China’s great power responsibility in international climate politics

Climate responsibility is a truly international, routinized practice with norms and rules. China’s climate responsibility can only be studied and evaluated in the context of international practices. 

The historic Paris Climate Agreement entered into force on the 4th of November, 2016.  More than the required fifty-five countries, representing fifty-five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, ratified the Paris Agreement in under a year, which makes it one of the fastest international agreements ever to take effect.

China’s role has been central in concluding the Paris Agreement and in its taking of effect. In September 2016, we saw big headlines telling us that China and the USA had ratified the Paris Climate Agreement. China has proclaimed that it committed to international actions against climate change because of its deep “sense of responsibility as a major country.”

China’s role has been central in concluding the Paris Agreement and in its taking of effect.

Many of you probably remember very different headlines about China’s role in international climate negotiations in the past. In particular, you might remember the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, when international media, and indeed some Western politicians, openly criticised China for being irresponsible and for blocking progress at the conference.

China’s “irresponsibility” in international climate politics has often been used as an excuse amongst Western citizens for not taking active efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions themselves. At the same time, China is nevertheless a developing country, where millions of people live in poverty; and therefore, we cannot expect China to shoulder a similar responsibility to us.

China and international practice of climate responsibility

In my doctoral dissertation, I have problematized the many meanings and dimensions of responsibility. In particular, I have examined what the notion of great power responsibility means in the context of international climate politics, and especially, how China has influenced the historical process in which the practices of climate responsibility have been defined and contested.

However, in the dissertation, I do not provide readers with a list of moral or legal criteria that would demonstrate and assess whether or not China—or any other country—is a responsible actor in international climate politics. Nor have I intended to find a moral basis for responsibility in international society in general.

What I have done instead is to argue that China’s climate responsibility can only be studied and evaluated in the context of international practices.

I define climate responsibility as an intentional social practice that defines who is responsible for what and to whom. It started to evolve in the late 1960s, be institutionalized in the 1990s, and it is now approaching the stage of assimilation. This development process has been shaped by many international events, political struggles over discourses of responsibility, and other established international practices, for instance.

China has gone through a profound identity change from an isolated communist state to an emerging great power.

Meanwhile, China has gone through a profound identity change from an isolated communist state to an emerging great power, which has dramatically changed its notions of state responsibility. This process has had, and will have, a tremendous influence on the way international society defines and distributes state and especially great power responsibilities now and in the future.

According to my dissertation, climate responsibility is a truly international, routinized practice with norms and rules. It is consciously upheld and endorsed by a critical mass of states, and it has remained quite stable over time. It is also embodied in and shapes many global and domestic practices simultaneously.

Climate responsibility is a truly international, routinized practice with norms and rules.

Although climate change builds momentum for the emergence of a cosmopolitan world society, climate responsibility is a very state-centric practice: it focuses mainly on interstate relations and justice, not the well-being of people or the environment as such.

Clearly, there are still wide disputes about rules of climate responsibility, and it clashes with established practices, such as sovereignty and economic growth. However, disputes do not make it weaker, but indicate that climate responsibility is gradually becoming a weightier international practice.

The way forward

While climate responsibility has not made international society humanist or ecocentric, its emergence nevertheless indicates a profound normative change in international society—even great power management has been shaped by climate responsibility. Today, climate change mitigation is no longer only a special responsibility of developed countries, but also becoming a general responsibility of all states.

Based on these observations, I have made a few recommendations as to how international climate practices could and should be transformed in order to strengthen climate responsibility and enhance mitigation efforts in the future.

First, the object of climate responsibility should be redefined. Instead of focusing on states’ national interests and rights, climate responsibility should take the well-being of both human beings and nature as an ultimate goal. In particular, economic growth should not be an overriding objective of international practices, but the dimensions of human well-being should be assessed in broader terms.

Climate responsibility should take the well-being of both human beings and nature as an ultimate goal.

Second, the subject of climate responsibility should also be redefined. Although states undoubtedly remain the most important political actors, future climate negotiations should address how states and international organizations can promote and facilitate the climate responsibility of non-state actors and affluent individuals.

Finally, climate responsibility should not be distributed exclusively on the basis of the “supply-side” contribution to climate change. It should also pay attention to the “demand-side.”  The lion’s share of China’s carbon emissions are caused by exports. Due to the complexities of global trade, Western consumers are also partly responsible for China’s emissions through their purchases of iPods and other goods produced in China.

If these “offshore emissions” were officially acknowledged, it would not only make international negotiations more fair, but also generate trust and potentially increase China’s willingness to take a more active role in global efforts to mitigate climate change.

China as a responsible major country

Regarding China’s climate responsibility, my dissertation points out that China cannot be seen as “irresponsible” in its international climate politics. It has constructed very comprehensive climate practices from zero since the late 1970s, it has never disputed climate change, and it has done more voluntarily than international law requires of it.

Today, Chinese political leaders and the general public widely agree that they—and the planet—cannot afford to follow the Western model of industrialization, which is based on the “pollute first, clean up later” mentality. China’s new development policies acknowledge that going green is the only option for the future of the country.

China’s new development policies acknowledge that going green is the only option.

Because China’s national identity is in flux, it has been nevertheless domestically very difficult to agree on the scope of China’s global responsibility. And, due to the vague definitions of great powers, it is not yet clear whether or not China has achieved a great power status.

In the context of international climate negotiations, however, China is increasingly identifying itself as a great power, and this status is also recognized by others. In contrast to other, more sensitive aspects of great power responsibility, such as humanitarian intervention, climate responsibility seems to be uncontroversial enough of a practice for China live up to its great power status.

Although China continues to emphasize its developing country status, it no longer focuses only on its domestic responsibilities or the historic responsibility of developed countries in international climate negotiations.

Climate change could provide China with an opportunity to prove to the world its emerging global leadership

Climate change could provide China with an opportunity to prove to the world its emerging global leadership – especially now as climate sceptic Donald Trump becomes US president next January. There are also strong domestic incentives for China to implement its climate responsibility.

If China manages to grow its economy six-fold by 2050 while substantially reducing carbon emissions, as an on-going research program proposes, China has a great potential for acting as a global role model for climate responsibility.

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