How China’s Position Has Evolved in the COPs and on the Global Climate Geopolitical Stage
Amy DahanDirector of research at CNRS and the Alexandre Koyré Center
Léa Boudinet & Clémence Pèlegrin — How has China’s position in climate geopolitics evolved over the past 30 years? 1
First of all, the term “climate geopolitics” is only gradually becoming established in the analysis of the climate issue. It did not exist in the 1990s, either at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, or at the time of the ratification of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994. At that time, the negotiations were North-North: developing countries were invited and participated in the multilateral process to “learn about the climate problem”, but they were not expected to make a formal commitment in the same way as the developed countries who had the historical responsibility for the problem.
The negotiation for the Kyoto Protocol focused on the distribution of greenhouse gas emission reductions among a small number of countries: the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan, Australia, and Canada. At that time, China was looking at the situation with some distance and was beginning to take an interest in the position of developing countries. It is important to keep in mind that as early as 1996-1997, the United States had stated that the American way of life was non-negotiable, and that it would not consider constraining its economic growth if the major developing countries, including China, did not do so either (the so-called Byrd-Hagel resolution of the US Senate). They anticipated very early on the peril, that is to say, the potential rivalry, that China represented for them, particularly from a demographic point of view. From the beginning, and there is a lot of evidence supporting this today, the United States did not want to make a commitment if other countries did not. The Democrats, with President Bill Clinton, signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997; but as soon as President Bush was elected, they withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. Throughout this period, China remained far removed from the multilateral process. The 1990s marked the beginning of China’s unbridled opening up and industrialization, and on a global scale, to the explosion of trade and financial and liberal globalization. They are crucial, so to speak, in the acceleration of climate change. From 1995 to 2010, the nature of the climate issue has completely changed to become fully geopolitical. In 1992, I think that the global dimension of this issue was not clearly identified. It was generally considered a concern of mainly Western civilization and developed countries.
After the withdrawal of the United States from the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, the developing and emerging countries occupied the space left vacant by the Americans. It must be said that in the first decade of negotiations (1995-2005), the poorest countries were still relatively sceptical about climate change ; they did not believe in the urgency of this problem. They themselves played a very minor role in the debates and were suspicious that this issue was being framed to limit their development. Many delegates from the poor countries of the South with whom I spoke between 2002 and 2004 told me that the language of numerical modelling is a “language of the North” which had its merits but is no longer sufficient. This statement is surprising and could be concerning. In fact, in the climate field, the method of models consists mainly in the numerical resolution of a mathematical problem of evolution (in the form of partial differential equations) whose initial state is fixed. However, when transferred and used within a political framework, the method erases the past and normalizes the present, which becomes a given and no longer needs to be questioned despite the heterogeneities and inequalities that it contains. In the Kyoto negotiations, the year 1990 is this starting point. Finally, the method globalizes the future. A molecule of CO2 emitted anywhere on the planet, in the rice fields of Asia or on American highways, is accounted for in the same way. Needless to say, China did not hold this type of discourse and wanted to appear fully engaged in the scientific work of the IPCC 2 .
From 2002 to 2009, a very gradual yet close alliance developed between the work of environmental NGOs, which immediately endorsed the scientific analyses of the IPCC, and the poor developing countries. Work was carried out to educate and explain the problem. However, in the absence of the United States, there was not much at stake in the negotiations. It was highly unlikely that an ambitious climate agreement could be reached without them. Europe has made some progress, such as when it adopted the 2°C threshold in 2002 following a major joint effort between scientists and politicians.
During the first decade of the 21st century, developing countries gradually changed their stance. They began to admit that climate change was real and that they would be the first victims. Indeed, climate disruptions were becoming more and more noticeable, and extreme events such as Hurricane Katrina in 2004 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 helped to change their perception. A number of delegates from developing countries, in particular Saleemul Huq from Bangladesh, who became the leader of the least developed countries, played a very important role in the negotiations, first by promoting the idea of adapting to climate change , and then the idea of “loss and damage” in 2013, until they tried to push for the more ambitious objective of a threshold (that must not be exceeded) of 1.5°C in the Paris Agreement.
