Monday, December 7, 2015

China's Clever Political Move at the Paris Climate Talks

2015 Climate Conference.svg

The 21st annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21), or the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, is currently being held in Le Bourget, France, as Emma mentioned in her post from around a week ago.  It is an eleven-day long summit that ultimately aims to create a legally binding agreement on climate for all nations around the world, specifically to keep global warming below 2˚C, as directed by the 2010 CancĂșn Agreements.

These Conferences of the Parties were established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Earth Summit Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  The federal Environmental Protection Agency (independent executive agency) also played a role in the initiatives at the Rio Conference.  Its framework specifies how specific international treaties, called "protocols," may be negotiated to set limits on greenhouse gases, and has no set overall limit or enforcement plans. One of the most important of these protocols is the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that mandated reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

China at the Paris Climate Talks

At the 2015 COP21, China seemed to entirely support President Obama and Western anticarbon goals.  The U.S. and China negotiated a bilateral agreement setting emission reduction targets, therefore allowing the U.S. to go to Paris this year with an official Chinese backing for targets, making it harder for other countries to stonewall.  However, China's full support here is a bit suspicious because at the 2009 Summit in Copenhagen, China had adamantly opposed environmental reductions. Even after the U.S. offered to reduce emissions by 17% below 2005 levels in 15 years and agreed to $100 billion for aid to poor countries, China's Premier (prime minister) Wen Jiabao stopped its discussions.  As of 2009, China seemed to be firm about its position regarding pollution control.

So, what made China change its mind in this "climate epiphany?" A closer look makes it clear that Beijing's position hasn't really changed - their motivations for the decision are rooted in a desire to take credit for the energy policies already chosen while maintaining its own economic growth.

The graph to the right demonstrates China's incredibly high CO2 emissions that have been progressively reaching even higher levels, even compared to the U.S.  For "domestic political reasons," China wants to reduce its coal consumption, amounts that have been getting to notoriously extremely toxic levels.  Cutting down on this smog has forced the government to switch to clean burning fuels with power plants running at 50% capacity.  Below is a photo of a family wearing masks for protection from the smog.

A family walk past the China Central Television Tower shrouded in smog in Beijing, China on December 7.

In addition, China's been experiencing a slowdown in its economy due to slowing migration to cities, which means less resource-intensive housing construction.  This, combined with other reasons, lowers demand for energy, forcing unnecessary steel mills and heavy industry plants to shut down.

To summarize, China has been supporting Obama's clean-air proposals at the UN Summit this year with hidden intentions to help their own economic and pollution problems.  It essentially entailed diplomatic benefits from the U.S. with no cost.


1. What do you think about the status of environmental policies in general and how they're prioritized amongst other international agreements?
2. What are you thoughts about what this article claims were China's motivations behind support for American emission reduction targets?

Photo Sources:



Brianna Panozzo said...

When I google this issue, I see that most of the articles claim that "Climate Change is so bad that China and the US finally agreed on something." And while I don't really know if that's the best conclusion to make out of this radical switch in China's opinion, I also don't know if we can claim that China is trying to "steal" our diplomatic benefits. To me, this claim seems a little stretchy, and, at least on the first page of news about this topic, I really couldn't find much supporting it. So I would say that maybe this is true, but it is probably equally likely that another reason is more true. It is also possible that Bejing just changed their opinion completely.

And as for your first question, I think that it's a good thing we are prioritizing the environment. An international agreement to lower pollution can do nothing but good for the world. However, it probably shouldn't be the only agreements countries should be prioritizing right now, especially with all the ISIS drama and the question of who's going to bomb who, etc.

Anna Joshi said...

I agree with Brianna that the claim that China is supporting Obama’s clean air proposal for diplomatic benefits may be too extreme of a reason. In my opinion, China is finally realizing the threat that high CO2 emissions pose, especially with the recent shut down in Beijing. After issuing their first red smog alert on Monday (when the safe level of PM 2.5 reached 291 micro-grams per cubic metre in comparison to the safe level of 25 micro-grams), which was imposed until Tuesday evening, and effectively shut down schools, construction, and factories, and placed limitation on car use. Not only is the city losing money by having to shut down, but many people have started to feel the effects of respiratory disease.

I think that environmental policies in general are not prioritized enough, Beijing being a clear example of this. I find it outrageous that countries have so thoughtfully neglected environmental provisions, until it could no longer be ignored. In my opinion, there is no excuse that countries have placed economic benefits over the safety of human health. Therefore, I believe that environmental policies should be prioritized until provisions are where they need to be in ensuring the safety of our environment and human health.

Anna Joshi said...


Jessica Westmont said...

I agree with Anna and Brianna about the second question. I don’t believe it to be that suspicious that China has suddenly deciding to support anti-carbon goals considering how bad their pollution has gotten. Two weeks ago Beijing hit 40 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization. When this happened the government only called a "code orange" when they should have called a "code red". Their pollution is at an all time high and it is affecting the health of their citizens. They have been in denial for a long time, including in 2009. When they finally decided to declare a "code red" last Tuesday it showed that they finally knew how serious their pollution has become. Sure all of this pollution has made China into the successful country it is today, but it is costing them. In 2009 I think China was still only concerned about economic growth but now they are realizing the costs of what they have achieved. In order to bring down their pollution to a safe level they will need to spend $215 billion annually ( They will also have to cut down their productivity significantly and forcibly scrap many citizens’ non-environmentally friendly cars. The Chinese now realize the severity of their decisions and how the costs for fixing their pollution will only rise. So essentially what I am saying is that China has much more reason to support the cutting of carbon emissions because of their own hardships caused by it rather than to make diplomatic gains.

For the first question I believe environmental policies are not prioritized enough in international agreements. The U.S. is right below China on the most polluted countries in the world so they are not really in a position to make many international agreements making other many countries lower their CO2 emissions unless the U.S. is ready they are ready to make big changes. In the U.S social security and unemployment takes up 33.26% of the budget. Energy and environment takes up 1.17% of the budget. Like we learned in the Chapter 12 textbook reading, social security is strongly favored by retired elders, and they have one of the strongest voting turnouts compared to most other demographics. And I get it, social security and supporting the unemployed in a country is important. However, people often focus on what they can see, such as sick people, terrorist attacks, and unemployment, and focus on solving those issues and do not focus on something they can not vividly see like the environment. We really overlook the environment, and how it is going to affect us in the future. I’m not saying the environment should be our number one priority, but I do think it should be a lot more on our radar. We should set an example for other countries and try and lower our high CO2 emissions. Many other countries are ahead of us with progressively making their countries greener. An international agenda that prioritizes the environment more would be beneficial for everyone.

Huayu Ouyang said...

I agree with the above commenters that I don't think that China is agreeing with the US for diplomatic or political reasons. I think it's just that China has finally realized that pollution and smog is a real issue and people in China are getting upset about it. I think that it is a good thing that the U.S. and China are cooperating on climate change issues because they are two of the biggest economic powerhouses, so by doing this they can get other countries to also agree to try to slow climate change. I think that environmental agreements should be prioritized more in international talks because even though there a lot of other problems like ISIS and terrorism and climate change seems like a problem for the future, by the time we actually see climate change as problem, it will be too late to do anything.