How China May Have Just Changed The Climate Game


Last week, the Chinese government made a critical move toward placing a cap on the amount of carbon dioxide it would emit. That’s a significant decision especially when seen in context of the local emissions permit trading schemes being tried out around the country. Depending on how tight the cap is, this could be a big deal in its own right: China is the world’s largest and fastest-growing emitter. Its citizens are already suffering as a consequence.

But the impact of the Chinese decision could be even broader. Understanding why requires seeing climate change as an issue that’s every bit as much about the structure of international politics as it is about domestic policy or environmental science.

That climate change is a principally international issue should be obvious. Though American CO2 emissions have fallen 13 percent since 2007, we’ve just hit 400 atmospheric CO2 parts per million — a level last reached several million years ago, when the Earth was about 14 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it is today. That’s partly because the U.S. hasn’t dropped off enough, but also in large part because the rest of the world has ramped up its carbon burning. Globally, we emit at least 48 percent more than we did in 1992.

The question of how to stop this destructive trend is usually posed in reference to this-or-that meeting or specific initiative: what will be accomplished at Bonn? How can we better comply with the Kyoto framework? But whether the global climate agenda will succeed in any specific sense depends on deeper issues about what the structure of international politics permits. Are states capable of cooperating to reduce emissions given the realities of international politics? Why wouldn’t they be? What could get them on board?

There’s a metric ton of research on these questions. I’m sure you’ll bear with me while I greatly simplify it.

Broadly speaking, it’s useful to think of the international climate regime in three parts: power, ideas, and institutions. Power is the ability that states, corporations, or other actors have to get what what they want — think of how the Bush Administration wielded American economic clout to weaken the Kyoto protocol. Power determines who has the most say over how any climate agreement ends up going down in practice and hence whose interests end up being reflected in practice.

Ideas are the basic beliefs that determine, sometimes independent of interests, what states believe about environmental problems. A good example here is the way the UN IPCC report helped convince the international community that climate change was a real threat they needed to address. Ideas matter because they set the terms of the international climate debate on issues like how urgent a problem climate change is, who should bear the costs of solving it, and what sorts of policy options would be best suited to mitigating its effects if everyone could agree to them.

Power and ideas aren’t conceptually separate in a neat sense. Powerful actors can help determine what ideas win out and ideas can change what powerful actors want. But thinking of them as broadly distinct is useful in talking about how the world produces the third leg of the international climate tripod: institutions. Institutions are the concrete structures that states either explicitly or implicitly put in place to collectively reshape their environmental behavior; the Kyoto Protocol is the obvious example, but international environmental law and trade agreements about green technology also count. Institutions sit at the intersection of power and ideas, as they’re created by their interactions. We wouldn’t have an international emissions framework if states didn’t believe that climate change were a serious problem, but it wouldn’t be as weak as it was if the United States hadn’t used its power to kneecap it.

China’s potential to change international climate institutions is unique because of its strength in power terms and its particular ideational role in the world. Being the world’s largest emitter and second largest economy, China can cripple any climate agreement merely by opting out, meaning that any agreement that hopes to curb emissions must cater to Chinese interests.

If its decision to cap carbon emissions domestically signals support for a more international carbon regime, something it’s been hesitant to do for domestic economic reasons, Beijing could bring a lot of clout to bear in helping push the world toward more robust action. Moreover, it would undercut the United States’ principal excuse for being a global stick-in-the-mud on climate agreements.

China may be also able to help spread the idea that global climate action isn’t just a rich man’s game. Though China is a middle-income country by global per capita standards, it still suffers from massive poverty and, historically, was a victim of Western colonialism. A major stumbling block to climate action, as J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley C. Parks document, has been the perception of unfairness between the “Global South” and the “Global North.”

The current framework allows historically poorer countries to emit with virtually no restriction partially because there’s a deep-seated belief that the West emitted itself to wealth. Greenhouse gas emissions started spiking alongside the Industrial Revolution, right when Western countries were making economic and technological breakthroughs that allowed them to colonize the rest. But since action by Western powers won’t be enough alone to stop catastrophic warming without action from the developing world — particularly China and India — there needs to be a sense of buy-in to the emerging climate regime among non-Western powers. Aggressive Chinese action might not be able to do that on its own, but it’s certainly a start.

