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Climate change and global politics: a Chinese point of view on the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement shows the willingness of all nations to combat hand-in-hand the challenges of climate change. However, willingness per se is easily defeated by harsh realities. More than ever, cooperation is needed. But sacrifices will also be asked. How to negotiate them?

January 2016
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Executive Summary

On December 12, 2015, after two weeks of painstaking negotiations, the Paris Agreement was adopted by representatives from 195 countries as the global climate pact replacing the Kyoto Protocol after 2020. The legally binding agreement is a rational response from mankind to the threat of our common destiny. The vision and determination of the agreement make it truly historical.

While politicians may feel that they did everything possible in Paris to achieve the best result, for environmentalists, the Paris Agreement is far from enough. Ever since climate change evolved into a global issue in the 1990s, climate change negotiations had been brimming with conflicts of interests between poor and rich countries, between the left and the right. Varied interests and mindsets brought the globally coordinated climate change adaptation efforts many frustrations and difficulties. As a result, there has been little progress, and the delicate balance between development and environmental protection, between merits of modern conveniences and moderated consumption of resources was almost impossible to achieve. Although the Paris Agreement is an extraordinary first step to reflect the interests and concerns of all parties, the common ground reached is limited and there is still a long journey ahead.

Rich countries vs. poor countries: equitable responsibilities

Human beings have been slow in understanding and reluctant in reacting to climate change, but its threat is clear, without doubt. The most immediate consequence of a changing climate is rising sea levels that threaten to several submerge small island countries and the coastal areas in a number of other countries. Rising global temperatures could also lead to unpredictable global climate and environment changes, resulting in fresh water shortage, crop yield reduction, and more extreme weather events, as well as climate migration on a large scale. All these changes will have a great impact on the global order: on the one hand, countries’ internal governance capabilities will be reduced; on the other hand, countries will fight among themselves for increasingly scarce resources and intensifying global conflicts. Moreover, developing countries, poor and lacking necessary environmental protection technologies, will have to bear the most of the brunt.

To avoid the threat of disastrous weather conditions, global temperature rise must be averted, and low-carbon production and ways of life must be achieved. One of the goals of the Paris Agreement is to hold the global average temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Yet in fact, if countries continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere at current rate, the 2°C increase goal would almost certainly be failed, causing inconceivable damage to the environment. That is to say, countries have to do much more than they have already committed themselves to do if the goals of the agreement are to be reached.

Yet facing the beyond-all-question threat and well aware of the measures needed for climate change alleviation, why is it that countries have been slow in their response? It all comes down to countries’ unwillingness to assume greater responsibilities, with some countries taking a wait-and-see attitude in the hopes of getting a free ride. The conflict is the most apparent in the stalemate between developed and developing countries. From a historical perspective, developed countries, having completed the industrialisation process earlier, should be mainly responsible; at the same time, it is also true that emissions from developing countries are surpassing those from developed countries. To balance the two sides’ interests, the UNFCCC states that Parties should act to protect the climate system on the basis of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. In Paris developed countries have largely agreed to, by 2020, provide $100 billion a year in aid to developing countries for implementing new procedures to minimise climate change. Currently what all parties need to do is to stop complaining and pointing fingers. Too often countries blame others to shirk responsibilities, while precious time for problem solving is wasted in bickering.

Effective measures imply sacrifice, which should be made only on the basis of equitable responsibilities. What emission reduction means to developing countries is that their citizens will have to lower their expectations for future living standards improvement, that they cannot pursue an energy-intensive way of life, like the one adopted in the West which allows each household to own a car, as that would be too burdensome for the Earth. A low-carbon way of life is one worth advocating, one that is sustainable. Its final realisation in the long run reduces cost. Nevertheless, the transformation from a carbon-intensive economy to a low-carbon one is costly: Businesses have to cover the cost of emission reduction; citizens have to cut back on consumption and lower their expectations for life quality improvement. In addition, new, green technologies must be adopted. In these aspects, the west will have to provide more financing to developing countries and transfer technologies under more favourable conditions. It is fair for developing countries to sacrifice, only if developed countries are willing to provide fund.

Conflicting views

There are a number of conflicting views revolving around the issue of climate change. But one thing is clear, a fact recognised by scientists and politicians alike—the climate is changing, and it is mainly caused by human activities. Facing overwhelming scientific evidence, only an ostrich would bury its head in the sand, and only those who want to shirk responsibilities manage to find excuses. The threat is certain. Climate change is no longer a purely scientific or environmental problem, but a political issue on which the survival of mankind rests, and which urgently requires political efforts for sharing responsibilities and actions.

Admittedly, there are radical environmentalists who advocate a return to an illusionary “Nature”, in which no human intrusion is allowed and meat-eating is categorised as anti-environment killing. Most environmentalists, however, act out of pragmatic and genuine concerns, not selfishness. The world should be less wary of the so-called environmentalists hijacking the agenda than of the interested parties who, shying away from their duties to protect the environment, prevent the public from fully understanding the threat of global warming and suppress the calls for environmental protection.

