Understanding and Engaging China in the Fight Against Climate Change: Perspective for the EU

The looming climate crisis has generated a pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Engaging China in the fight against climate change will be a crucial element in attaining this objective. China’s commitment in climate action has also grown considerably, as global climate governance has even become one of the country’s prototypical discursive frames in constructing its new international identity.

However, China’s pledges to reduce GHG emissions have not entirely been living up to the expectations of the international community. This raises the question of how the EU can engage with China in the fight against climate change. In this regard, understanding China’s climate rationale, priorities and concerns will be key to help shape the EU’s climate policy initiatives vis-à-vis China, and prevent new tensions to arise.

China in multilateral climate negotiations

In 2015, China’s emergence as a more prominent player in international climate negotiations contributed to the success of the COP21 in Paris. Over time, Beijing has indeed gradually shifted its approach from being a passive observer to becoming a more proactive player in multilateral climate negotiations, including in the signing of the Paris Agreement. 

The Paris Agreement was made possible by a joint US-China climate statement through which the two governments released their mitigation. However, the statement defined their contributions without reference and enabled other parties to discount the need to rationalise their efforts against scientific measures of global aggregate. More recently, in a speech at the 75th United Nations General Assembly, China announced its pledge to reach “peak carbon” before 2030 and drive down emissions to virtually zero by 2060. As much as it was unexpected and welcomed, such commitment has been judged by the scientific community as insufficient, considering that China’s dependency on carbon-intensive fossil fuels is set to stay for the immediate future and its greater decarbonisation levels remain under its NDC targets. Moreover, China did not make any new pledges at COP26 in Glasgow, toning down the wording of the Glasgow Climate Pact to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal power. 

Understanding China’s Climate Rationale

When it comes to engaging China in climate action, it is essential to understand China’s intentions and take into account the priorities of the Chinese government in order to fully grasp the rationale behind its stances in multilateral (climate) fora and related cooperation with external partners. From the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 up until today, the PRC has maintained a number of priorities in the areas of climate policy and diplomacy. The first of these interests is the safeguarding of its state sovereignty. Assuming that the challenges posed by climate change are of such a magnitude that they require the commitment of all UNFCCC signatories, Beijing’s concern is that the nature of these global challenges can be used as a pretext to force China to implement environmental protection policies which do not respect its domestic policy priorities such as economic development, poverty alleviation, and energy security. Indeed, continuing to pursue an economic development path that must ensure the construction of a society characterised by a moderate and widespread level of well-being (xiaokang shehui 小康 社会) is an important Chinese concern. 

Therefore, Chinese delegations tend to avoid building consensus around protocols that they did not contribute to create, preventing the international community from passing judgement on the Chinese central authority’s handling of domestic environmental and climate protection policies. Moreover, considering national circumstances including the absence of oil and gas and the abundance of carbon and the current economic contractions strengthening the Chinese position, the issue of energy security becomes determinant to the Chinese leadership. At the core of its approach to climate negotiations, China supports the “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” principle (CBDR-RC), urging developed countries that are historically responsible for greenhouse gas emissions to take responsibility to provide financial assistance to developing countries, transfer low-impact advanced technologies, and drastically reduce their respective per capita emissions. 

Engaging China: between socialisation and competitiveness 

The EU and China have a long-standing cooperation on climate change. Since 2005, the EU-China Partnership on Climate Change, focused on the development and deployment of clean energy technology, has provided a high-level framework for cooperation and dialogue. The partnership was confirmed in the Dialogue’s 2010 Joint statement and enhanced in the 2015 one and the 2018 Leaders’ statement, strengthening bilateral cooperation in a range of different fields such as emissions trading, energy efficiency, low-carbon cities and transport, investment in climate and clean energy projects, and cooperation with other developing countries.

As the world’s largest GHG emitter, the EU considers it of critical importance that China joins global efforts to address climate change. Yet, to what extent has the EU-China institutionalised dialogue on Climate Change influenced China to take action? Several “direct” and “indirect” mechanisms of diffusion such as physical or legal coercion, socialisation, persuasion, and competition can explain how ideas, policies, and institutions travel from one jurisdiction to another. 

However, it is rather complex to attribute changes that happened thanks to the EU’s efforts to engage the Chinese leadership on climate change as a means of persuasion. Especially given the fact that several factors including economic growth, energy security, severe air pollution and environmental problems have all impacted China’s climate practice. Moreover, international reputation and image seem to have represented a major driver leading China to take action in order to conceptualise itself as a responsible global power and “ecological civilisation”. Nevertheless, it can be said that, in response to external pressure and the involvement in negotiations, to which the EU has undoubtedly contributed, China undertook a process of socialisation and adaptation of its internal policy in the field of climate, aligning its domestic economic and environmental agenda to give China greater flexibility in its international climate policy, including more room for manoeuvring within international negotiations. 

