Understanding China’s climate policy

The politics of global warming are increasingly focused on the stance taken by the world’s fastest growing economy. Zhuang Guiyang discusses the difficulty of analysing climate-change policy-making in China.

As the world gets warmer, the international community is turning up the heat on the Chinese position at international climate-change negotiations. A developing China has become a key part of the meetings; any changes in its position are accompanied by immediate speculation about the implications.

However, it is not easy to interpret China’s climate-change policy. The world’s largest developing nation is faced with unique challenges. Overseas academics can provide analyses, but they are limited by their positions and access to information. Meanwhile, Chinese academics in the field are either experts in international relations who are unfamiliar with global warming, or climate-change experts with no grasp of foreign relations.

There are two main ways to understand a nation’s stance in international environmental negotiations. One is an interests-based analysis; the other is a two-level game theory approach. Climate change is a complex issue and a country’s position is affected by multiple factors. No single mode of analysis is adequate to understand its complicated and changing reality. Therefore, an analysis of China’s climate-change stance should bring together both models.

In general, any nation acting on the international stage will seek to maximise its own interests. An analysis based on countries’ interests holds that two key factors will determine a nation’s position on climate change: the fragility of its environment, and the costs of reducing emissions. The more a nation is impacted by environmental problems, the keener it is to participate in international negotiations; the higher the costs of solving the problem are, the less willing it becomes. This model allows us to understand and identify those nations which promote, hinder, observe or remain neutral in the process.

But climate change is a shared, international problem. It is not only an environmental and economic issue, but also a matter of foreign relations and regional politics. Therefore, environmental and economic concerns are not the only determining factors in a nation’s stance. Since developed and developing nations have differing responsibilities under the international framework, this interests-based model more accurately reflects the relative positions of nations in the same category, and those of the developed countries in particular.

Developing nations like China have a limited ability to evaluate their vulnerability to climate impacts and the costs of mitigation. Academics in the developing world often cannot provide their negotiators and policymakers with sufficiently strong research. There is also a lack of negotiation experience and ability. Consequently, developing nations tend to take passive, defensive diplomatic stances. Therefore, the incentives provided to these nations become essential. These include financing, technology transfer, international carbon markets like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and links with other negotiations on trade and international reputation.

Global warming presents nations with difficult choices between immediate and long-term interests, domestic and international priorities. China’s stance on climate change is formed by its policymakers’ awareness of all of these factors, and their judgements on the national interest.

Two-level game theory, a mode of analysis that originated in the United States, stresses the dual pressures – domestic and international – on policymakers. In this mode of analysis, the interaction of the two pressures must be used to understand a country’s behaviour at the negotiating table. This is helpful in explaining the American model of policy-making (academics warn that it may be less valuable in analysing other political systems). As a simple example, consider the Clinton administration, which signed the Kyoto Protocol under international pressure. The Bush administration then refused to ratify it, under pressure from domestic interest groups.

When it comes to climate change, domestic policymakers need to take two types of interest group into account: government departments and interest groups – from business and civil society. China’s domestic policymaking on climate is very different from that of the US. In China, policy is decided by a cross-departmental body, the National Coordination Committee on Climate Change. Its negotiation team is led by the National Development and Reform Commission – the country’s top economic planner – and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Delegates are largely drawn from the members of the coordination committee and – to a lesser extent – from the academies. NGOs, local government and business have only limited participation. China’s leaders are concerned about climate change, but they do not yet have a position of leadership when it comes to international policy. Differing departments have similar interests, and the top-down decision-making model means there are few disagreements between policymakers. For China, the climate-change issue is a diplomatic one, and negotiators have real power to make decisions.

The participation of Chinese social scientists in drafting the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports was very limited. A few academics took part independently, but they had no significant influence. Since academics from the developing world are unable to provide their negotiators with powerful scientific backing, they tend, too, to become passive and defensive. For example, although China’s academic and officials often point out that climate change is causing more frequent and fiercer extreme weather events – which have terrible consequences in China – there is no clear position on the danger levels for atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. (The European Union’s target is in line with keeping the temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius). This is due to the limits of scientific research in China and the lack of overall systematic analysis.  

Before the Kyoto Protocol came into effect, China viewed climate change as a matter of diplomacy. But when the IPCC’s third assessment report was published in 2001, the government realised its value, and China’s academics stepped up their participation in the production of the fourth report. There is still a gap between the rich world and developing countries in scientific research, but climate change is no longer simply seen as merely a diplomatic matter. The rapid economic growth that has occurred since 2001 also means resources and environmental issues have become more acute. Reducing power use and controlling greenhouse gases have become strategic goals in China’s 11th Five Year Plan and at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party. Although reducing energy use is still given priority over climate-change goals, it can be used to bring domestic development targets and international climate-change goals into line.


Zhuang Guiyang is associate professor and deputy secretary at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Sustainable Development Institute. His book, A Low-Carbon Economy: China’s Growth in a Changing Climate, was published last year.