Together, China’s clout and historical profile might allow it to reshape climate institutions at the all-important 2015 negotiations aimed at updating the current international legal regime on emissions to reflect current realities, particularly increased emissions from the developed world. Previously, China had been more of a spoiler than facilitator — there’s some evidence, for instance, that China and the US cooperated to frustrate European regulation initiatives during the 2009 Copenhagen talks. Were China to change course in order to integrate a domestic carbon cap-and-trade regime into a global trading scheme, the prospects for success in 2015 would look a whole lot brighter.

It’d be a mistake to overread this speculation as prediction. For starters, we still don’t know how stringent China’s proposed cap would be, or even if it’ll be implemented. A really loose cap would be a way of seeming like China cared about climate change while really signalling that it would prefer to do nothing. Moreover, if China doesn’t like the way its regulations are (for instance) affecting economic growth, domestic regulations could potentially stiffen Beijing’s opposition to a binding global system.

China also can’t fix American domestic politics. Even scholars like Robert Falkner, who’s relatively optimistic about the potential of environmental ideas to make states greener, believe the United States plays a critical role in defining the global environmental consensus given its hegemonic political position. And since the American stance on any eventual binding agreement is determined as much by Congress as the President, the global climate regime is in large part dependent on the whims of Congressional Republicans. Their position on climate change, needless to say, has very little to do with Chinese economic decisions.

Nevertheless, China’s steps toward real limits on climate emissions could represent a tectonic shift in some very basic structural factors that set up international politics of climate change. That’s a prospect worth taking very seriously.

47 Responses to How China May Have Just Changed The Climate Game

  1. Superman1 says:

    “And since the American stance on any eventual binding agreement is determined as much by Congress as the President, the global climate regime is in large part dependent on the whims of Congressional Republicans.” And, who is it that keeps sending these ‘Congressional Republicans’ and Democrat Blue Dogs back to their seats year after year?

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    The notion that Chinese emissions are preventing US actions is not correct. We are continuing BAU with the fossil fuel economy because our institutions are in the grip of corporations, particularly fossil fuel companies and banks who profit from them.

    It’s more accurate to say that US emissions have stalled action everywhere else. The Chinese are perfectly aware that the US is historically responsible for 29% of global emissions, and that our per capita emissions are double those of most developed countries.
    Finger pointing is far more pervasive in our direction, and not just from China.

    A cap, whether hard, soft, or binding, along with cap and trade, are not the correct approaches. Cap and trade funnels enormous sums to banks and traders, and lends itself to corrupt offsets. Emissions caps are routinely abandoned when they become inconvenient, as with Canada opting out of their caps and Kyoto in general when they smelled cash from the tar sands.

    Things will change when all countries have carbon taxes, integrate them into trade policies, and charge fossil fuel corporations for pollution and health costs as well. This is rational, fair, and effective. Only greed and stupidity stand in the way.

  3. Paul Klinkman says:

    Note that China isn’t 100% effective at carrying through on its promises. If they agree to an international patent law convention, that doesn’t mean that they’ll enforce the convention. If they pledged a quota of 500,000 engineers graduated each year, they might hand out the diplomas to factory workers on payday.

    Still, few politicians enjoy being embarrassed at having to eat their own words, so there’s hope.

  4. wili says:

    Good point. IIRC, they had a plan to move away from the traditional ways of measuring GDP and start including notions of draw down of environmental capital…

    Once the economists realized that this kind of accounting would pretty much make their miraculous growth on paper of GDP by traditional measures disappear, the project was quietly dropped.

    Let’s hope that this initiative does not meet a similar fate.

    (Note: A Chinese firm is about to buy one of the largest hog producers in the world–not a particularly benign industry in terms of GW or more local pollution issues.)

  5. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yes, this has the potential to change the dynamics within the BRICS group and between that group and the other parties. China plays wei’chi and is sure to have thought through the long term implications, ME

  6. Tom says:

    China is the largest and fastest growing emitter of Green House Gas emissions BECAUSE IT IS IMPORTING ALL OF OBAMA’S DIRTY ENERGY!

    Adjust out these imports from Obama and you will find that the worst offender is the United States.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I see that the author uses the weasel expression ‘a perception’ of unfairness between the global North and South. As if it is a matter of opinion, or some sort of ‘false consciousness’ by those whining Southerners. There has been a 500 year reign of terror, aggression, exploitation and pillage by the North against the South, which continues to this day, and which the Western powers (ie the North) are doing all in their power to maintain, including incessant vilification of China. Fortunately for all our sakes, the Chinese are turning the other cheek and getting on with business.

