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Introduction - Global Climate Change and The Middle Kingdom

By Kasper Sulkjær Andersen
This article is a part of a master's thesis from 2013.

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At present all eyes are on China2 and with good reason. Since China overtook the US as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) in 20063, international pressure has mounted for the ‘rising power’ to commit to legally binding reduction targets. So far, these attempts have been futile in as much as China is still classified and treated as a non-annex I country with no official obligations under the UNFCCC4 in terms of limiting GHG emissions. The Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 (COP 15) was meant to change this standstill by replacing the obligations of the Kyoto Protocol with a more comprehensive and long term climate reduction scheme where large and rising economies such as the BRIC-countries5 were assigned legally binding obligations. Unfortunately, the result of the summit was not what the world had hoped for as no legally binding obligations could be agreed upon. Whether the failure of the COP 15 to deliver was caused by a classic climate negotiating deadlock or whether some countries deliberately derailed the negotiations is a matter of speculation and not within the scope of this dissertation. Rather, we can only reiterate the fact that China as a consequence of its sheer size has positioned itself (willingly or unwillingly) as one of the key players, if not the most important player, in any political attempt to mitigate climate change. Without China there can be no effective global climate change regime6. Nonetheless, China has stayed committed to what some commentators have called “the policy of ‘Three Nos’: no obligations on China, no voluntary commitments by China, and no future negotiations to bind China” (Zhang, 2003:67). This stance still largely holds internationally where China adamantly asserts its right to development (along with the bloc of G-77 countries) and refuses to take on legally binding obligations in international climate negotiations with reference to the shared historical climate change responsibility of developed countries as well as US reluctance to ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. However, a gradual softening of this tough stance on climate change is underway and has been for a while. China has started taking a more proactive stance on climate change issues. Although this change has only been incremental so far internationally, domestically the picture is very different, where China’s level of proaction is much more pronounced. The question, however, remains how one explains this contradictory policy development? Why do China’s domestic climate change efforts exhibit clear signs of ambition when its international stance remains largely unchanged? Central to answering this question is looking at China’s domestic climate policy which, I argue, best epitomises the shift in China’s handling of the climate issue. For this reason, China’s domestic climate policy is the focus of the present dissertation.

Before continuing one should pose the obvious question of whether China even has a climate policy and why does it matter? The answer to the first question is a resounding ‘yes’. It is a widely held misconception to think that given China’s unwillingness to constrain itself internationally in the realm of international climate negotiations the country must have no official stance on climate change apart from ad hoc attempts of obstructive behaviour7. However, nothing could be further off mark. In fact, China’s climate policy has become increasingly ambitious. Over the past decade, climate change and environmental issues are now being positioned as policy issues in their own right. Both in contemporary five-year plans (FYPs) as well as other government white-papers8. Although, having previously been marginalised and treated with scepticism (Gang, 2012; Stensdal, 2012a), climate change as an issue has, in recent time, successfully climbed the national policy agenda which has consequently shifted the weight of climate related issues. Through tracing the evolvement of climate related goals in the last three FYPs9 it becomes apparent that China has managed to successfully politicise the climate change issue (He, 2010:16). Thus, the 10th FYP, published in 2001, was the first ever official Chinese mentioning of climate change (Stensdal, 2012a). Five years later in 2006 the succeeding 11th FYP devoted an entire section on how to mitigate climate change setting forth ambitious quantitative targets related to energy intensity10, forest coverage (or carbon sinks) and the emission of pollutants. In 2011, the sequential 12th FYP reiterates and builds upon the same points, but also includes a set of additional quantitative targets11 regarding the level of non-fossil fuel in the total energy mix12, carbon intensity and investment in sustainable development. Overall, the evolvement of China’s climate policy represents an unprecedented level of ambition by any developing country which makes this policy development an interesting case for analysis13. The most important milestones in the development in China’s climate policy are summarised in Figure 1.014.

