Hopes of Limiting Global Warming? China and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change

By Li, Anthony H. F. | China Perspectives, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Hopes of Limiting Global Warming? China and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change


Li, Anthony H. F., China Perspectives


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Introduction

Climate change is closely related to the rise of the global economy since the industrial revolution. As scientific evidence shows, the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is attributable to human activities since WWII, leading to global warming, rising sea levels, and more frequent occurrences of extreme weather. (1) Scientists warned that immediate action must be taken by the international community if we are to stop the globe from warming more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels and avoid catastrophic ecological consequences. The recent Paris Climate Summit from 30 November to 12 December 2015, officially referred to as the 21stConference of Parties (COP 21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was an important part of the international efforts to tackle climate change. Over the past few decades, the international community has been working together to better understand the extent of climate change and what actions are required to mitigate it. These efforts were crystallised in the establishment of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988 with the mandate to assess the state of climate change, and the signing of the UNFCCC in 1992, which laid the foundation for further international cooperation. (2)The Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which required developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emission, was an historic international agreement on climate change. Nevertheless, it did not bear much fruit without the participation of the United States. For this reason, many observers called for a new international agreement to be reached as a matter of urgency. The COP 21 in Paris was therefore highly anticipated. Prior to the conference, each participant country was invited to make pledges of carbon emission reduction according to their respective capabilities, known as "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions" (INDC). Although some NGO studies doubt the effectiveness of the INDCs to limit the world temperature increase to less than 2°C,(3)the bottom-up approach implied by the concept of INDC is seen as more practical and promising to the climate change problem. (4) As the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the world's second largest economy, China has become an important force that heavily influences the failure or success of cooperation on climate change. In the following, I would like to discuss the role of China in the making of the Paris Agreement, the reasons for China's active role in forging international cooperation on climate change, and the challenges it faces in taking action against climate change.

China and the Paris Climate Summit

Since the start of international cooperation on climate change, China has undergone tremendous changes in many respects. Economic reform has increased China's trade with the outside world. Its accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) made China the "World's Factory" and helped it accumulate unprecedented wealth. In tandem with its economic achievements, the volume of carbon emission increased exponentially for China, and it has surpassed the United States as the world's largest carbon emitter since 2005 (see Graph 1).

From the perspective of China's leaders in the 1990s, environmental degradation was a necessary price to pay in order to alleviate large-scale poverty. As a corollary, China was not supposed to cut carbon emission levels, and developed countries were to contribute to the transfer of technology to developing countries so as to facilitate the control of global carbon emission. (5) China's leaders were also cautious about the possibility of foreign powers attempting to interfere in China's domestic affairs in the name of environmental protection. (6)

Since the 2000s, tensions have developed between China's position on its global environmental obligations and the expectations of the international community. …

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