to accelerate in past few years. These pose not only environmental but also political (stability) concern. Until recent years, there had been few opportunities for the general public to engage directly in policy-making – this is now changing. Along the “environmental crisis”, public concerns over environmental problems are growing rapidly, as is environmental awareness in general. This has been triggered in large part by the boom of the social media in China. In 2011, according to McKinsey, China’s social media users reached 300 million. This has further added pressure on the Chinese government to tackle environmental issues. Green development has been endorsed as a key strategy for China.

China’s G20 presidency – extended climate leadership

2016 has seen China assuming the G20 presidency for the first time, with Beijing understanding it as one of its most important diplomatic events, bringing it to centre stage of global economic and financial governance. This has offered China a great chance to demonstrate its Great Power Diplomacy strategy. China is successfully placing climate, energy, and sustainable development topics high on the G20 agenda.

A breakthrough was achieved when the US and China made a joint announcement on ratifying the Paris Agreement just one day before the G20 summit on 4 and 5 September in Hangzhou . The timing was carefully chosen to inject positive momentum both for the UN climate negotiations and for the G20. This brought the number of countries having ratified to 26, and their share of emissions to 39 per cent, a big step forward towards reaching the 55 enter-into-force thresholds for both. This ‘role model’ action also put pressure on other major players like the EU, Canada and India, who then followed suit and ratified at the beginning of October, with the Paris Agreement officially entering into force on 4 November 2016.  

There have been multiple highlights within the G20 process. For the first time, there is a climate-focused statement from the G20 – the Presidency Statement on Climate Change at the G20 Sherpa Meeting on 8 April 2016. Support for the Paris Agreement implementation has been also reaffirmed by various communiqués of ministers’ meetings. The G20 Leaders’ Communique committed to ratifying the Paris agreement as soon as possible, re-affirmed the provision of climate finance, and expressed expectations for other multilateral agreements, including the Montreal Protocol and the International Civil Aviation Organization, which both made some progress later in the year.

China is also taking further initiative to set up a new Green Finance Study Group (GFSG), co-chaired by the People’s Bank of China and the Bank of England, with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as its secretariat. The G20 Green Finance Synthesis Report, submitted by the GFSG, has been welcomed by the G20 leaders with political recognition.

The G20 pledged to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies in 2009, though attempts to agree a timeline failed again this year. However, the US and China took a step forward, and completed a G20 peer review process on this topic – the results of the two countries’ evaluations were reported at the G20 summit.

Overall, China has extended its climate efforts to the G20 sphere and has helped to position the relevant agenda more firmly at the top of global governance, certainly higher than pervious summits were able to attain.

What hasn’t changed

A closer look at China’s political economy reveals that the dilemma between economy and climate/environment hasn’t been fundamentally changed. One example is the coal power sector, which still accounts for almost two thirds of China’s energy mix, despite strong renewable energy development. On the one hand, Beijing needs to bring the country’s coal power bubble under control. This is mostly driven by the pressing air pollution problem and associated public concerns. On the other hand, provincial and local governments are still most interested in the GDP growth rate, with path dependency promoting large infrastructure and growth model driven by heavy industry.

China is at a cross roads of (re)shaping its international diplomacy as a rising power, and deepening its domestic economic and political reform, as a country that has promised to provide its citizens with blue sky, clean water and safe food. China is deeply engaged in shaping the international climate regime, and is engaging in domestic climate actions and an energy transformation. However, even the most optimistic observers would call Paris just a first step. In this regards, China still has a lot more homework to do.


Lina Li is a project manager at adelphi and works in the fields of emissions trading and market mechanisms. She is a specialist in carbon markets, low-emission development and climate and foreign policy. Li has a Master's degree in International Politics from the School of International Studies at Peking University.

"Blauer Himmel in Peking" has been published online in German on 21 November 2016. Republished with kind permission by IPJ Journal.