Turning to the second question posed above why then should we care about China’s climate policy? The answer is three-fold. Firstly, given the fact that China presently accounts for roughly 24% of total GHG emissions (Gang, 2012) any political actions undertaken by China have the potential to either ‘make or break’ the foundation of the current and future climate regime. Secondly, and more importantly, China has the ability to singlehandedly affect the global planetary environment, thus potentially wrecking environmental havoc not only on itself, but the rest of the world as well. In conjunction, these two factors make China the most important climate actor in the world and any efforts in increasing the understanding of what dynamics shape China’s climate change policy are central to successfully co-opting China in future international climate negotiations. Lastly, whereas the drivers behind the world’s second most important climate actor, the US, are well understood in the academic literature China still remains a somewhat unchartered academic territory. Although rich in empirical area studies, few attempts have been made at theorising the inner workings of China’s climate change policy, which makes this topic of investigation so much more pronounced for the purposes of this dissertation. In fact, the dissertation can be said to fill a gap in the existing literature on China’s climate policy as very few attempts15 have been made at analysing China’s actions by employing a framework predicated on objective interests in regards to climate change16. Therefore, this dissertation can be considered an original contribution to the existing literature on China.

As noted above, China’s domestic climate policy has become increasingly proactive or ambitious in recent years. The evolvement in the level of ambition captured by the three most recent five year plans is puzzling given that China’s international stance has remained largely unchanged. This disjuncture inevitably begs the question of what accounts for the development in China’s domestic climate policy?
Thus, the research question driving this dissertation is:

How can the increased level of ambition in China’s domestic climate policy be explained?

Following from the research question posed above some elements of analytical importance need to be elaborated upon before continuing:

Increased level of ambition17 is defined as any change which improves upon the existing status quo in terms of either setting higher quantitative targets or accepting more responsibility. In order to qualify that what we are witnessing is in fact an increased level of ambition it is assumed that any increase in one policy area cannot be countervailed by decreases in other policy areas; thus the overall level of ambition has to increase before the condition of an increased level of ambition has been met.
China’s domestic climate policy18 is defined as the official stance on climate change expressed in government white papers. Most importantly, the stance expressed in the three most recent five year plans19. Deviations from the official climate policy20 will not be considered as these are beyond the scope of the research question.

The present dissertation hinges on three central assumptions which will be explicated below.

1) China’s national climate policy is considered an act of foreign policy:
Given China’s position as the foremost emitter of GHG and the global nature of the climate change problem, then any change to China’s official national climate policy must be considered an act of foreign policy as the effect of Chinese policy choices will have ramifications beyond the confines of China by affecting states across the globe. Following from Harris, foreign policy can be defined as being “(...) about pursuing and promoting national interests” (Harris, 2005:4) internationally21. Assuming that China’s climate policy is not an act of selflessness but rather a coordinated attempt to attain national interests through the pursuit of domestic and international objectives, it then becomes clear that China’s climate policy can indeed be considered an act of foreign policy.

2) China’s climate policy is considered the extension of domestic political dynamics:
This dissertation assumes that China’s climate policy is primarily dictated by domestic factors (Lewis, 2009; Lai, 2010), rather than international factors22. This assumption is based on three empirical observations with relevance for climate policy: Firstly, China’s political legitimacy is predicated on sustaining high economic growth rates (Moore, 2011) which overshadows all other policy issues. Secondly, China currently faces an acute domestic environmental crisis (Economy, 2010) as well as mounting concerns over energy security (Held et. al., 2011) which in combination has ramifications for the attainment of key Chinese policy priorities, particularly, in terms of economic development. Lastly, China continues to have sovereignty as a key foreign policy principle (Heggelund, 2007) which, ceteris paribus, favours the domestic context over that of the international ditto. Looking at China’s track record so far, mounting international pressure for China to commit in the realm of climate change negotiations has proved largely ineffective. China continues to assert its right to unimpeded development and refuses to put environmental concerns before economic development (Schreurs & Economy, 1997). So far, the principle of sovereignty has reigned supreme; or as Zhang points out: “(...) China has been mindful and vigilant to safeguard its sovereignty and ensure that its policy agenda is not to be dictated by other countries or multilateral agencies” (Zhang, 2003:76). This attitude towards external influences is shaped by both Chinese identity and history where “(...) avoiding the “humiliation” of being forced to comply with standards set by outsiders” (Harris & Yu, 2009:61) becomes paramount.

