Key impacts of China’s environmental leadership

Key impacts of China’s environmental leadership

Recently, China has pursued a much stronger environmental policy than previously seen or expected, and Beijing is now in a position to lead at the climate summit in Paris. Here are the political opportunities and risks implied by a Chinese effort at environmental leadership.

In terms of carbon emissions, international influence, and symbolic importance, few countries are as necessary for success in international efforts against climate change as China is. It is, therefore, highly significant that China has made explicit overtures towards assuming a position of environmental responsibility and leadership over the past year.

From a commitment to establishing the world’s largest cap-and-trade program to ambitious state-led investment aimed at elevating renewables within the Chinese energy portfolio, Beijing enters the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) with newfound credibility.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently declared, “China has become an implementer and innovator” for climate change. These positive sentiments are a stark contrast to China’s reputation for unilaterally obstructing the last attempt at a major climate agreement in 2009.

Though other major developing economies such as India and Brazil are crucial to forging effective environmental policies, their global weight and environmental impact is outmatched by Beijing. Only the United States and Europe fall into the same tier of influence as China.

Yet, the United States faces severe congressional roadblocks on climate litigation, and European environmental advocacy has thus far failed to stimulate broader cooperation. In this context, China’s apparent aspirations for green leadership represent an evolving risk landscape for global climate efforts at COP21 and beyond.

Gains for Green Industry


Source: IEA

Much of the change brought by Chinese environmental leadership comes in the form of emerging opportunities that primarily advantage China and its economy. Naturally, China will accrue material benefits from the notable environmental commitments that have already facilitated its recasting it as a global climate leader.

Chinese renewable industry firms can be expected to continue and expand upon their rapid growth. More importantly, these firms will become increasingly competitive with U.S., Japanese, and European firms in terms of innovation over the next 5 years. Finally, the rate and magnitude of Beijing’s investment in green energy will also facilitate international exports of renewable energy from the same firms that Chinese companies will be competing with.

While it is not exactly certain how the increasing competitiveness of Chinese renewable firms will balance a growing Chinese market for green technology exports, it can be assumed that exports will only capture a small share of China’s overall market, and that Chinese firms will benefit disproportionately.

These opportunities also present the byproduct of restructuring China’s currently inefficient power grid and could, in the long-term, bring cheaper energy to Chinese citizens. Such gains will only increase in magnitude if China decides to continue its efforts of environmental diligence.

Catalyzing Climate Action

The emerging leadership of Beijing on climate change also serves as a catalyst for the establishment of a global environmental framework and general progress in the push against fossil fuels.

This effect has the highest potential when applied to similarly emerging economies like India, Brazil, and Mexico, which have maintained a strategy of environmental ignorance long justified by their right to a complete industrialization and the disproportionate ecological footprint of developed nations.

Chinese climate leadership presents a two-fold opportunity in terms of catalyzing environmental action in developing nations – first in the short-term, and then with compounding returns the long-term.

In the short-term, China’s recent initiative on climate efforts and commitment to a successful Paris climate summit might present enough diplomatic assurance for emerging economies to sign on board to a universal, legally binding climate framework.

Even if emerging economies are still reluctant due to domestic economic considerations, the notion of unity, especially among BRICS nations, may entice them into agreement so as to avoid appearing fractured in the face of other debates between developed and developing nations.

In the long-term, the emerging Beijing enterprise of combining development and growth with environmental responsibility may provide a template for these same emerging economies to take initiative sooner rather than later on transitioning towards green energy.

While an agreement in Paris would go a long way towards these ends, it is unlikely that the outcome will be stringent enough to begin reducing climate risk to a sufficient degree. The future success of recently announced Chinese policies such as the carbon market would provide the most significant impact of Chinese climate leadership on the environmental policies of developing nations by proving that green growth is possible.

In short, environmental leadership out of Beijing significantly decreases the risk of total failure at the COP21 while also expediting the timeline over which other growing carbon emitters will consider adopting more consequential climate regulations.

Chinese Political Power Expanded

Chinese power abroad is also expanded through Beijing’s more proactive environmental policy, most directly in terms of shaping the emerging global climate framework. The COP21 is expected to be the fundamental first step towards truly materializing such a framework by establishing universal legal mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions.

It is therefore convenient for foreign policy strategists in Beijing that China will enter the summit in a position of influence. China will now hold much a much greater capacity to shape the design of international climate institutions into an arrangement that favors Chinese interests.

Starting with the Paris conference, China will likely seek an arrangement that ensures emissions regulations for economic rivals like India at a stage of development equal to or even less than the stage that China assumed similar regulations. Now endowed with leverage, it has a much higher chance of achieving such an outcome.

Global climate leadership also affords China further legitimization and influence in global fora outside of the environmental realm by enhancing its international image, as the credibility gained from Beijing’s environmental recast will in part transfer to other debates.

Less Certain Risk for both China and the West

Source: ClearPath

Source: ClearPath

In terms of climate progress, the fact that China now has regulations closer to Europe than the U.S. is a positive development. However, China’s foray into global climate leadership is also not without risks. For one, China’s bid for environmental stewardship comes at a time of slowing economic growth – and climate regulations will exacerbate the slowdown.

While such an effect would be significant on its own, a compounded economic retraction might ultimately force Beijing to renege its bold climate commitments, which in turn would inflict a significant reduction to China’s international legitimacy and provide political leverage to Washington.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether European climate change leadership – a historical constant in the short era of serious climate change negotiations – would be undermined or fortified by a comparable Chinese effort.

Depending on the degree to which this newfound Chinese voice is able to stimulate environmental progress, the EU might suddenly appear ineffective at leading the global climate regime. At the same time, the new dynamism of Beijing may facilitate closer ties between the EU and China through the recognition that a successful climate framework requires joint diplomacy.

Washington may ultimately face less ambiguity in terms of impact, as China’s mounting influence in climate affairs serves to derail the intentions of U.S. diplomats attempting to make the case for U.S. leadership in the environmental arena.

With President Obama hindered by a disjointed Congress, the United States is less capable than China at executing the kinds of influential and internationally eye-catching policies that have elevated Beijing over the past year. A U.S. failure and a strong Chinese performance in the coming weeks of the Paris summit might just cement Washington’s position as an underwhelming force in combatting climate change.

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.