China in Paris: New Responsibility, New Optimism

From the Paris Climate Negotiations

There is an infectious enthusiasm among the Chinese delegation, both actual negotiators and the many academics the Chinese government brings along to provide advice and deliver a continuous set of information sessions at its pavilion, that contrasts greatly with the nervous defensiveness of earlier years. The Chinese Communist Party declared in October that China should play a greater role in global governance, specifically citing the climate talks as an important venue, and the Chinese in Paris appear to be embracing that role.

Following up on September’s historic US-China Climate Joint Statement, Presidents Obama and Xi began the Paris meeting by vowing to work together to ensure an agreement. The mood is quite distinct from Copenhagen six years ago, when the world had previously expected to come to some sort of comprehensive agreement, and the Chinese in particular were unable to react flexibly to rapidly changing negotiations on the ground. This time the process better suits the Chinese negotiating style, with countries having submitted their mitigation targets in advance as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), rather than negotiating over reductions during the meeting. But negotiators also report that the Chinese are reassuring their counterparts that they have access to high leaders to check in on other negotiating points (which revolve around such issues as finance and verification) if they need to.

Chinese observers have emphasized that China has a leadership role to play. In fact, Greenpeace’s Li Shuo told me he sees China as playing a leadership role. The negotiators themselves are still uncomfortable with the word leadership, but the Chinese government is demonstrating a confident new style, including a pavilion that hosts not just its own spokesmen’s views on climate change, but numerous international commentators, as well. Only six years ago the Chinese government was shocked when a Chinese NGO chose to host its own event at Copenhagen. Today the Chinese government hosts a full range of discussions, including playing host to programs organized by Chinese as well as international NGOs.

This more open style stems from a belief that responding to climate change is good for China’s development. Prof. Zou Ji, the Deputy Director of the National Development and Reform (NDRC) affiliated National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, spoke earlier this week at the Chinese pavilion on the need for the world to embrace a new concept of green growth. Zou pointed to the relatively lackluster global economy since the 2008 financial crisis and suggested that green development may be the needed response. Numerous Chinese speakers have discussed changes in energy structure in the coming years as nothing less than revolutionary.

Chinese speakers readily acknowledge China’s challenge and its responsibility. While there are some references here and there to “historic emissions,” a measurement where the US and Europe still dominate, the more common discussion is about per capita emissions, where speaker after speaker has noted that Chinese emissions are now at the level of Europe or Japan. They often further point out that Chinese emissions are actually higher than host-country France (which relies heavily on nuclear power) while lower still than Germany (a reasonable comparison among developed countries for China, since both countries are heavily industrialized and overly dependent on export-led development). While this still leaves Chinese per capita emissions at about 1/3 of US per capita emissions, the Chinese now clearly see themselves in the group of countries that need to implement serious mitigation policies.

The Chinese believe that their own INDC, submitted to the UN in June, is a substantial contribution. They promise by 2030 to reduce carbon intensity in their economy by 60-65% from a 2005 baseline, to peak their emissions, to increase non-fossil fuels to 20% of their energy mix and to increase forest stock volume by 4.5 billion cubic meters from a 2005 baseline. To put these commitments in context, China had committed to reducing carbon intensity 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020, so this will continue this work, but the commitment to peaking was new this year. The non-fossil energy commitments, which involve significant new efforts, derive from the major initial steps in recent five-year plans. As IEA executive Director Fatih Birol noted at the Chinese pavilion, China now leads the world in installation of all forms of renewable energy and is now building half the nuclear power plants currently under construction. The forest commitment is also substantial, it would represent a 36% increase in forest stock over what the UN documented in 2003.

By all accounts the Chinese are still tough negotiators, and if past negotiations are anything to go on they will be comfortable going down to the wire to get what they see as the best deal possible. But when we compare where China is now to where it was only a few years ago, we are seeing a dramatically different style and real substantive changes, especially in the willingness to commit to a peaking point and to contemplate and plan for slower economic growth.

Author Information:
Deborah Seligsohn is a researcher in environmental governance at the University of California, San Diego.

Photo Credit:
Adopt a Negotiator via Flickr, cropped
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