Thus, by prioritising climate change in their meetings with China, foreign leaders have brought attention to the growing concerns from the international community. Nevertheless, the European ability to effectively influence China, establish what is considered normal on a global scale, and act as a normative power has been acknowledged as fairly restricted, as the EU’s norm-driven behaviour in climate negotiations has been largely unsuccessful. Moreover, considering the insufficiency of most of the National Determined Contributions to cut emissions, as well as the inadequacy of climate policies to achieve the maximum increase of global temperature by 2 degrees – besides institutional dialogue and negotiations – competition involving unilateral adjustment of behaviour towards “best practices” comes into play. 

The EU’s initiatives and China’s response: is CBAM challenging the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities principle?  

A case of unilateral initiative is the European Green Deal — a set of proposals to make the EU’s climate, energy, transport and taxation policies fit for reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels — of which the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is part. The EU’s CBAM is a trade-based climate policy solution that addresses the risk of carbon leakage imposed by the implementation of carbon pricing. It represents an attempt to equalise carbon costs across foreign and domestic producers by putting a fair price on the carbon emitted during the production of carbon-intensive goods that are entering the EU, and to encourage cleaner industrial production in non-EU countries. 

In doing so, CBAM covers imports of goods from all non-EU countries without distinction, which is why its compliance with the “Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” principle (CBDR-RC) has been questioned. In a Joint Statement issued at the BRICS High-level Meeting on Climate Change, BRICS countries claim to oppose “all forms of unilateralism and protectionism, […] any measures to restrict trade and investment and setting up new green trade barriers with the pretext of addressing climate change, such as the imposition of Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanisms, which are incompatible with multilateral rules under the World Trade Organization”. Indeed, although the CBDR-RC principle is briefly mentioned in the CBAM plan, there are not many indications that the EU will make any distinctions between foreign producers based on where they originate from. With regard to the least-developed countries, the CBAM proposal only notes that the EU “should support less developed countries with the necessary technical assistance in order to facilitate their adaptation to the new obligations established by this regulation”, suggesting that some of the income revenue may be used for assisting developing countries and LDCs in decarbonising their economies. Such an aspect corroborates the trend to treat countries considering their ‘respective capabilities’ (RC) component of the CBDR-RC principle rather than their historical responsibility. Indeed, while CBAM aims at preventing carbon leakage and incentivising the decarbonisation process globally, it risks entrenching the North/South divide, leaving developing countries behind.

Future perspectives: What can the EU do in light of China’s positions

Bilateral China-EU climate relations are further challenged by the complexity of the changing international order and growing political tensions both between China and the EU and China and the US. Could climate — a global public good par excellence whose benefits and costs affect everyone and must be addressed collectively — work as a cooperation field leaving behind political tensions? On the one hand, China and the EU are both crucial actors in fighting the climate crisis and global climate governance has become one of China’s prototypical discursive frames in constructing its new international identity, an important platform where China seeks to share leadership with other major powers and the climate leadership in turn constitutes China’s new identity. However, on the other hand, different approaches to global governance and views on how to participate in the fight against climate change can also raise tensions between these two actors. That is why it remains essential to understand China’s rationale in order to cooperate on the basis of its commitment, and to foster dialogue while comprehending its stances. Moreover, while recognising the current tensions in the wider EU–China relationship, there is a strong joint interest to collaborate on climate action. The resources available to both parties for the creation of new solutions in the move towards climate neutrality have a wide range of potential applications and advantages. When addressing important issues related to the global climate crisis, it is in the best interests of all parties to keep leveraging climate action through diplomacy and partnerships. Therefore, what can the EU do to overcome tensions and engage China in taking action against climate change? 

First, parallel to the launch of unilateral initiatives, the EU should create space for more formal and informal dialogue to avoid such measures to be perceived as assertive. With regards to CBAM, revenues could be part of the EU’s financial contribution to international climate finance for the developing countries, especially the Least developing countries (LDCs), considering a combination of capabilities but also responsibilities. This could improve political acceptability and international support for CBAM. Second, the focus on conditional cooperation as a tool to shape China’s behaviour and compete in delivering decarbonisation to push for convergence towards stronger measures could result in a distancing and disengagement of Beijing who, having different values and political traditions, would be unlikely to meet the conditions. Instead, the combined approach of cooperation and competition in key areas could serve as a strategy to engage China. Indeed, cooperation is crucial to strengthen the rules-based order and align Chinese and EU policies to develop internationally agreed standards on green finance, digital technology, and clean energy. At the same time, the competitive dimension in climate diplomacy should work as a catalyst for change towards a more sustainable economy in key fields such as green technology, access to raw materials, and markets and influence in third countries. Therefore, bearing in mind China’s priorities and concerns guiding its climate policy would help the EU shape result-oriented policies rather than norms-driven initiatives.

Author: Aurora Bonini, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo Credits: Unsplash