Reading China’s Climate Change Tea Leaves

Reports at Global Conference in Durban Leave Observers Guessing

Melanie Hart tries to make sense of rumors around China’s offer on global carbon emissions reductions and then offers a path forward she thinks China could (and should) embrace.

Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua suggested that the country may be willing to consider binding emissions reductions after 2020. (AP/ Schalk van Zuydam)
Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua suggested that the country may be willing to consider binding emissions reductions after 2020. (AP/ Schalk van Zuydam)

All eyes were on the Chinese these past two weeks as representatives from 194 parties, international financial institutions, and nongovernmental organizations gathered in Durban, South Africa for the seventeenth round of climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. Up until the meeting in Durban, China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, refused to make a binding international commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Many in the international community view a binding international emissions commitment from the Chinese as a critical barrier to slowing the pace of climate change.

Then, to the surprise of many at the meeting, the Chinese delegation last weekend kicked off a flurry of speculation with a series of statements that appeared to signal a willingness to open the door to reconsidering its previous refusals. Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua suggested that the country may be willing to consider binding emissions reductions after 2020, and he outlined five conditions that the international community would have to meet for a post-2020 binding China climate deal.

Xie’s comments attracted significant global attention, and reporters began calling China the “success story,” the “unlikely darling,” and the “rock star” of the Durban climate conference. But soon, confusion reigned. Other parties—particularly the United States and Europe—began to express skepticism that China was actually offering anything new. The media, in turn, began backing away from the China story, and the flurry slowly died down, leaving many confused about what exactly the Chinese had said and what exactly happened in South Africa.

So what do we know as this 17th meeting of the UNFCCC meeting draws to a close about the direction of Chinese climate-change policy? Here are some tea-leaf readings from the conference in Durban.

China’s Durban messaging may reflect a change in tone while the substance is unclear

Compared to China’s stance at the last UNFCCC meeting in Cancun, Mexico, the Chinese message at Durban certainly appears to demonstrate a softened position. In Cancun, the Chinese delegation absolutely refused to open the door to any form of international legally binding emissions reduction commitments for developing countries at any point in time—they insisted that developing country commitments should be voluntary at the international level, not legally binding.

In Durban, however, Xie Zhenhua appeared to shift stance when he stated, "I think after 2020, we should also negotiate a legally binding document…China is willing to bear the obligations of a legally binding commitment."

Confusion emerged, however, over what type of legally binding commitment Xie was actually talking about. The United States and Europe want China to make international legally binding emissions reduction commitments under some internationally binding agreement, with the emphasis on the word “international.” That aspect is important because international commitments entail international oversight, which makes it easier for the international community to monitor China’s compliance.

At present, China’s only international emissions reduction commitment is the mitigation commitment under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord—to reduce carbon intensity by 40 percent to 45 percent (based on 2005 levels) by 2020. All commitments under the Copenhagen Accord, however, are not legally binding in an international sense.

The Chinese say they are basically adhering to their Copenhagen target domestically in a step-by-step fashion via their five-year plans. The 12th Five-Year Plan includes a mandatory domestic carbon intensity commitment (to reduce intensity by 17 percent between 2011 and 2015). That commitment is designed to move the country toward their 2020 emissions mitigation commitment under Copenhagen. China has promised to follow through with the second half of that commitment in their next five-year plan (2016-2020). China’s national five-year plans must be approved by their National People’s Congress, so, in effect, those targets are legally binding, albeit in a domestic and piecemeal sense.

Last year, at Cancun, there was some media buzz suggesting that the Chinese were considering binding that commitment internationally by submitting it for a U.N. resolution, but the Chinese delegation vehemently denied it. But that could be what the Chinese were opening the door to this year at Durban. Their Copenhagen mitigation commitment will expire in 2020, and they could replace it with another emissions reduction commitment that is legally binding at the international level.

Unfortunately, the language offered by the Chinese in Durban does not make that clear because it does not clarify whether they are talking about international legally binding commitments—which the international community wants to see—or domestically binding commitments. Because China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, the global community is extremely concerned about Chinese emissions. China’s emissions data, however, is problematic. China suffers from data reporting errors in all sectors, and emissions monitoring is no exception. That triggers concern in the international community because China’s current emissions reduction commitments are domestic, so many believe their domestic monitoring systems are inaccurate, which makes it hard to determine whether China is or is not meeting its commitments.

What also is generating skepticism in Durban is the fact that the Chinese did not clarify whether they are willing to sign on to a post-2020 internal treaty whereby all countries—including China—are legally bound at the international level, not just domestically. Their language left open the possibility for a post-2020 agreement where developed countries are bound internationally but developing countries are only bound at the national level—as China is today—and that is not something that the developed countries (particularly the United States and Europe) are willing to accept at this point.

Pushing China toward an acceptable intermediate step

The Chinese have not helped matters at Durban because they have refused to clarify what exactly they are or are not willing to consider after 2020. In theory, if the Chinese were truly open to something new, then they would want to get credit for it and get the negotiation ball rolling by clarifying their statement. Many in Durban, therefore, take their continued silence on this point as evidence that their earlier statements are just an attempt to muddy the waters and gain media credit without actually delivering.

At the same time, however, China is slowly shifting stance in some respects, and that is something that the international community should not ignore. Domestically, the Chinese are directing more and more resources and political will toward improving energy efficiency, reducing emissions and shifting the economy toward a low-carbon growth model. And they are doing so for very good internal domestic reasons—smothering air pollution is becoming one of the main political threats to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and China’s leaders also see the value of investing in clean energy products and services to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Reading the tea leaves, the Chinese shifted their language about combatting climate change between 2010 to 2011 from “voluntary” to “legally binding,” and that appears to indicate that the country is looking for at least some intermediate step toward a stronger emissions commitment. To be sure, the Chinese are still hanging on to their insistence on “common but differentiated responsibilities,” so in the short term they are unlikely to agree to a legally binding international emissions commitment on par with what they expect from the developed countries.

What they could do, however, is to make legally binding international commitments on something other than emissions reductions. The best candidate is a commitment for measurement, reporting, and verification, or MRV.

MRV is a big issue with China. When China measures energy consumption, there is generally a mismatch between national and provincial-level statistics. The central government calculates national consumption based on national-level data while the provinces calculate provincial consumption based on provincial-data. In theory, when the provincial numbers are all added up, they should equal the national total. In reality, that never happens.

The aggregate provincial total is always higher, sometimes by up to 15 percent, and a 15-percent margin of error is fairly massive for national-level statistics. That has major implications for MRV because the Chinese calculate emissions based on energy consumption, so if the energy data is off, then the emissions data will be off as well, and that means the international community cannot trust what the Chinese are reporting.

If China were to join an international MRV regime, they could borrow more global expertise to improve their domestic measurement system, which in turn would improve their ability to measure and achieve key energy and climate targets at home. It would also improve China’s emissions transparency. That would give the international community assurance that China is actually meeting targets, and just might reduce some of the pressure for China to commit to a fully international binding agreement for emissions reduction now.

In short, if China still prefers a domestic legally binding emissions reduction agreement for now, one way to move forward and gain developed countries trust, without moving beyond their comfort zone, is to make the measurement process for that agreement legally binding at the international level rather than the agreement itself. This is a reasonable compromise that Beijing should consider.

Melanie Hart is a policy analyst on China energy and climate policy at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


© 2015 | Kristina Sherk Photography |

Melanie Hart

Senior Fellow; Director, China Policy