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Paris Redux: China, SDGs and Climate Diplomacy By Arvind Balaji

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Image Courtesy: The Diplomat

Article No. 54/2019


Climate change and the necessary actions to mitigate it has received increased impetus in the post-2015 development agenda evolved by the United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seeks to build on and further expand the previous development agenda on an ambitious scale. While SDG 13 (Climate Action) and SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) concretely address the need for climate action and a shift to renewable energy by both governmental and non-governmental actors, the SDGs are cross-cutting and call for environmental sustainability across multiple action areas.[1] Given the post-2015 world, this memo seeks to specifically look at China as a case study to understand its role in shaping the narrative of the global climate change agreement, its motivations and actions, as well as potential threats to decarbonizing the world.

The Long Road to Paris

Much of the post-2015 climate change agreement was fuelled by the recognition by the international community of the need to limit the rise in global temperature by 2 degree Celsius with a more ambitious target of 1.5 degree Celsius eventually (Tiezzi 2015). In the lead up to the Paris Summit, China, India and the US, the three largest emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2), had the responsibility to undertake certain actions that would potentially prevent a grid-lock as evidenced in the previous rounds of negotiations. By 2004, China overtook the US as the single largest emitter of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use and cement production (Refer Figure 1). By 2015, China and the US combined accounted for 40% of the total global emissions.[1]

                                                         Figure 1: Emissions from Major Countries

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, was an historical agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries. But, it did not result in much needed actions due to the non-participation of the US.[1] Traditionally, China, India and other developing countries took the view that energy consumption had to be balanced along with national development goals of individual countries. This led to the principle of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ (CBDR), which sought to differentiate the responsibilities incumbent on developed and developing countries.[2] As part of the negotiations in the previous rounds of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC, the developing countries block lead by China and India sought financing mechanisms and technology transfer to better implement climate adaptation and climate mitigation strategies nationally and regionally in the global South. Both the principle of CBDR as well as technology transfers with financing mechanisms were fraught with disagreements between the developed countries and the block loosely lead by China and India. Until 2015, this meant that there was an absence of a universal and legally binding agreement to tackle climate change on a global scale.

Climate Diplomacy and the Paris Consensus

China’s approach to environmental issues can be traced back to the Mao era, when environment was viewed as an instrument to fuel economic growth. This resulted in large-scale environmental degradation such as, soil erosion, frequent flooding and water shortages. This was further exacerbated after 1970, when the dominant view was to prioritise economic growth over environmental protection and sustainability. In the international domain, since early 2000s there were visible tensions over China’s break-neck growth and its environmental obligations to the international community. The predominant opinion in the US was that China’s effort on this front has not matched its increasing economic clout. China was also accused of derailing the efforts to reach a substantial agreement in COP 15, which was held in Copenhagen in 2009.[1] There was increasing international pressure on China to grow as a ‘Responsible Power’. Internally as well, the public opinion on environmental problems in China started shifting with visible protests and varying levels of social unrest. These international and domestic considerations increased the urgency for Chinese policymakers to facilitate an agreement at Paris.

The highly anticipated 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21), held in 2015 in Paris was prefaced with pro-active diplomacy on China’s part. First, there were multiple bilateral discussions and negotiations held with countries such as the US, United Kingdom, Germany, France and India. One of the most crucial outcomes of these negotiations was the Sino-US Joint Announcement on Climate Change in 2014, followed by the Sino-US Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change in 2015. Both these statements revealed the intention of the two largest economies to move towards carbon emission cuts. With this, there was a clear indication of impetus for an agreement at the Paris Summit which would concretize the climate change governance architecture globally.

Prior to the summit, each member country submitted their pledges to reduce carbon emissions based on their national development situation and capabilities in what was termed as ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDC’s). The INDC was designed to be a bottom-up approach to put the onus on member countries to undertake practical measures towards de-carbonization. China’s INDC affirmed its commitment to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and to reduce carbon intensity by 60%-65% of 2005 levels.[1] Furthermore, climate cooperation received a new impetus with, 11 Chinese provinces and cities partnering with 18 cities in the US to devise an action plan prior to the summit.

The initiatives by China and the US coupled with India’s own commitment in its INDC led to the breakthrough agreement signed by 195 countries in Paris: The Paris Climate Agreement. As part of this accord, China still maintained the position of CBDR while seeking financing mechanisms for the developing countries blocks. A climate fund of USD 100 billion was agreed to be set up with participation from governments and private sector actors from developed countries.[2]

Post-Paris Outlook

The increasing pressure on institutions that mark the global liberal order in recent years has not spared the consensus reached in Paris. The US, a key party to the agreement had threatened to walk out of the agreement following the election of Donald Trump as president of the US. The Trump administration has already notified the United Nations in 2019 and has initiated a year-long process of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Treaty. One of the key questions that arise from the recent developments is the following: Given that the US – one of the largest emitters of carbon – has walked away from Paris agreement, what are the incentives for countries such as China and India to persist with the agreement?

It can be argued that, there are two important factors that will prevent China from completely abandoning the Paris agreement. First is the pressure from the international community specifically lead by the European Union (EU) block of countries and Canada. Second is the internal pressure within China to decarbonize over time. For instance, the EU block has held high-level meetings with Beijing to confirm the Paris commitment of both the EU and China (Li 2016). Also, China has mandated its provincial governments to reduce carbon intensity, particularly its reliance on coal. As a result of sustained government action, regional coal consumption has reduced in Beijing, Hebei, Tianjin, Shandong, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and the Pearl River delta in Guangzhou (Tan and Lee 2017). China also leads the world today in terms of production and deployment of electric vehicles. Roughly, 45% of electric cars and 99% of electric buses in the world today are made in China (Sandalow 2019). To be sure, China will continue to rely on coal for its energy needs but there is a growing policy impetus towards diversifying its energy portfolio. Also, although there could be a slowdown in delivering on commitments outlined in the INDC’s of China, it is not in its own national interest for China to abandon the Paris climate agreement altogether. A recent national report has reaffirmed the fact that ‘China won’t have to sacrifice economic growth or prosperity to go carbon neutral in the next few decades’ (CNN 2019).


This policy memo has mapped the role of China in shaping the Paris agreement and has presented the motivations of Chinese policymakers in finalizing the agreement. Finally, the evolving nature of climate diplomacy, given the withdrawal of the US from the agreement has serious implications for the enforceability of the Paris agreement. It is argued that this may lead to a slowdown in delivery on the commitments promised as part of China’s INDCs but, will not result in a complete reversal of the country’s stance. It is in China’s own national interest to persist with the path to de-carbonization as a ‘Responsible Power’.

(Arvind is a policy researcher based in Chennai with a focus on sustainable development goals. Views expressed here are author’s own.)

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