  8. ted whittlinger says:

    Sure and the US has immigration laws against illegal entry and stays – see how well that is working! Having ‘caps’ and laws is nice but ENFORCEMENT is where the rubber meets the road. Let’s not get too giddy and excited yet.

  9. anonymitty says:

    China has become a superpower with an economy roughly the same size as that of the US. And as befits a superpower and an equal, she is more concerned with the future than with the past.

    As to “the North” and aggression and exploitation, historically the United States has been the friend of China and an obstacle to the aggression of others. Not always, but at least from time to time. We and China have a history that is compatible with cooperation today.

  10. China’s willingness to cap carbon emissions is a game-changer. With the EF-5 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma and Super Storm Sandy that hit the Northeast, weather supercomputer models are pointing to global warming being a possible cause. The most common cause of global warming is increased carbon dioxide (CO2) gas levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. Recently an atmospheric test facility in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the Hawaiian Islands (way away from transportation and industrial CO2 on the continents) detected CO2 levels in the air of 400 parts per million. Ice samples from deep drill holes on the Antarctica have revealed that the CO2 concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere hasn’t been that high since 8 million years ago. What can we do about it? I like President Obama’s “All of the above” approach to energy and global warming. The increasing CO2 in the air that humans can do something about is caused by burning fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) and fossil fuel distillates (gasoline, propane, diesel, jet fuel, etc.). The US can export as much fossil fuels as it can. This will create a balance of payments surplus with China. In the meantime, America can convert agricultural, human, animal, and solid waste into ethanol to use in place of the fossil fuel distillates (mostly transportation fuels). Only 20% of the world’s waste would be needed to make enough ethanol for all of its transportation needs. Novozyme’s enzymes would convert the agricultural waste into ethanol. Celanese’s thermochemical TCX process will converts all of these forms of waste into ethanol. Both companies would do so at the same cost as refining gasoline from oil. The ethanol produced by these two companies’ methods will have zero net CO2 emissions and it can be used as E85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline). The Detroit Big Three Automotive manufactures can build more Flex Fuel Vehicles to burn E85. The International Energy Agency’s scientists estimate that a fourfold increase in worldwide ethanol production will reduce atmospheric CO2 levels by 50% by 2050. This is “combustion recycling.” China has contracted with US firm Celanese to do combustion recycling with the TCX process at a steel foundry.

  11. Jerrald says:

    China is the most polluted country in the world.even the chinese fishermen is the biggest
    destroyer of corals in WEST philippine sea and South china sea.China is also climing the islands of Philippines Japan Vietnam and Indias,is it appropriate? embararrassing!i think UN must do some punishmentto china to give this greedy China a lesson.i think by means of TRADE SANCTIONS.

  12. Dale says:

    Normally, I’m not one to wave my American flag and say U.S.A., but I’ve been to China, and it is definitely mostly their fault. It’s terrible over there. You’re way more likely to not be able to see in a city, because of pollution than fog. They are horrible, horrible polluters. I’m surprised they are actually doing anything. I would have thought they’d just f!@# over their people like they always do. People in poverty in America are like normal Chinese citizens over there.

  13. When the next international meeting is held to try to put a structure to limit CO2 emissions it would better if the USA did not attend. All they do is arrive with 200 lawyers tasked with not curbing the American fossil fuel industry. The rest of the World can get on with sorting out the problems without the USA’s spoiling tactics.

  14. Spock says:

    They have no choices. There are days that they can’t even breath their own air in Beijing….

  15. Joshua01 says:

    Chinese government has no credibility.

    I want to see procedures to get there, how would they implement and enforce it, and if a third party is allowed to verify it.

  16. Well put, Mike. A good summary of the situation.

    The bad news is the U.S. is still the rogue nation vis-a-vis climate change. The good news is that we’re in the belly of the beast, and if we are going to dedicate ourselves to reducing the causes of global warming, we’ve got more leverage here than anywhere.

  17. Wouldn’t that be great? Imagine, every other country in the world decides to have a big climate powwow and we’re simply not asked to attend.

    Can you imagine the consternation of the American exceptionalism crowd? And, they’d have their knickers is twist because they don’t believe in AGW so “who wants to go to their stupid meeting anyway.” But on the other hand, Amurka wouldn’t be running (or ruining) the show. HA!

