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Is the Climate Right for Paris?

May 18, 2015
  • Han Liqun

    Researcher, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

In international climate politics, Europe has always been revered as “spiritual leader”, while China and the U.S. are “bad guys”. But with China and the US recently finding new common interests in climate cooperation — for more than two years — there is new hope that the impasse in international climate negotiations may be broken. With less than eight months to go before the Paris climate summit, amid intensive climate diplomacy worldwide, close interaction between China and the U.S. draws broad international attention. Despite divergence on some key issues, Sino-U.S. cooperation shows the international community a ray of hope.

First, Sino-U.S. cooperation will contribute political impetus to international climate negotiations. All countries, developing ones in particular, have come to terms with the necessity of controlling climate change. With such universal willingness, the only thing absent is powerful political motivation. On the stage of international climate negotiations, the volume of greenhouse gas emission determines a country’s say. Europe is passionate about negotiations, yet its emission accounts for merely 12% of the global total. China and the U.S., meanwhile, are responsible for 40% of the world total. No matter what new measures they take, there will be guiding effects on global climate negotiations. If China and the U.S. can coordinate stances, and compromise on such issues as responsibility assignment, commitment fulfillment, fund-raising and compensation mechanism, they will stimulate political motivation beyond themselves at the Paris summit.

In fact, though the two countries had not prioritized climate cooperation in bilateral ties until two years ago, the positive gesture already has influenced international climate politics in major ways. After setting up a “climate change working group” in April 2013, the two countries published the “U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change” in November 2014, presenting a more detailed collaboration scheme with plenty of specifics, and called on other countries to put forward forceful goals, instilling fresh momentum into international climate politics.

Second, Sino-U.S. cooperation has significant exemplary effects. China boasts a huge market and manufacturing capabilities. The U.S. has technologies and funds. The two are mutually complementary in jointly addressing environmental concerns. Since each of them has a vigorous domestic market, climate cooperation has created tremendous commercial interests, providing internal impetuses for bilateral climate cooperation. For instance, China has developed competitive advantages in solar, wind and hydropower; that means U.S. technologies in corresponding fields can greatly upgrade Chinese efficiency in new energy application. The two countries have carried out more than 30 cooperation projects in nine areas: vehicles, smart grids, carbon capture, utilization and storage, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas data management, forests, industrial boilers, and Climate-Smart/Low-Carbon Cities. They have also conducted dialogues on HFCs, climate change international negotiations, and domestic actions. More important, since China and the U.S. are in different camps, their experiences of cooperation can be brought to Paris as a template for climate cooperation between developing and developed countries.

Third, the pro-cooperation forces that exist in both countries can ensure the continuity and predictability of their policies on climate cooperation, which is crucial for international climate negotiations. Once the biggest uncertainty in international climate politics, the U.S. is presenting an increasingly clear stance. President Obama is determined to do things regarding climate change, so as to leave behind him green political legacies; Secretary of State Kerry has spared no effort in climate diplomacy. This will surely enhance stability of U.S. climate policies. China’s resolve to transform its economy, making it less energy-intensive, and less polluting, is even stauncher. Its motivation for participation in international climate system building is completely endogenic. The biggest challenge in China’s face is to balance economic growth and environmental protection. For that, it has to work harder than the U.S. In order to do that, the Chinese government must not only come up with and faithfully implement a sensible plan for application of new and renewable energies, and assign specific targets to the provinces, but also continuously popularize and promote new-energy technologies, and advocate lower-carbon consumption and ways of life.

In the future, the two countries’ cooperation on climate agendas may gradually result in more consensus and common ground. On some specific matters, those of principle in particular, they may develop increasing mutual understanding and tolerance. With that prospect in mind, we can boldly predict that China and U.S. will join hands to offer a boost to the Paris summit.

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