Until 2009, China was therefore present but discreet: it was not the driving force behind the negotiations. During this period, it remained preoccupied above all with its own development and its historic double-digit growth. Let’s remember that in 2007, China was expected to overtake the United States in terms of global emissions, whereas in the 1990s, it was expected to do so around 2030! In the language of the carbon market 3 set up in the Kyoto Protocol – a gigantic, labyrinthine system made up of emission permits, accumulation criteria, economic compensation mechanisms, or clean development mechanisms (CDM) between the North and the South – China initially showed great reluctance towards arguments allowing industrialized countries to do nothing at home. However, its position changed dramatically when it realized the economic benefits that the CDM could bring: significant cash flow, investment support for projects that reduce CO2 and other pollution, and above all, strategic technology transfer opportunities. In 2008, China was the first country to benefit from the CDM mechanism.
China, on the other hand, played a major role in what was called the “G77+China”, a coalition, in multilateral forums, first of 77 countries which then became a huge, heterogeneous conglomerate of 132 countries: developing countries of all sizes 4 , emerging countries, and even oil-producing countries. China nevertheless managed not to lose its influence or even its leadership over the G77, to avoid the strong hostility of the poor countries, by playing on alliances with the oil countries of the Middle East. India, on the other hand, was very tough in the negotiations. India insisted on equity issues and the historical responsibility of developed countries. It advocated for a per capita carbon budget, whereas China has never defended such a position. Of course, China still had a much lower level of emissions per capita than developed countries, but it probably anticipated that this would not last.
How do you interpret the turning point that the Copenhagen COP represents, both for global climate negotiations and China’s position?
It was only in Copenhagen that China appeared as a crucial power, both in globalization and in climate governance, at the forefront of the negotiations, and that we clearly understood that the major geopolitical divisions had shifted. Negotiations became North-South, dominated by the US-China rivalry.
In the weeks leading up to the COP 15, there was a real excitement, a hope to change the world, especially as youth and civil society movements were beginning to emerge. It was also the first year of Obama’s presidency. The COP poured cold water on these hopes. Nothing happened during the negotiations. The Danish president was dealt a harsh blow and everything was discussed in the hotels between Obama and the Chinese president Hu Jintao. But in Copenhagen, the Chinese teamed up with the other emerging countries; with Brazil, India, and South Africa. It formed a distinct and cohesive group (the BASIC) always involved in discussions with President Obama. Whereas on the American side, for both Democrats and Republicans, the official stance has been one of political continuity, refusing to accept the American commitment without reciprocal obligations on the part of the other parties involved. Today we know that China is not opposed to the multilateral process. In a way, it accepts it; it has never wanted to withdraw from agreements. On the contrary, it has played the card of a very important and responsible power that does not leave the negotiating table. Like the United States, it did not want a major binding treaty yet it finally embraced the idea of a voluntary and inclusive agreement.
The following year, in Cancun (December 2010), many feared that the multilateral process itself would be called into question. Europe had been dealt a serious blow and was out of the game. The multilateral process was saved by the least developed countries, which are viscerally attached to this process because it is the only arena that puts them on equal footing with other States. An extremely subtle and skilful political game was played by the Mexican presidency while Europe was on the ropes and the United States was not in a position to really advance the negotiations. China was always in the background, as if it were trying to be forgotten.
In 2011, in Durban, there was a desire to resume negotiations on a more “bottom-up” basis, based on voluntary contributions country by country. This gave rise to a memorable tug of war between India, who was very uncompromising in its position, and a Europe full of political goodwill, with China still in the background. A dispute broke out when the Bangladeshi delegation accused India of neglecting the climate threat and the risk of sea level rise threatening Bangladesh, and ultimately of allowing a dramatic situation to continue. Faced with this ultimatum, India capitulated.
Alongside the COPs, where its position is more in the background, China plays a very important role within the IPCC. It has high-level scientists who have had important responsibilities in the preparation and coordination of IPCC reports since the 2010s. It has its own global climate model – in total there are 23 in the world, and France has two – and participates in the scientific community in model comparison exercises. In the ratification sessions of the IPCC reports, which are highly political, the delegations of each country discuss the content of the summaries for the decision-makers. It is interesting to note that China, which is present at these meetings, maintains a relatively scientific point of view. It does not object to the wording like the oil producing countries do almost systematically and which act as incredibly obstructionist forces.On the whole, China’s attitude is not obstructionist.
