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COP17: Will China Lead the Way?

China appears to hold the key to the negotiations, but does it want to reach an agreement?
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Smoke and mirrors? Central Beijing shrouded in smog.

As the COP17 climate change talks in Durban near their conclusion, all eyes are on China. At the beginning of the week, China’s chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua vowed that China would accept a legally-binding agreement on carbon emissions after 2020 if certain conditions were also met by other countries. This move has formed a primary talking point at the COP17 meetings and the burgeoning Asian superpower appears to have emerged as the key participant in proceedings.

As the world’s biggest polluter and an increasingly influential global economic actor, China’s pledge could be the shot in the arm needed if an agreement is to be made. If China and the EU are able to make progress, supported by other rich nations, countries might be able to find a new way to carry negotiations forward by the end of COP17. At best, China’s stance to some extent calls the US' bluff, already having rejected commitments for itself due to a lack of commitments from countries such as China. If, however, China’s public statements are not matched by movement behind closed doors from other countries, there is little hope that the current stalemate will be resolved by the end of COP17.

Repeating history

Two years ago, US President Obama brought the US cavalry to the rescue for COP15, leading a select group of key countries to the informal Copenhagen Accord. While the deal was vilified at the time by some of the countries not included in those negotiations, the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements that followed at COP16 produced a framework for further negotiations, including agreement in principle on a global climate fund to mobilise financial resources for assisting developing countries with climate change mitigation.

Despite this, COP17 faces many of the same questions as at previous talks: Will the Kyoto Protocol survive? Will developed countries agree to new and deep binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions? Will middle income countries take on any similar commitments (perhaps now influenced by the promise of funding under the proposed Green Climate Fund)?

Global concerns?

Reaching a strong global agreement requires two essential factors to coincide: a superpower to influence others, and some benefit and self-interest in an agreement being made in the first place.

Strong leadership is necessary to induce agreement through credible promises of reward or threats of punishment. The ‘carrot’ of a promise can raise the value of an agreement, making it more enticing, while the "stick" of possible punishment can lower the value of continuing with business as usual. For promises or threats to be effective and credible, however, they must generally be made by a very powerful country or group of countries; Tuvalu, for example, has not yet been able to twist the US’ arm toward making a strong binding commitment. Indeed, those countries most threatened by climate change and with the least wherewithal to adapt tend to be small island states and poor countries, many of which are in Africa.

Power by itself, however, is obviously not enough. The powerful country or group of countries must also see some self-interested benefits in forming an agreement. Altruism will not suffice. Unfortunately, it seems the country most able to lead the world to a global agreement has both internationally and domestically lacks incentives to tackle climate change. The US has little domestic support in addressing climate change and because the US never ratified Kyoto, it has no internationally binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by any percentage by any deadline.

Who can lead the way?

With the US unwilling and those most in danger unable to create global consensus, few are left to take a meaningful stance. The EU has an interest in an agreement at COP17, partly due to the market benefits they could gain by being innovators of green technologies. But given the current economic and political problems in the eurozone, they are unlikely to have the power to lead a global agreement.

This leaves China. China is in the ascendancy and is arguably in better economic health than either the US or the EU. Plus, it has diplomatic advantages in that it has influence over many states that are ill-disposed towards the US and Europe, and indeed others such as the majority of the African nations. China’s assertiveness in the climate change negotiations could prove very encouraging to them.

Is China’s pledge genuine?

As Arthur Runge-Metzger, the EU’s chief negotiator, said of China’s recent promise, "the devil is in the detail". And COP-17’s fate may well rest in what exactly China means by “legally binding” and who China has in mind when it insists that “other” countries meet certain conditions. One condition China has maintained, for example, is that other nations continue to uphold the Kyoto Protocol, but while the EU, Australia and others are likely to recommit to their obligations, the likes of Canada, Russia and Japan have been decidedly frosty.

It is very difficult to ascertain to what extent China’s position reflects a genuine commitment to tackle global climate change and to what extent it is merely a public relations exercise. As China has grown and grown economically, it has become increasingly self-conscious and desires to present itself as non-threatening and cooperative. China also has specific interests in at least appearing supportive of African nations, where much of its crucial investment lies and where public opinion of the Chinese has wavered in recent years. China attempts to portray itself as an understanding friend and indispensible partner for Africa but has found it much more difficult to portray itself as championing African interests regarding climate change.

This attempt to garner longer-term soft power from being perceived positively globally and by African partners, however, may well contend with its harder and more short-term economic and domestic needs. China has an interest in some agreement, partly to vindicate criticisms levied against it at previous conferences but at the same time it must pursue economic growth at home. Does China actually believe that its conditions, or anything close to them, can be sufficiently met by Europe as well as the other Kyoto Annex I parties to trigger Chinese acceptance of binding targets on its own omissions? One's judgment of that depends on one's estimate of the level of Chinese cynicism. 

Global leadership

But China may have other interests too within the climate change talks. Despite its occasional protestations, China sees itself as naturally entitled to a leadership role on the world stage, although its approach, style and sought-for outcome will be different from those of the US and EU as China’s concerns and priorities are different. As the US takes a back seat, COP17 could be seen by Beijing as a useful forum in which China can assert its ability to lead on a global scale.

Prospects for a deal on climate change at COP17, then, depend on China’s assessment of where its interests lie, now and in the future. The benefits of agreement to China would have to outweigh its costs, including the costs of leveraging agreement with sticks or carrots. China’s negotiating partners can only guess at what China’s full range of interests is, but China’s signal of possible negotiating room based on the European position and the green climate fund may be the beginning of a definitive shift away from US as the centre of power in this negotiating process.

All eyes are on China for the moment, but if China’s negotiations go well and their commitment is revealed to be genuine, those eyes will then turn back to the US.

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