Is China a Leader or Laggard on Climate Change?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Joanna Lewis

Thursday, December 10, 2015 – 12:07pm

For many reasons, Paris is not Copenhagen. The weather is milder, the negotiations are being masterfully orchestrated (so far), and China is now a leader on climate change.

In these final hours of the negotiations three core issues remain: ambition, support, and differentiation. China and the United States are much closer to agreement on all three issues than they were back in Copenhagen. As Li Shuo mentioned above, differentiation is one of the fundamental issues that must be addressed in the context of a Paris agreement. The United States adamantly wants to move away from the bifurcated world of Annex I and Non-Annex I countries, while recognizing that any agreement will require recognition of differing national circumstances. China continues to emphasize the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, but seems open to an agreement that includes real action from countries on both sides of the former firewall.

Other issues remain challenging, including the topic of transparency. A rigorous transparency framework will be crucial given that there now are over 180 parties that have submitted INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) that are based on national conventions but use a variety of accounting methodologies and metrics to report different types of targets. For example, as I discuss in a recent Science article, China’s non–fossil energy target was estimated using a methodology that no other country uses—one that is distinctly different from the guidelines set out by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)—and yet it is not transparently reported in policy documents. This is an example of why promulgating requirements for increased transparency to facilitate comparison and analysis would greatly improve our collective understanding of different targets.

Despite remaining challenges over transparency, there are many signs that we are moving in the right direction. For example, anyone at COP21 wanting to better understand China’s energy sector need look no further than the China Pavillion adjacent to the negotiating rooms. Open to the public, the Pavillion features an all-star lineup of some of the world’s foremost experts on energy and climate issues in China, from top technical experts and academics to high-level government officials. China’s climate negotiators are frequent speakers at the Pavillion, and have done a great job easing any lingering concerns about China not being a team player in these talks. At an event last week on U.S.-China climate change cooperation, negotiator Su Wei said that China’s leaders are committed to reaching an agreement in Paris, and that they would work with the United States to make sure this happens.

Cautious not to be cast the villain as it was in Cophenhagen, China is a noticeably more confident actor in the climate negotiations in Paris, and this has translated into its willingness to pay a more constructive role.

For the rest of the conversation see: