China can do better than a ‘pledge and review’ climate plan

A more ambitious Chinese climate strategy will yield domestic and international benefits, argues Li Shuo

This blog is a reaction to the recent article on chinadialogue by Oxford academic Thomas Hale Understanding China’s domestic agenda can end UN climate gridlock, which itself was preceded by Li Shuo’s blog UN climate talks can spur emission cuts in China

A central theme of Mr Hale’s article is that a thorough understanding of China should be the precondition of any effective engagement with the world’s biggest carbon emitter. As he pointed out, an accurate evaluation of the domestic actors and the dynamics among them must be a key element of any strategy. He also supplemented his argument with three recent examples on international climate interactions with China.

With regard to understanding China, Mr Hale’s point deserves close attention and should be greatly appreciated. In an earlier article – “Why it’s time to end China-bashing on the environment” – I made a similar point:

The design of international mechanisms must be based on a full understanding of China’s environment laws, its methods of managing domestic policy and its diplomatic approach and negotiating style. Otherwise a mismatch between international expectations and Chinese realities is likely.

Where I disagree with Mr Hale is on the second section of his article, where he outlined the way forward for the UN and outlined the case for a ‘pledge and review’ system of carbon emission reductions. Does this mean that his domestic reading of China makes him believe that a ‘pledge and review’ scheme is the best choice? Bound by “domestic constraints” can China only go so far as a ‘pledge and review’ arrangement?

‘Pledge and review’ normally implies a purely country-driven process in determining commitments, which often leads to the loosest legal arrangement and the lowest ambition level. The missing elements from this arrangement, to name just a few, are a robust evaluation on the adequacy of these pledges, an understanding on the fairness and equity among various pledges, and the basic rules that ensure the pledges are at least comparable and viable.

China can do more than pledges

In my view, Mr Hale’s conclusion may be slightly premature. At present  China’s exact preference on future climate policies are unclear. But as I will explain below, there are indeed reasons that the international society needs to engage with a higher expectation than a ‘pledge and review’. In contrast, there has been strong pushes from the US for such a ‘pledge and review’ arrangement. It seems to me that this kind of arrangement is more like a compelled judgment being put on China rather than the country’s self-preference.

As I mentioned in a previous piece, there are plenty of domestic drivers suggesting China should act more ambitiously on its climate policy. It is exactly because of these domestic drivers that a ‘pledge and review’ system does not fit with China’s strategic self-interest. Adopting the Copenhagen experience and continuing the five-year planning practice, China will still have its domestic planning process, which will likely be domestically binding. This provides a useful and valuable policy framework a lot of other big polluters (including the US) do not have. Chinese leaders need to realise this as a unique advantage. They need to be confident this is a potential source of Chinese leadership. And that to fulfill all these is in line with the country’s national interests, creates a positive international image, and generates momentum and pressure for other big players.

I should also clarify and elaborate my point about what the UN process can do for China. I had made the argument that the UNFCCC can spur domestic actions from China, which is perceived by Mr Hale as “optimism” that “goes against much of the conventional wisdom”.

To say that the process can incentivise Chinese action does not mean it can single-handedly make the country commit to an ambitious global agreement. Neither is it to say that the process has pushed China far enough. Rather, the extent to which the process can facilitate domestic political will is subject to certain requirements. And if there is one requirement that relates to Mr Hale’s arguments, it is that a regime design whose initial aim is ‘pledge and review’ cannot spur any meaningful actions from China – nor from any other country in the world.

Finally, I think the UN process should and can still play an essential and fundamental role. Again to be clear, this is not to say that all eggs should be put in one basket. On the contrary, we should encourage and facilitate actions at all levels and in all forums. The key issue here is not to go from one extreme, namely, to bet only on UNFCCC, or to completely dismiss the important function this process can play.