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November 23, 2016

Responding To: Shaping the Global Agenda on Climate Change

Post- Paris Climate Change Governance: Seeking Substantive Cooperation

Professor Hao Min, University of International Relations

As the world's two largest greenhouse gas emitters, China and the United States have long been facing great international pressure to reduce emissions. In the past three decades, Sino-U.S. climate cooperation has experienced a transition process starting from scratch to producing a written agreement. Now, cooperation on climate change has been developed as a bright spot in the overall Sino-US relationship. With the conclusion of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, the world has a new, unprecedented platform for global governance and cooperation on climate change.

Sino-U.S. cooperation on climate change has gone beyond the meaning of environmental security itself, and has strategic significance for both sides in the transformation of economic structure, energy structural optimization, low-carbon technology research, and development of a new type of trade cooperation. However, the relationship still lacks of depth of cooperation, a long-term cooperative goal and a clear route for planning. In order to solve these problems, China and the United States need to establish a more effective cooperation mechanism; they need to explore new models of cooperation, and enhance mutual political trust to build a broad, insightful and stable framework for addressing climate change.

Currently, both countries have fully recognized that climate change is an important issue concerning national political interests, economic interests, international obligations and global environmental safety. For the United States, energy problems relating to climate change are not just a matter of environmental security and international image, but are also important to its world leadership status and national security. Correspondingly, for China, climate change is connected with adjusting the energy structure and taking advantage of favorable opportunities in the current green technology revolution. The significance of Sino-U.S. cooperation on climate change, therefore, goes far beyond tackling the issue of climate change itself.

Due to different national conditions between the two countries, such as political systems, social development stages, and a lack of political mutual trust, current Sino-U.S. cooperation on climate change is more of a symbol at the strategic level, while substance of cooperation is still vague and lacks depth. First, the U.S. and Chinese understandings of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in international conventions and respective prospects for the future are different. Second, the understanding of the connotation of “cooperation” is based on the perspective of different political and cultural backgrounds, as well as different interests and starting points. China expects to get more funding and technical assistance from the United States, while the United States believes that “cooperation” to a great extent is an “exchange”, meaning the economic interests of the American aid to China should have a return. Third, strategic positions on climate change are respective to each country’s national development. China's national strategic layout aims to maintain a certain rate of economic growth. Unlike China, economic development is no longer the most important development goals for the U.S. Climate change is a strategic means of cultivating new green economic growth, and repairing its international image in a new pattern of global governance to strengthen its world dominance.

There is no doubt that the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change in 2014 signifies that the Sino-U.S. climate change cooperation reached a new height, reflecting top decision-makers’ determination to promote low-carbon emissions reduction in both countries. It also established a new paradigm of cooperation in the field of global climate change governance for developed countries and developing countries. To further support implementation of the ambitious climate goals, both sides will depend on existing mechanisms and channels, such as the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, the China-U.S. Clean Energy Research Center, and the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue, to strengthen bilateral cooperation.

It should be noted that the recent U.S. presidential election may have an impact on the sustainability of current U.S. domestic climate policy as well as the Sino-U.S. cooperation on climate change. However, because the bipartisan elites in the U.S. share a common understanding and similar position on the importance and necessity of Sino-U.S. cooperation in tackling climate change issues, the overall trend of domestic climate change policy will not change by optimistic prediction. China has officially announced that people believe a wise political leader should take policy stances that conform to global trends. Future Sino-U.S. climate cooperation requires establishing a more effective cooperation mechanism, exploring new channels for cooperation, enhancing mutual political trust and sincerity, strengthening the high-level dialogue, and making full use of marketing mechanisms to stimulate win-win cooperation in the field of technology. On the one hand, to achieve the above goals, a high-level political push is not enough; both governments need to actively guide private enterprises involved, which can ensure the sustainability of cooperation. On the other hand, in the face of restricted technology exports to China, creating a “China-U.S. Joint Carbon Emissions Exchange” will perhaps be an efficient way. The research and enterprises in China and the United States should also consider greater technology sharing of relevant intellectual property rights in order to take advantage of complementary advantages.

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