Can you go back to the special timing of the Paris Agreement and its preparation?
In the 2011-2015 preparation period for the Paris Agreement, the second Rio Earth Summit took place in June 2012. While climate had become the major environmental and geopolitical issue, and China, alongside the host country (Brazil) played a very important role in the preparation and running of this Earth Summit, I was struck that this issue was simply absent from the negotiations or as a central element of the Earth Summit. It was an absolutely astonishing moment 20 years after the rise of the notion of sustainable development and the multilateral process launched in 1992. This 2012 summit was intended to take stock of developing countries’ sustainable development. The vast majority of these countries prioritized fighting poverty, access to drinking water, health… but the climate problem was almost absent from this list and the emerging bloc led by China had contributed to this oversight 5 .
In Rio in 2012, Europe was still far from being in a strong position. Its idea of a new world environmental organization was a failure. The financial crisis of 2008 and the dismal results of Copenhagen had weakened it and it appeared to be lagging behind the United States on the one hand and this emerging bloc on the other.
Between 2012 and 2015, the negotiators accomplished an enormous amount of work to achieve the result that was the Paris Agreement. In addition, from 2013 onwards, the Chinese economy entered a new stage of development. The issue of pollution became particularly prevalent, deeply worrying the urban Chinese population, and the state was forced to address it. In autumn 2014, during Barack Obama’s trip to China, a joint declaration sent the signal that the two powers were willing to go further and find a way out of this stalled process.
At that time, many philanthropic financial organizations, think-tanks, and NGOs wanted the Paris Agreement to happen and they acted on state delegations, particularly from developing and emerging countries, but also among US political staff, to make them change their mind. It was a very important performative move and the presence of these actors was reinforced during the three preparatory meetings for the Paris Agreement held in Bonn 6 .
Did China adopt a particular position towards other developing countries during the preparation of the Paris Agreement?
The poorest countries organized amongst themselves to push their own agenda for Paris in favor of a more ambitious scenario than the 2°C threshold, pushing the issues of adaptation and financial aid to the most vulnerable countries. These countries were sometimes perceived by developed countries as potentially on the side of obstructive forces or Russia— countries that still needed to be convinced to join the collective effort. In fact, and to the surprise of the developed countries, a few days before the signing of the agreement, the developing countries collectively expressed their willingness to endorse the 1.5°C warming target, or else they would not sign the agreement. However, on the sidelines of the negotiations, many scientists stated that they did not believe that this target was feasible, and that 2°C was already a very ambitious course. I myself wrote, following its adoption, that it reinforced the schism in the reality between governance and ongoing climate change by announcing targets that ran counter to the world’s climate reality 7 . I don’t know if I was wrong, but emissions have continued to rise. China has stayed out of this controversy.
The general idea finally retained during the negotiations was to include in the text a sentence concerning the threshold (“not to be exceeded”) of 2°C and, if possible, 1.5°C, and to ask the IPCC to write a report on the feasibility of 1.5°C. From the outset this idea did not enjoy consensus, both among scientists and in various delegations, but the momentum of the negotiations and the desire to sign a historic agreement finally led to the adoption of this language. Very quickly, in 2016, the IPCC produced a report changing the focus of the demand a bit, showing that a world at +1.5°C of warming was already terribly dangerous and that +2°Cwould be much more so. In short, that every half degree counts. Moreover, while the IPCC had always maintained its historical “policy-relevant” rather than “policy-prescriptive” posture, staying away from political solutions, it adopted an innovative methodology for the 1.5°C Report. It made the scientists of the three groups work jointly and interactively in a search for more concrete climate solutions and policies.