3) Rationality:
The formation of China’s climate policy is assumed to be driven by self-interested and rational actors possessing to ability to hierarchically order their desired objectives.

The temporal focus in the present dissertation will be the period spanning the three five-year plans (10th, 11th and 12th) which taken together consist of the years from 2001-2015. This period presents the analysts with the most variance in terms of the dependent variable23 as this period has seen the biggest shift so far in the Chinese level of climate ambition making it central to understanding the drivers of China’s climate policy. Despite the fact that the 12th five year plan overlaps contemporary time by three years is not considered an analytical problem, as the analytical focus will be on official Chinese policy statements and not achieved targets. Thus, the targets proposed in the 12th five year plan can be considered constant for the duration of the entire time period from 2011-2015.

China is the focus of this dissertation and as such its climate policy is treated as a coherent unit of analysis with no spatial variance. As it will later be elaborated24 this study can be classified as a type I case-study (Gerring, 2004) that conceives of China’s climate policy as a coherent whole at different points in time.

The starting point of the bulk of climate policy analyses25 is most often found either in the realm of international relations (IR) theory, most notably realism26, or some variant of game theory. Namely, the classic work of Robert Putnam’s (1988) two-level game theory is the clearest case in point. I find, however, that a similar theoretical starting point for the analysis of China’s climate policy is sub-optimal given the shortcomings of both strands of theory in grasping the special circumstances defining China as a climate policy actor27. Where IR theory tends to place primary emphasis on changing international dynamics as the sole driver of domestic policy change28, two-level game theory tend to emphasise the prominence of societal actors in determining policy choices. In the latter theoretical setup the state is conceived as a neutral arbiter between societal interests and is argued to pursue whichever set of policies favoured by the most powerful societal actors. However, in the case of China I would argue that both realist IR theory and two-level game theory are generally ill-equipped at understanding the real drivers behind Chinese policy change albeit for different reasons. Firstly, China as an actor is concerned more than anything with safeguarding its national interests; in particular with regards to attaining and sustaining high economic growth rates since achieving this target has implications for the continued legitimacy of the Chinese leadership (Moore, 2011). Given that climate change has the potential to threaten the continued viability of the Chinese economy this implies that understanding China’s handling of climate change should be perceived in terms of economic interests and not power politics as asserted by realists (Glaser, 2011). Secondly, up until now China has remained largely unresponsive to mounting international pressure and attempts at ‘bullying’ suggesting that changing international dynamics are less relevant compared to domestic developments in understanding China’s handling of climate change. Thus, speaking to the incapacity of realism. Thirdly, treating the Chinese state as a neutral arbiter is problematic given the overtly state-centric nature of Chinese society (Lawrence & Martin, 2013). In particular, the omnipresence of the Chinese government in all aspects of Chinese life requires, as a minimum, the utilisation of a theoretical framework capable of incorporating statist dynamics as representatives of the state are likely to exert considerable influence on the ordering of Chinese society. As mentioned, Putnam’s two-level game theory (1988) given its pluralist view of society is better applied to the context of liberal democracies and less adept at understanding dynamics in authoritarian settings.

Therefore, due to the deficiency of the theories most commonly utilised for the analysis of climate change politics I find that a more suitable theoretical framework can be derived from the academic tradition of foreign policy analysis (FPA) as the explanatory strength of this tradition rests with its ability to incorporate multiple levels of analysis and variables, thus offering a more complex understanding of real-world phenomena. As Holsti (1995:252) reminds us: “Monocausal theories are inadequate because a major line or action of foreign policy is seldom chosen for a single reason or purpose. Governments operate in highly complex external and domestic environments”.

Within the discipline of FPA the researcher is faced with a host of viable theoretical approaches spanning different analytical levels (See Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.129

For the analysis of China’s climate policy I find that interest-based theory holds the most explanatory power as global climate change can be regarded as negatively impacting core Chinese interests (Moore, 2011; Zhang, 2003; Lewis, 2007; Gang, 2012) – particularly in terms of economic interests. Within the range of interest-based theories the analysis will more specifically be predicated on two related theoretical models. The unitary actor model will be employed at the systemic30 level and features a conceptualisation of the state as a rational unitary actor, concerned with utility-maximising in terms of national interests. The domestic politics model will, in turn, be employed at the domestic level31 and features a conceptualisation of the state as an amalgam of sub-national actors all competing to further their respective set of interests. Returning to Figure 1.1, the combination of the two theoretical models corresponds to an incorporation of interests across multiple levels of analysis i.e. comprising the systemic, the societal and the state level. Of these three analytical levels, however, the societal level is subordinated to the two other levels since the majority of societal actors32 seem less relevant in a (semi)-authoritarian context such as China33 (Bjørkum, 2005).

As mentioned above, the analysis of China’s climate policy comprises two sequential analytical elements both focused on Chinese interests in terms of climate change. The first analytical element (Unitary Actor Model) will be utilised to analyse China’s climate policy from a systemic (or exterior) perspective arguing that China’s climate policy is a response to changes in its objective interests. Hence, this theoretical model explains environmental foreign policy behaviour with reference to the aggregated national interest34. However, due to the complexity underlying decisions on climate policy the unitary actor model cannot stand alone (Rowlands, 1995) but needs to be complemented by an in-depth understanding of which sub-national forces shape China’s climate policy. For this reason, a second analytical element will be implemented (Domestic Politics Model) in which the ‘black box’ of the Chinese state will be opened and explanatory emphasis placed on intra-state dynamics such as interests embedded within the Chinese bureaucratic structure. Therefore, in explaining China’s recent policy shift the present dissertation will pursue an analytical strategy of complementarity35.


The present dissertation will contend that the increased level of ambition in China’s climate policy is caused by changes in China’s aggregated national interest, on the one hand, and interest bargaining between sub-national actors on the other. Thus, the first part of the analysis finds that due to an increase in China’s aggregated climate vulnerability the cost-benefit ratio confronting China favours taking a proactive stance on climate change. However, the analysis also finds that this ratio simultaneously suggests that China’s climate policy ought to be even more ambitious in order to reach a point of optimal utility-maximisation. Building on this finding, the second part of the analysis suggests a mediated impact and finds that the policy environment in which China’s climate policy-making is embedded can be characterised as unconducive36 to climate policy proaction. Thus, explaining why the level of ambition in China’s climate policy has not increased even further.

The remainder of the present dissertation will be structured in the following way:

In Section 2.0, the theoretical framework will be presented. Most importantly, this section will elucidate the core assumptions underpinning the unitary actor model (Model A) and the domestic politics model (Model B) and demonstrate the compatibility of these two theories, thus legitimising the analytical strategy of complementarity pursued in the present dissertation. Furthermore, based on the aforementioned theories this section will elaborate on the utilised explanatory model and the underlying causality.

In Section 3.0, the utilised method will be presented, thus elucidating two main aspects of relevance. The first part will expand on the philosophy of science including aspects of ontology and epistemology. The second part will touch on the technical aspects of research. Most importantly, the utilised case study research design, its strengths and weaknesses, the utilised data sources, and the operationalisation of key analytical concepts.

In Section 4.0, the central analytical question is posed regarding whether China’s climate policy is, in fact, qualitatively different from the policy prevailing prior to 2001. The answer to this question is central as it has ramifications for the analytical premise of the study.

Section 5.0 is divided into two main analytical sections. Section 5.1 utilises Model A to explain the shift in China’s climate policy based on China’s aggregated national interest (X). Building on the findings of Section 5.1, Section 5.2 utilises Model B to explain and nuance China’s climate policy response from the perspective of China’s climate policy environment (Z). In conjunction, the two analytical sections provide a comprehensive account of why China’s climate policy has become more ambitious in recent years but also, conversely, why this shift has not been even more ambitious.

Section 6.0 returns to the research question driving the present dissertation, and assembles the findings of the two previous analytical sections in order to provide an explanation of the ambitious shift in China’s climate policy. In conclusion, the section turns to the assessment of the utilised theory and method.

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Posted by branner on 24. May 2014, 17:04 0 comment(s) · 2017 views

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