China and the US create a new climate for international collaboration on the environment
Kitty Poon says the Paris climate change accord would not have succeeded without the coordinated diplomatic efforts of Beijing and Washington
The UN climate change conference in Paris is likely to go down in history. Endorsed by 196 signatories, the agreement sets to limit the earth’s temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to 1.5 degrees as an intended goal. The agreement won the support of developing countries and big greenhouse gas emitters like the US and China, something that the Kyoto Protocol failed to do. It effectively turned the tide of international collaboration on climate change that was on the verge of collapsing at the 2009 Copenhagen talks.
But viewed in the context of global politics, the way the deal was sealed tells us more than just stories about climate change. There was a discernible shift in the pattern of international negotiation. The critical roles played by the US and China, as they joined hands in making or breaking an international deal, was evident. It also showed that China is now ready and capable of manoeuvring international dynamics as it synchronised its international commitments with a domestic agenda.
The Paris deal was built on the concept of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). This served as a game-changer by allowing nations to determine their own emission reduction plans according to circumstances at home. By making the targets essentially voluntary, countries that would otherwise prefer to remain bystanders were willing to sign up. In this regard, INDCs can be seen as a compromise made for greater consensus and support.
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But the agreement was unlikely to succeed without coordinated efforts by the US and China. China went from being on the back foot to the forefront of negotiations for good reason. Its behaviour can be explained partly by its proactive diplomacy under President Xi Jinping (習近平), and partly by its quest for sustainable growth based on cleaner use of energy at home. The climate issue gives China an opportunity to reshape international negotiations while speeding up its pace towards sustainable growth at home.
It remains to be seen what the Paris accord will achieve down the road. The downside of INDCs is also apparent. The aggregate carbon reduction based on national proposals can only limit average temperature rises to 2.7 degrees. Not to mention the room for withdrawal. Neither is there effective legal recourse if a nation fails to live up to its promise. But, on balance, the benefits of the Paris agreement outnumber its flaws.
Dr Kitty Poon is director of the Institute for GreenHorizon, a former Hong Kong undersecretary for the environment and an honorary fellow at the Centre for Business and Climate Change at the University of Edinburgh