At COP 21, it was unthinkable to have an agreement without China, as it was already the world’s largest emitter. It did not commit to reducing its emissions by 2030. On the contrary, it stated that it would increase its emissions to continue its growth and lift its country out of poverty. On the other hand, it has committed to reducing the carbon intensity of its economy. But every country reduces the carbon intensity of its economy as it grows, mainly because of innovation and technological progress and the increasing of service-based activities. This was not a very risky commitment on China’s part.
In general, before or after Paris, China, like the United States and the other major players in multilateral governance, has always worked to ensure that the issue of fossil fuel extraction and fossil fuel subsidies remains unaddressed in the negotiations.
How do you interpret the idea of ecological civilization in relation to China? How does this idea influence China’s development model?
Since 2008, I have noticed that China has always been very reluctant to accept the rhetoric of “sustainable development”, which is fundamentally associated with a social-democratic project derived from Western utopias of the 1980s. Chinese leaders or officials have preferred to evoke (as early as 2008) a “low-carbon society”, in which the technological dimension is central: alternative technologies to fossil energies and their associated techniques, technological innovations of new industrial processes (based on ammonia, nitrogen, hydrogen, etc.) allowing CO2 emissions to be avoided. The economic and material development of China is not really that of a civilization that would like to be ecological, close to Nature, respectful of resources, balances, and natural rhythms. It has, on the contrary, favored urban growth in all directions, and a very unequal society. China has a middle class (from 3 to 400 million inhabitants) whose level of per capita emissions is comparable to that of the United States. China has developed by covering vast areas of arable land with concrete, by promoting a frantic consumption model. The Chinese population remains fascinated by and attracted to the Western way of life, especially from the point of view of food. In this case, the government is trying to react to the rapid growth of obesity, and fortunately Chinese cultural traditions remain very strong. So the die is not yet cast on this side.
It should be noted that China is actively promoting reforestation as an offset policy to achieve carbon neutrality. However, the results of this policy must be considered very carefully, both from a climate and environmental point of view. There have also been some very disturbing recent announcements of geoengineering: changing rainfall, diverting clouds, or diverting rivers flowing down from the Himalayas. China is too powerful, often brutal, and lacks much transparency and respect for individual rights not to fear the actions of the sorcerers’ apprentice.
Today, China is investing in various multilateral arenas such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which it heads. This shows its great interest in these issues, in the agricultural resources it so badly needs, even as it continues to develop intensive farming methods. In the White Paper (written by China within this framework) on international cooperation, the aim is to distance itself from previous North-South models of cooperation and to show that China, as the largest developing country, has a natural legitimacy to dialogue with other developing countries. The discourse remains very focused on production: a lot of fertilizers, phytosanitary products, pesticides, and insecticides. The book advocates monitoring by drones, the use of new technologies, and new geographic information systems. In short, agribusiness must help African countries to escape from poverty, and the FAO wants to play the role of intermediary between States and private investors. I do not see any particular reference here to agro-ecology or to the virtues of an ecological transition.
Many of China’s contemporary development trajectories seem quite contrary to the idea of an ecological civilization.
What about the place of ecology in China’s power politics today?
In the fight against climate change, China is promoting the potential of technology and innovation to solve the climate crisis. This is, of course, political rhetoric and the underlying quest for industrial and technological competitiveness seems obvious. I have reservations about the feasibility of China’s 2060 carbon neutrality commitments. When you consider that 60% of China’s electricity comes from coal, and that decarbonized sources of generation only account for 13% of electricity production, you can’t help but think that this is not going fast enough.
Overseas, in Indonesia for example, China continues to export both coal-fired power plants and renewable energy, including solar photovoltaics. And the New Silk Roads project was not conceived as an ecological development project, but as an economic expansion and trade one. For Europe, it is not a question of wanting to declare an economic war on China. There is room for mutual interest and certain investments. But we should not be naïve either. It is in Europe’s interest to strengthen its unity with China. To a certain extent, the United States has a very pragmatic understanding of its economic interests and does not give in to either China or Europe.
How do you perceive the dynamics between Europe and China about the climate issue?
Europe has an important relationship to develop with Africa because of its geographical proximity and the linguistic links that exist with many African countries; and it probably does not devote enough resources to it. China is now much more aggressive and effective in this area. However, the African continent plays a crucial role in the global climate equilibrium and therefore in the fight against climate change. Demographers predict a population of 2.5 billion people there in 2050.