In the debate between the left and right, the right has come up with a few valuable ideas. Apart from preventing climate change, they have also suggested measures for better adaptation and risk alleviation, such as market solutions including caps and trade, or geo-engineering. Nevertheless, it’s a wishful thinking that the market could be the ideal solution to the problem. From the view of economics, global warming is one great market failure: those responsible for the emissions has reaped benefits from their economic activities, whereas the cost of which has fallen on the global ecosystem and society. The adverse effects of greenhouse gases are therefore “external” to the market. The only solution to the problem is to make businesses and individuals take climate change costs into account when making production and consumption decisions. This can be achieved through global awareness education. It is not a reserved right for the left to remind people of the risks of climate change, but for anyone concerned about the destiny of mankind.

A new global governance outlook

It is most certainly that climate change will reshape international politics in the 21st century, posing serious challenges to conventional concepts of national sovereignty, and force nations to take concerted action and let go of their own narrow interests. The main conundrum of globalisation is the conflict between socioeconomic integration and political non-integration. Climate change, brought about by all the world’s nations together, has universal implications. However, countries are unable to make rational, concerted efforts against it. They do not have equal say, and are often mired in endless squabbling over narrow interests. This calls for a reform in global governance, and a democratic, rational pursuit for the best possible solution.

In order to combat global warming, the changes in governance should be towards establishing a type of Kantian “world government,” in which NGOs such as environmental groups play supplementary roles. Although mankind has achieved high degree of civilisation in the 21st century, the prospect of forming a global government, free of all prejudice and hatred, is still unattainable. At the moment, the old global governance system dominated by the West, from an economic, social or environmental perspective, has fallen out of step with the realities of today’s world. When the 2008 financial crisis broke out, facing unprecedented challenges, western countries once suggested strengthening the role of G20. However, as countries recovered at different paces, with the United States in the lead, their call for reform faltered. Now, all we can do is to integrate the global governance structure to the best of our ability and to strengthen cooperation.

Refusal to cooperate will not only exaggerate climate change, but also give rise to global conflicts. The threat of climate change has in effect increased risk factors in global competition. Developed countries have been preparing themselves by taking lead in new energy forms and low-carbon technologies. In the future, the key to global leadership probably lies in the ability to save the planet. It is evident that developed countries will have the initiative in international competition to harness the best technologies to respond to climate change. By contrast, developing countries face enormous challenges. On the one hand, they need to catch up with developed countries in economic and social development; on the other hand, they need to allocate more resources for green technology R&D as well as environmental protection such as forest protection, putting themselves into a strained situation. History is not always linear and progressive; there are setbacks and retrogression. While currently countries are at peace with one another in a period of overall prosperity, they could go to war when faced with resource shortages and disasters in the future. Even the idea of such a possibility is frightening. So it is vital that the spirit of staying together and working closely be emphasised.

China: public climate awareness yet to be raised

In the global debate on climate change, China is in a unique position. Undoubtedly, it makes a considerable contribution. The Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon lauded China’s constructive and active role in the historical negotiation of the Paris Agreement. In its Nationally Determined Contribution, China pledged to peak its carbon dioxyde emissions by 2030 if not earlier, as well as to provide funds and capacity-building assistance to developing countries. At home, China is adjusting its industrial and energy structure and transforming the way of life and mode of development.

But a major issue in China is that the public has, generally speaking, underestimated the seriousness of global warming. The intelligentsia, in particular, has not taken on the responsibility of generating more engagement. Many, biased in favour of an omnipotent market, claim that global warming is a sensational story made up by the so-called white leftists. Paradoxically, this attitude plays right into the hands of China’s leftists, who, believing in conspiracy theory and seeing China as the disadvantaged, pass global warming as a mere western fabrication, a non-existent threat used by the West to corset developing countries into low-carbon development while maintaining their own edge. So curiously, China’s rightists and leftists seem to have reached a consensus in their mutual indifference to the problem of climate change, making the Chinese public, already preoccupied with and stressed by daily affairs and lacking interests in global issues, more reluctant to do otherwise. Yet such an attitude can not only affect China’s cooperation with other countries. Given China is itself a victim of climate change, it is also detrimental to the country. The attitude needs to be changed.


To conclude, the Paris Agreement shows the willingness of all nations to combat hand-in-hand the challenges of climate change. However, willingness per se is easily defeated by harsh realities. What countries urgently need is to remain determined and courageous. It is questionable just how much attention each nation can spare for global warming, faced with all types of domestic political and economic problems. Issues such as debt and immigration crises in Europe, bipartisanship in the US, the scourge of ISIS in the Middle East, and the lack of progress in East Asian integration mean a return to the “state-of-nature”, as described by Thomas Hobbes, is under way. Thus, maintaining stability and order has become a top priority. This is obviously bad news for international cooperation against climate change, but of course, it is in times of great peril that determination and courage seem all the more valuable.

So, the effort against climate change should be given paramount political importance. It should not merely be a topic for scientific debate, but seen as a political issue that concerns the fate of all humanity, and that deserves substantive discussions and actions on the part of governments. At the same time, climate change must be de-politicised, meaning that the public, not just politicians and the elite, should be involved and educated about the imminence of the threat, instead of sitting idly on the sidelines, keeping their hands in the pockets. The prevalence of post-modernism and consumerism has made climate change more exaggerated, since the sole goal of life now is the satisfaction of material needs. In our times, traditional virtues such as moderation, respect, awe, consideration for other members of society and future generations, and intergenerational ethics must be promoted. For real changes to happen, individuals have to take the initiative. Only when combining “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches, combining global governance and government action with a paradigm shift in public awareness and behaviour, can we find a way out of the current stalemate.

Liu Bo
Opinion Editor, FT Chinese