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EU-China Partnerships on Climate Change – Are They Effective?

Blog • Economics • Professor David Gibbs

In December 2015 the next Climate Conference will be held in Paris. This will be the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Once again, 196 governments will meet to try and agree a new climate change agreement for the coming years.

Previous meetings have been notable for their lack of agreement and for the fact that the world’s top two contributors to carbon emissions – the USA and China – have been opposed to action. For China, the flip side to its increasing economic importance and role as the ‘workshop of the world’ – exporting consumer goods to Europe and the US – has been its growing contribution to world carbon emissions as domestic power demands have been met by opening new coal-fired power stations.  Not only has this led to international concern, but the resulting pollution and decline in air quality has led to concerns and protest within China itself.

Recently, I have been working on a project funded by the British Academy and the Sino-British Fellowship Trust looking at how the European Union and Chinese government have been working together to address climate change. Obviously the two are already connected in other areas – this is perhaps most evident in terms of economic and trade links.  China is now the EU’s second largest trading partner and fastest growing export market, while the EU is China’s biggest trading partner as well as the most important export destination.  The focus of my research though is not on the economic challenges to the West or even the global environmental consequences from China’s recent development, but in examining the two-way benefits that partnership between the EU and China could bring on climate change.

The EU sees itself as a world leader in action on emissions and has sought to work with China through negotiation and joint working.  As an EU official said to me – “involvement in climate change talks involves a lot of finger pointing and blaming which doesn’t work with China – informal negotiations work much better than this”. Through interviews with Chinese and EU officials and politicians in Beijing and Brussels, I was interested in seeing how climate change partnership policy and joint working has evolved. In addition, I was also keen to examine whether the Partnership has served China’s domestic sustainable development agenda, as well as the EU’s ambitions for global leadership on climate change.

Through looking at the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) it appeared that the EU and China by working together initially stolen a march over other players, especially the USA. The CDM allowed developed countries to offset emissions through investment in CO2 mitigation projects and developing countries to receive payment for voluntary efforts to reduce emissions. As a developing country, China has not so far had specific quantitative targets for CO2 reductions, but needs to promote the CDM in cooperation with western industrialised countries. The EU and China were leading stakeholders in CDM – China was the dominant host country, whilst member states of the EU collectively became the leading investing parties for CDM projects. By default, CDM projects served as a new opportunity for further developing EU-China relations in which both sides would gain. The benefits were not simply in terms of reducing carbon emissions.  Interviews with EU officials in both China and Brussels showed that an important outcome for them has been the development of greater trust and the opportunity for policy learning. For EU officials, China’s involvement in CDM had made it much easier to start the debate between the two sides around climate change issues. Thus engagement with the CDM by Chinese policy makers and businesses has led to growth of climate change know-how in China. In particular, the CDM has helped China make the step towards seeing how these types of market instruments could work and this has formed the basis of joint working on developing China’s Emissions Trading Scheme, informed by EU experiences.  The people I spoke to emphasised that this has to be a genuine two-way process – Chinese officials will be involved in dialogue and discussion with their EU counterparts, but (understandably) are not keen on being told what they should do in policy terms or how to do it.

Despite these initial successes, it appears to be an uphill struggle for the objectives of the EU-China Partnership on Climate Change to be achieved. On the one hand, the extent to which the CDM can be used as a new market tool contributing to China’s sustainable development and low carbon growth by generating additional renewable energy is very limited.  While CDM wind farms have mushroomed in the remote regions of China such as Inner Mongolia, and the north-eastern and north-western provinces, these are thousands of kilometres away from the economic heartland and power demands of the export-producing eastern and south-eastern regions. In the absence of an advanced and efficient grid infrastructure, long-distance transport of electricity leads to significant loss of energy and due to the limitations of storage technologies, electricity produced by wind farms in remote areas cannot be stored locally and this makes it difficult for grid operators to cope with the uneven pattern of energy supply.

The initial enthusiasm of the EU to become a world leader in climate change may therefore not prove viable in the long run and we can question how effective the EU approach of dialogue and ‘soft power’ has been. Despite their past differences, in November 2014 China and the US signed a bi-lateral agreement to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions which suggests that despite all the years of informal efforts by the EU, it has been less effective than the US in encouraging China to take action. Not only have the US and China agreed to reduce their own emissions, but their agreement may break the deadlock that has affected previous climate talks. In their common mission of searching for low carbon growth whilst mitigating climate change, the EU and China will continue to be constrained by their own vested interests, which have been responsible for diluting their partnership.  China’s further rise as an industrial and economic power, which is beyond doubt, will pose new challenges to its already troubled trade relations in the renewable energy market. However, the reality of policy and political disunity within the EU dictates that member states will not hesitate to explore the China market with regard to their own domestic interests and agendas. In the future it is likely that ‘partnerships’, rather than ‘partnership’, will prevail so far as EU-China relations are concerned.

David Gibbs is a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Hull. On 25-26 March 2015 he was a speaker and participant in a workshop on Sustainable Urban Development, which took place at the British Academy and was jointly organised by the British Academy and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

This autumn the British Academy’s series of debates held across the UK looks at energy and the environment, the challenges we face and what we can do to tackle them.