Climate change has become one of the largest international debates, as it is one of the few truly international areas of negotiation and impact.
China has previously been viewed as weak and ineffective in climate policy reform, however, in the past decade, China has reinvigorated itself as a leader in the climate change discussion. As a developing nation, China has worked to balance the economic and environmental costs of climate change. While China works to present its climate offers for the good of the global climate and the strengthening of the international economy, in recent years China has begun to realize the domestic benefits of climate policy reform. This change in understanding the domestic benefits has arisen from the emergence of new research, understanding of domestic environmental benefits, in the interest of political stability, and with the development of cost abatement technology. Climate change is now seen as a threat, not only to the environment but to the economic and institutional stability of China, with lasting costs of ignoring climate change to large to ignore.
As a developing nation, previously China’s primary concern was on economic development. China’s re-emergence onto the international political scene in the early 2000s has been highlighted in China’s new leadership in strong climate policy reform. From 1980 to the mid 2000s China’s climate policies were made for primarily foreign policy reasons. As a developing eastern nation competing financially with primarily developed western countries, China’s concern was growth and its perception in the international market and “pursuing a leadership position among the developing countries remains a key tenet of China’s environmental diplomacy”. In the mid 2000s as China began to more strongly assert itself as a world power, with social displays at the 2008 Olympics and political displays at the Copenhagen Accords, China has since begun to acknowledge the domestic benefits of environmental policy reform, working to take the lead in demanding that developed nations provide financial support and technological transfer to the developing nations. China continues to perform and create climate protocol with international standings in mind, taking a leadership position when possible.
The creation of the BASIC coalition at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Accords, while a nonbinding agreement, marked a strong moment of Chinese international political leadership. As Chinese international political leadership rose, domestic need for climate reform did as well. First, the aggregate impacts of climate change on China are now looking to be detrimental to China’s stability and future. Distrust in western scientific studies and their inconsistencies made the government wary of the impact of climate change. These inconsistencies and earlier studies finding that the effects of climate change on China could be benign could well have influenced the Chinese government’s perception of the payoffs from climate treaties. In the past decade, however, recent studies conducted have started to show the negative impacts of climate change in China, including drought in northern China, flooding along southern rivers as glaciers melt, sea level rise along the coast, and, most importantly to a majority of residents, poor air quality.
Second, climate policy could yield benefits in control of local pollution. Pollution in China has become severe, killing perhaps 400,000 to 750,000 people per year and costing about 6% of Chinese GDP. By reducing emissions of sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, climate policy to reduce GHG emissions could simultaneously deliver important improvements in public health. The Chinese leadership has put a high priority on reducing pollution, under the rubric of Hu Jintao’s official principles of “harmonious society” and the “scientific concept of development.” With the rapid releases of new studies into the direct impact of air quality on individual health, the public has begun to question their government’s lack of response.
Third, China is especially concerned about the distribution of climate impacts across the country, and their influence on political stability. In every country, national net benefits are not monolithic but interact with domestic political institutions and structures, which may help account for national action. Within China, the rapid economic growth has brought with it widening income inequality and a huge wave of internal migration, with some 250 million people trying to move from rural areas to coastal cities. Changes in the distribution of precipitation, storms, droughts, flooding, and sea level rise along the coasts, could pose severe strains on Chinese society, which are not fully reflected in aggregate studies of agricultural and industrial output.
Climate change could exacerbate these tensions, worsening the scarcity of clean water in urban areas where millions of poor migrants are arriving to seek economic opportunity. China is especially worried about social unrest especially that caused by water availability, by the drought in the North and flooding in the South, and air pollution. The Chinese leadership may plausibly fear that health and pollution problems amidst rising expectations may yield unrest. In conjunction with rising globalism and popularity of the internet as a platform for communication, residents have access to, admittedly limited amounts, of research on the effects of climate change and are demanding change. Damage to the actual environment in some ways is only a secondary problem, the main concern being the international and domestic reputation. As Elizabeth Economy writes: “These challenges could undermine the authority of the Communist Party…
The Chinese leadership’s greatest fear is, namely, that its failure to protect the environment may someday serve as the catalyst for broad-based demands for political change.” Prior major environmental lawmaking in China has often occurred in the wake of this kind of threat to political stability, and climate change policy could well be the next example.Fourth, at the same time that these benefits of climate protection may be rising, marginal emissions abatement costs may be declining. Technological change is improving the availability of effective options such wind and solar energy and China currently invests more than any other country in renewables at USD 83.3 billion.
Such technological innovation has in the past mainly occurred in the United States and Europe, as well as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, however, in the past decade China has made remarkable strides and is now the leader of solar energy production. Emissions abatement costs may also fall due to institutional innovation, such as the use of market-based incentive instruments like emissions trading. Following the development and application of these incentive instruments in the United States, China is now adopting such policies as well. However, the Chinese government understands that national benefits are not static or determined in isolation, but instead, as much as they might dislike it, depend on the cooperative deal reached with other countries. The structure of international negotiations and the incentives it offers to each country will always be viewed as a cost-benefit analysis and assessment of national benefits. Changes could be implemented either as part of the post-2012 Kyoto Protocol, or as a parallel regime in a plurilateral approach, and could use international cap-and-trade style emissions trading.
This data demonstrates how while China’s commitments to international climate change policy are rooted in conjunction with international standings, a majority of China’s climate reforms have been for the perceived domestic benefit. China’s commitments and subsequent success in reaching the outlines goals have sparked international intrigue. Especially in the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal and the United States internal environmental failings, such as the recent oil spill in South Dakota, China has continued meet and exceed global expectations of climate change. As a developing nation, China’s previous main concern had been on economic and structural development and environmental concerns seemed to be at odds with each other, however, their emergence is proving to show otherwise. China’s perceived growth as an international political leader has risen alongside the rise of domestic interests.
While policy is always influenced by the international market, domestic concerns have taken precedence as climate change proves to be a fruitful and lasting investment.