China in the International Politics of Climate Change: A Foreign Policy Analysis

FNI Report 12/2005. Lysaker, FNI, 2005, 82 p.

China is expected to produce the world’s largest emissions of greenhouse gases within a few decades. China also holds a key position in the international climate change negotiations as one of the leading and most influential actors in the group of developing countries, and can thus be characterized as a key actor for the future success of the global efforts to combat climate change. This report looks into the developments in China’s political response to the threat of climate change from the late 1980s when the problem emerged on the international political agenda, until 2004. Three theoretically based explanatory models are employed to identify the factors that have influenced Chinese foreign policy-making on climate change in the past, and furthermore how these factors are likely to influence China’s future climate change policy. The three models emphasize respectively: national interests in terms of costs and benefits; domestic political bargaining; and learning through diffusion of knowledge and norms. Among the explanatory factors discussed, economic interests and the primacy of economic growth seem to be most prominent in guiding the direction of China’s climate change policy. Both when the state is assumed to act as a unitary actor, and when the political bargaining between different sub-national interests are considered, economic development appears to be more important than any other factors. As in most developing countries, short term costs tend to carry more weight in decision-making than uncertain future costs, even if the latter are potentially larger. The predictive part of the analysis outlines two different scenarios for China’s future climate policy. Given the expected increase in energy demand and the limited capacity to substitute coal with other sources of energy, it is not likely that China will accept binding emission reduction targets in the near future. However, increasing recognition and priority of local pollution problems and ambitious energy efficiency goals provide promising avenues for a further decrease in carbon intensity. China’s involvement in CDM projects can also provide much-needed technology and attract foreign investments in emission reduction activities.