China’s delegates at Paris accepted compromises. On one hand warding off any charge of deal-breaking, on the other exerting, for domestic eyes, its right to institutional voice in global affairs.

The Paris Agreement reflects China’s top-level reform agenda—influential industry interests also recognise opportunity. But this alliance must yet overcome the inertia of local government and entrenched SOEs.

new normal

COP21 was a success even before negotiations kicked off in Paris. Potential friction was minimised by the flexible, voluntary INDC (intended nationally determined contribution) process adopted to set emissions reduction targets, plans and policies. Most of the world’s states made significant commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the formal bargaining began.

Tributes to the ‘multilateralism’ of the talks, made the news at home. But China’s constructive stance in Paris was due mainly to a changing domestic economic and political reality.

At the 2009 Copenhagen talks China defended its right to equal development opportunity. By 2014-15 the tailing of the boom reveals a rising confluence of pro-climate political rhetoric. Just as the ‘new normal’ development strategy is lowering growth expectations, for the first time in the reform era, environmental protection rockets to a top policy priority: summed up as ecological civilisation. This narrative shift has allowed China to commit to peak carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030, and to script itself a constructive role in Paris reflecting convergence of its domestic economic and ecological imperative with broader global interests.

right to institutional voice

The achievement of Paris was a triumph for China’s global ‘institutional voice’, the 2015 policy meta-narrative from the 5th Plenum. China’s success, argues envoy Xie Zhenhua 解振华, was because no one forced its hand. Its earlier bilateral agreements with the US and France, serving both bilateral and climate agendas, underpinned crucial elements of the final text.

Teng Fei 滕飞 Tsinghua University regards Paris as a success both in terms of global climate change governance and the issue of China’s right to be heard. China should lead future global climate governance, Teng says, and use this as a lever to promote reforms in global political, economic, trade and financial systems.

mitigation—domestic economy upside

The Paris Agreement may boost China’s future mitigation commitments and efforts. Reformers hope it will give them additional leverage to put pressure on SOEs and sub-national governments to follow through in meeting China’s climate targets.

Rapid reduction in heavy industry, combined with continued improvement in energy efficiency and clean energy capacity, may see current targets achieved before 2030. But this can only happen if provinces and towns—where interest groups are strong—get the climate message.

China’s commitments have already found support among some business groups keen to profit from the global movement away from carbon.

However meeting INDC targets is by no means guaranteed. Renewable energy curtailment is widespread and getting worse. Emissions reduction policies may be insufficient to curb the use of coal in electricity generation, especially if coal prices continue to fall. Leaders may also turn again to energy-intensive stimulus measures to boost the short-term economy.

transparency—vertical policy impasse

Greater international scrutiny is the goal of transparency efforts. MRV (monitoring, reporting and verification) of emissions and of climate policies requires expertise and funding. Supporters hope to use outside pressure to improve data quality and institutional arrangements for MRV. China has submitted only two national inventories in the two-decade history of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; the last, in 2012, contained only 2005 emissions data. It will now be expected to monitor and report on its emissions and policies more often.

Many details on transparency provisions are yet to be defined, including what reporting ‘regularly’ means and how much latitude major developing countries like China have in accordance with the ‘flexibility’ caveat, says Zou Ji 邹继, National Climate Change Strategy Research and International Cooperation Centre.

Inspection teams are being dispatched to municipal levels and below to monitor and supervise environment-related work. This ‘vertical management’, may help improve the accuracy and credibility of local environmental data, says Li Zuojun 李佐军 State Council Development Research Centre. Top-down control, however, may also create conflict within local environmental protection agencies, says Li, where duties and responsibilities are unclear.

At the first meeting of the parties, following the agreement entering into force, China is predicted to press for less frequent reporting periods, and more leeway as to the scope and detail of reporting its greenhouse gas inventories and national implementation reports. This would give officials more room to operate around domestic constraints.


Parallel visions of climate policy created space for agreement in 2015. China rose to promote its institutional voice on the global stage, but turning plans and aspirations into action still depends on local buy-in from areas farthest away from international agreements.

The Paris Agreement only vaguely binds China to transparency reporting and does not oblige it to achieve mitigation commitments. If it suits domestic circumstances, China will deliver on further mitigation, but it may stall should more pressing priorities emerge.

Xie Zhenhua 解振华 | envoy of the Chinese delegation in Paris

Wang Shi 王石 | Vanke Group founder and chairman

China’s profile in Paris

21 December 2015

He Jiankun 何建坤 | Chief scientific advisor of the Chinese delegation in Paris

Paris sends five signals

15 December 2015

Zhang Haibin 张海滨 | Peking University

Teng Fei 滕飞 | member of the Chinese delegation in Paris

Liu Zhenya 刘振亚 | State Grid chairman and Party secretary

authors: Fergus Green, climate policy consultant and researcher at the London School of Economics & Political Science and the China Policy energy team

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