How China Became the New Responsible Player on Climate

By Kate Gordon and Deborah Lehr


Coming out of the UN climate negotiations last week, one truth has been nearly universally acknowledged, which is that the U.S. and China were central to the final deal. China’s key role in the climate summit leads us to ask whether China is finally emerging as the “responsible stakeholder” that former Deputy Secretary of State Bob Zoellick once famously challenged the country to become? Chinese President Xi Jinping is certainly demonstrating moments of true “responsible leadership”—especially when it comes to issues that reflect China’s own domestic interests. And action on the environment and climate is definitely in China’s interest.

Most commentators have focused on the work the U.S. and China—the world’s two largest economies, and also biggest carbon emitters—have done to forge agreements on climate change over the past two years. There was the historic November 2014 joint announcement, for instance, when both countries committed to working toward a global climate agreement and offered up individual goals, such as China’s pledge to peak carbon emissions on or before 2030. More recently, during President Xi’s visit to the U.S., the two countries reiterated their goals for the Paris climate summit while touting their domestic commitments to address climate change, including the U.S. Clean Power Plan and China’s proposed national cap and trade program.

Coming into the Paris talks, all eyes were on China, in the hopes this year would not see a repeat of the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, where the country worked hard to block strong specific cuts in carbon emissions or any mention of a date by which global emissions would potentially peak. Paris could not have been more different: this time, China actually brokered the final deal between developed and developing countries, not the reverse.

At the end of the day, the U.S. and China played a critical role in cementing a framework that actually recognizes climate change as a global problem and formalizes a process by which individual countries will work to address it. There have been many smart articles about the outcomes of the Paris talks, including here and here, as well as a long set of commentary by experts about China’s role in the negotiations in this ChinaFile piece. All emphasize the critical point that the agreement for the first time lays out a process for mandatory review every five years, giving individual countries a timeline for providing, updating, and actually verifying their individual domestic climate strategies. This is progress not only in that it provides the necessary transparency and accountability that will make climate action real going forward; it’s also a recognition that while the challenge is global, the only reasonable solutions will be tailored to local economic and environmental conditions.

When it comes to China, President Xi understands that his country can no longer afford economic growth at the cost of the environment. Under his leadership, China is attempting to align its economic, environmental, and climate policies away from dependence on heavy polluting industry toward a more diverse mix of economic drivers. China has made major investments in clean technologies and renewables, in fact, more than the United States and the European Union combined. China now has one quarter of the world’s installed renewable generating capacity, according to the IEA.

And in part because of China’s impressive domestic renewable energy growth, that industry is growing quickly globally. Renewable energy costs have fallen 50%. In the last decade, hydropower in China has doubled, wind power has increased 60 percent, and PV solar has increased 280 percent. China’s solar industry drove global prices down by more than 50 percent in 2009 alone. And just this week, China’s cabinet approved major new hydro and nuclear clean-energy projects. China’s intentions are leading global markets. But as China’s economy slows, it is important that the country’s leadership continue moving forward with this economic transformation.

The commitments that China has made both domestically and internationally—and the expectations about the aggressive plan for protecting the environment in the upcoming 13th Five Year Plan—underscore that action on climate change is in China’s national interest. And as the Chinese negotiators so ably demonstrated in Paris, China does have the capacity to be a truly “responsible leader.” If China is successful in its economic transformation, which is in all of our interest to support, the country could turn out to be one of the world’s true climate leaders.

Kate Gordon is the Paulson Institute’s Vice Chair of Climate and Sustainable Urbanization. Deborah Lehr is a Senior Fellow at the Paulson Institute.