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    We can debate aspects of history but now that China rivals the US in economic terms, most observers of the US ‘pivot’ into Asia-Pacific are far from convinced of its cooperative intent, ME

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I am sure that many US citizens bear no malice towards China, and vice versa. However, the position of the US ruling elite towards China has always been the same as its posture regarding all other non-Western countries. Condescension and contempt, moral posturing and lecturing, and relentless exploitation, followed by subversion and aggression if US exploitation is resisted. That elite attitude, shared by the morally insane ruling elites of the West, will never change.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Unfortunately, that’s not how the USA operates. They have a Manifest Destiny to control every country on earth, owing to their God-given ‘moral values’. A sick joke, no doubt, but enforced with pitiless brutality.

  21. dooberheim says:

    Climate will always take a back seat to the economy. The effects of climate change are not as immediate as the effects of an economic downturn. What this will likely mean is we hit 450 ppm in maybe 2037 rather than 2035.

    The earth can absorb about 7 billion tons of CO2 every year, and there are 7+ billion people on the planet. This means that each person can emit no more than 1 ton/year to stabilize CO2 levels. Americans make about 20. 1 ton/year is what places like Angola and Bangladesh make.

    No developed or developing nation will decimate its economy for something as controversial as climate change. And lesser actions are simply Band-Aids that put off the days of reckoning by a few years. If we aren’t willing to talk about sacrificing economic growth and development – quickly and painfully – to stop the rise of CO2 levels, then we shouldn’t be talking about this at all.


  22. Bob h says:

    The Neanderthalic Republican attitude towards mitigation of carbon dioxide is a tragedy for the planet.

  23. Bob h says:

    There is probably a lot of CO2 reduction that can be achieved thru conservation and efficiency improvements. These do not rob economic growth.
    Americans on average use much more energy per capita than others. Also, research into and production of greener energy systems could set off an economic boom the way the internet did.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Bob, there is no evidence that I know of that the Neanderthals, who survived for a very long time (unlike us) were anything like the Reptilicans. They are a disaster that belongs to Homo ‘sapiens’.

  25. Jan says:

    Unfortunately not many polluting corporations do not realize how much money they could save by just plugging their leaks that disseminate in the atmosphere. They should take an example after the city of Houston that has made a lot of progress in its petro-chemical environment, although they still have a long way to go.

  26. Jan says:

    Not only art, but ill-will stupidity is also in the eye of the beholder. Is China leading the way by example or are we intentionally following what they decide to do? It’s like over-fishing. Those fisherman can be man as hell to be imited their catch. What will they do when there is no fish? Cry?

  27. SecularAnimist says:

    dooberheim wrote: “… The effects of climate change are not as immediate as the effects of an economic downturn … No developed or developing nation will decimate its economy … to talk about sacrificing economic growth and development – quickly and painfully …”

    With all due respect, that’s nonsense.

    Replacing fossil fuels with abundant, clean, zero-emission renewable energy, principally solar and wind, is THE engine of economic growth for the 21st century, and the basis for sustainable, equitable prosperity for all. It is, in fact, the ONLY way that hundreds of millions of people in the developing world have any hope to be lifted out of poverty.

    China is taking these steps precisely because its leaders recognize that continued use of fossil fuels will undermine and reverse its economic development, and that a rapid transition to renewable energy is absolutely necessary if the country is to achieve sustainable prosperity. And this is even more true of other developing nations.

    The fact is that bogus claims that rapidly phasing out fossil fuels will “decimate the economy” and cause an “economic downturn” and require “painful sacrifices” are nothing more than the fossil fuel corporations’ alarmist, fear-mongering propaganda.

    The reality is that the only thing that will be “decimated” and “sacrificed” is the profits of the fossil fuel corporations, when trillions of dollars in wealth are shifted from them to other sectors of the economy.

  28. SecularAnimist says:

    Mulga Mumblebrain wrote: “the Neanderthals, who survived for a very long time (unlike us)”

    Actually, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Homo sapiens originated about the same time as Homo neanderthalensis. The Neanderthals went extinct about 28,000 years ago, while Homo sapiens went on to spread across the world and of course still survives today. So your statement is incorrect.

    I do agree that it is inappropriate to use “Neanderthal” as a synonym for “backwards” or “primitive”, since all the evidence indicates that they were at least as intellectually, culturally and technologically advanced as Homo sapiens at that time.