Let us remember that in China, the massive displacement of the population, the productivist model, the capacity to create jobs to ensure social stability, industrial waste and replication (1,200 coal plants!), the conversion of land, etc.—all these factors of Chinese growth that have driven not only energy choices but also social inequalities, have been decided since the 1980s and have been linked to Chinese regional political economies. For the climate, time is running out on the African continent as elsewhere. Africa is the only part of the world whose development is still largely in the future, and which potentially has a lot of natural wealth, sunshine, and oil reserves (very unevenly distributed). Land use is still very poorly managed: There are low land yields, burning of biomass, droughts and deforestation, the uncontrolled and polluting development of cities, and huge pockets of poverty. Without pretending to tell Africans what to do, an intensification of Europe-Africa initiatives must take place on renewable energies and access to energy to optimize land use between the various demands of food security, climate and development, or programs for access to education, etc. Developing innovative paths to development for Africa, different from the environmentally destructive paths we have taken in the West, is a strategic challenge for climate stabilization in the second half of the 21st century that Europe must seize.
Another major problem is the agreement signed on December 30th between the EU and China which anticipates a vast trade and investment treaty. This agreement seems likely to inevitably weaken the European structure — Germany is the main winner in Europe — because China has always acted by playing on rivalries and economic competition between countries. Moreover, it provides no real guarantee of loyalty and transparency in its commitments to investors on its soil, not to mention its authoritarian behavior towards popular liberation movements (the Uyghurs, Hong Kong, Taiwan …). This agreement shows above all the EU’s lack of geostrategic vision, which had the possibility of positioning itself as the third strategic force between the United States and China as the guardian of both democratic freedoms and the climate cause 8 .
Today, Europe must approach the idea of ecological civilization in a more practical way. We must not fool ourselves. We will not be able to live in the same way, consuming as much and imagining that we can substitute everything for everything: renewables for coal, ammonia for carbon, hydrogen for petroleum. I do not believe that this is realistic; we need to cultivate another vision, intellectually and culturally, and make it emerge in society. To do this, it is necessary to integrate technical issues and cultural projects. The Chinese model is not and cannot be the European model.
I am personally upset by the fact that in Europe, we (intellectuals, NGOs, social movements) have been unable for the moment to work out a vision of the future, one that is rich and multifaceted, as far removed as possible from the mindset of reducing growth and collapsist thinking on the one hand, and from all-technology pure technological thinking on the other. It seems to me that we have not yet succeeded in making the fight against climate change a societal, cultural, political, and economically plausible endeavor in order to make it attractive in the public debate, and capable of bringing on board the majority of people.
- This interview was conducted in April 2021 in Paris.
- A. Dahan, S. Aykut, Gouverner le climat ? 20 ans de négociations internatio- nales, chap. 2, Presses de Sciences Po, 2015.
- A. Dahan, S. Aykut, op. cit., chap. 3.
- Among the developing countries as a whole, several very active sub-groups have organized themselves autonomously; let us mention the Least Developed Countries (LDCs, about fifty of which 34 are in Africa, 9 in Asia, 5 in the Pacific, 1 in the Caribbean), the small island states (AOSIS, about forty) and, since 2005, a coalition created on the initiative of Papua New Guinea of countries with riverine forests, whose objective is to obtain recognition of the efforts deployed by developing countries to slow down the emissions due to deforestation See A. Dahan, S. Aykut, op. cit. chapter 6.
- A. Dahan, S. Aykut, op. cit., chap. 7.
- E. Morena, “ The Price of Climate Action : Philanthropic Foundations in the International Climate Debate ”, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
- A. Dahan, “La gouvernance climatique : entre climatisation du monde et schisme de réalité“, L’Homme et la Société, no 199, p 79-90, 2016.
- See also: AITEC, ATTAC, “ Note de décryptage de l’Accord ”, 2021.
To cite the article
Amy Dahan, How China’s Position Has Evolved in the COPs and on the Global Climate Geopolitical Stage, Sep 2021.
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