    Having said that, the Neanderthals became extinct 30,000 years before fossil fuels were discovered and the technology to extract and burn them existed. If that species had survived to use fossil fuels on the scale that we (Homo sapiens) have, they would be in the same trouble that we are in today.

    And they’d probably have their own equivalent of the Koch Brothers.

  29. Craig Usas says:

    “Only greed and stupidity stand in the way”…
    Greed and stupidity will prevail.
    The US polluted with impunity and colonized with abandon, the reward being world domination…the price being irrevocable damage to the earth.
    It’s now China’s turn. While they may recognize the likely damage, they too will pollute and (quietly) colonize for the same reward and at the same price.
    Mankind collectively is now capable of destroying the planet. Greed and stupidity will prevail until it is accomplished.

  30. marsala56 says:

    The fact that even the Chinese get global warming and polution is a sad statement about the climate deniers in this country. Now, they really don’t have any argument concering this but I doubt this will change their minds.My hope is that this news will put them down a peg and maybe some will shut up about crap they know nothing about. One issue at a time, folks, one issue at a time, as we travel slowly to reality.

  31. marsala56 says:

    Yea, true. But they are mostly getting old and will eventually die off, leaving future generations to deal with climate change. I think if we last that long, a real turnaround can happen and we will start to seriously address this problem.

  32. Cin5456 says:

    I expect the price of pork and bacon to sky-rocket here when they start exporting our pork to China to replace all the diseased livestock they have lost. Tens of thousands of dead hogs in their rivers makes their need obvious. They no longer trust their own hog ranchers to stop trafficking in diseased pork.

  33. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Climate change may be controversial where you live but it not in most of the world, ME

  34. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The young are always the hope of the world. Unfortunately many are precocious, even congenital, arse-holes, like their progenitors. Let’s hope the real ‘good guys’ amongst the young of all the world prevail.

  35. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Trade sanctions on China, the world’s greatest trading nation? Oh, dear-the fear and hatred do run deep.

  36. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Chinese pollution is caused in large part by the West exporting its pollution by outsourcing its manufacturing to China, in return for profits and cheap goods for the USA’s burgeoning working poor population, and a middle-class whose median wages have stagnated for forty years. Chinese pollution is just like that which Western powers endured during their industrialisation, only on a greater scale. And the UN has reported that 110% of global poverty reduction in the first decade of the 21st century occurred in China (the extra 10% accounted for by the fact that countries like India went backwards). And China is doing something about its pollution crisis, and is bringing the price of renewable energy crashing down.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Forgive me, but your arrogance is preposterous. Who in blazes would ‘verify’ Chinese policy? The days of colonialism, imperialism and ‘The White Man’s Burden’ are over.

  38. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I was just going by stuff I have that asserts Neanderthals as a separate species of Homo, rather than a sub-species of Homo sapiens, and puts their ancestry, or that of ‘proto-Neanderthals’ back several hundred thousand years. But, I’m no anthropologist, paleo or otherwise. There’s something rather romantic about a long ancestry and the enduring of a couple of Ice Ages about the Neanderthals, and I have always suspected Homo sapiens’ chauvinism and supremacism. When I was a lad (not long after the Neanderthals went extinct-or did they?)the Neanderthals were always portrayed quite nastily, with much condescension and contempt.

  39. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Blame the ‘Green extremists’.

  40. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Fine comment. I couldn’t agree more.

  41. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I have read that they and us were quite chummy and there is a little bit of Neanderthal walking around today in many of us, ME

  42. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yes Sec and that shift is starting to happen faster and faster. The dam wall now has a very big crack in it and the question now is whether the FF industry has any tricks left to repair it, ME

  43. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Your conclusion is exactly the opposite of what the evidence about the rapid growth in renewables in China and elsewhere tells us, ME

  44. Nuwan says:

    China will underestimate its emissions. No one can measure the transparency of Chinese data.

  45. Superman1 says:

    You might want to take a look at the EIA, IEA, and industry projections of total energy use for the next few decades. These are put together with the hardest data available, not the fantasy data base you and Mulga use. These projections show global fossil fuel use increasing over that time period, albeit not as fast as the rate of renewables.

  46. Superman1 says:

    It’s a symbiotic relationship, similar to the one between the fossil energy companies and the electorate.

  47. Superman1 says:

    The remaining ‘trick’ is known as the insatiable demand by the global electorate for the high energy intensity lifestyle enabled by the availability of ‘cheap’ fossil fuels.