China is often perceived as uninterested or unwilling to cooperate on issues of international law, including those related to the environment. This view is not entirely correct when it comes to China’s engagement with international environmental law. China’s unique position as both a developing country and the world’s leading carbon emitter has fueled fierce scrutiny of its engagement, along with its broader responsibilities and obligations to the climate agenda. However, the overwhelmingly negative attention that China has received should be balanced with the objectively positive work it has undertaken to improve its environmental record.
Like many countries, China’s approach to international law prioritizes its domestic needs over those of the international community. However, some countries — usually highly developed nations — have greater ability to concentrate on domestic needs while simultaneously engaging with international demands. This includes not only rhetorical engagement but also active implementation of international environmental law, which often requires domestic policy changes. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia have this ability because they have achieved relatively stable economic growth and development as well as domestic resilience. This relative stability, in conjunction with domestic provisions for treaty incorporation, enables these countries to more easily incorporate the intent and priorities of international environmental instruments into domestic legislation. China does not have this ability, however.
Acknowledging that China’s legal system does not take the same approach is important, as are a number of other factors that combine to explain China’s method of engagement with international environmental law. Understanding these factors is crucial, as much of the international climate agenda hinges on China meeting its 2030 and 2060 emissions targets. This paper will provide an in-depth look at China’s historical engagement with international environmental law and explore five key factors that shape the way that China makes decisions in this area:
- China’s domestic policies are usually set first and only then shape its commitments to international environmental law.
- China’s domestic law does not follow the structure of consideration, signing, ratification, enactment, and enshrinement that most Western countries follow.
- Domestic capacity is prioritized before declared intent: China will build up its domestic economic, regulatory, technological and political capacity first, rather than accepting externally determined targets and regulatory frameworks.
- Geopolitical stability is crucial: China is still building its domestic resilience, and as a result, it is reliant on global supply chains for many goods and services. When these chains are threatened, as evidenced during the Russia-Ukraine war and the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic security trumps everything, even if that means reverting to old practices that stray from China’s declared climate agenda.
- China’s classification as a developing country continues to play an important role.
While China may seem slow to make legal and policy changes, upon closer examination of its international engagement and domestic actions over time, we can see that China has in fact made significant progress. This paper will bring that progress to light and examine how a better understanding of China’s decision-making may bring China into alignment with the international climate agenda in the years ahead.
Overview of China’s Engagement with International Environmental Law
China’s involvement with international environmental law began in 1972 at the United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm. China had been seated as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in October of the previous year. Thus, the Stockholm Conference marked the first time that China took part in international environmental discussions as a permanent member. Prior to China’s participation at Stockholm, its involvement in international environmental forums was nonexistent. China instead adopted a largely isolationist policy as it focused on domestic concerns, seeking to achieve its economic and political goals under Mao Zedong. As a result of this concentration on domestic growth and development, the environment was not a high priority for China. Therefore, China’s involvement at Stockholm was significant for two reasons. First, it signaled a desire to participate more actively in international environmental forums. Second, China began to pay more attention to environmental issues.
Most of the Stockholm Declaration text was drafted before the conference. This work took place at smaller-scale meetings and discussions at which China was not present. Thus, China had its first chance to review and have input into the declaration on the final day of the conference, during the declaration discussion. As a result, China was placed in the position of having to sign a declaration that it had no say in drafting. Although China requested an extension to the negotiations, its motion was denied and the declaration was signed.
A notable section of the declaration was Principle 24, which states that “international matters concerning the protection and improvement of the environment should be handled in a cooperative spirit by all countries, big and small, on an equal footing.” After Stockholm, China significantly increased its engagement with international environmental law. Between 1970 and 1973, China entered into another seven environmental conventions or treaties, and from 1980 to 1992, it committed to another 31 instruments of international environmental law. China’s record of engagement reinforced Principle 24, and its commitment to international environmental law became increasingly important.
From the Montreal Protocol (1987) to the Earth Summit (1992)
China’s next significant engagement with international environmental law took place in 1987, when it was a signatory to the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. Before the conference in Montreal, China recommended that a dedicated fund be established that would provide financial resources to developing countries and help accelerate technological development to more efficiently and effectively protect the ozone layer. China received significant praise from the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, and the world held out hope that China’s contributions would continue.
The Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was the next notable international environmental law forum in which China was involved. The contents of the 1987 Brundtland Report titled Our Common Future catalyzed discussion at this summit, particularly in defining “sustainable development.” The Earth Summit yielded a number of frameworks, conventions, and declarations that provided direction to the international community on issues related to environmental law. These include the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; the Convention on Biological Diversity; and the Declaration on Forest Principles. These conventions were pivotal enactments of international law that countries still refer to today, including China. The intent of these instruments continues to feature in international forums and in China’s domestic policies.
An outcome of the Earth Summit was Agenda 21, “a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment.” Although Agenda 21 is an example of “soft law,” often criticized for its lack of enforceability and accountability, China completed its Agenda 21 goals in 1993. Agenda 21 called for new strategies for future investment to achieve overall sustainable development in the 21st century, focusing on “new methods of education, new ways of preserving natural resources and new ways of participating in a sustainable economy.” China saw this international momentum as an opportunity to accrue technological and financial aid benefits, while also moving forward with its positive direction on environmental protection.
From Kyoto (1997) to Present
China was next involved in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol was the first instrument of international environmental law that created legally binding emissions targets. Kyoto focused on creating awareness of the dangers of high levels of carbon emissions. As a result, the Protocol aimed to limit emissions. However, only Annex I countries — 43 nations categorized as either developed or transitional economies — were bound by the Protocol. China was, and still is, classified as a developing economy and therefore was not bound by the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol. This left China free to focus on its own economic growth and development — a decision that eventually led to it becoming the world’s largest emitter of carbon and the most significant contributor to climate change.
China continued to participate in international forums after Kyoto, including the UN Summit on Climate Change (2009), Durban Climate Conference (2011), Paris Agreement (2015), Conference of the Parties (COP) 23 (2017), COP 24 (2018), COP 25 (2019), COP 26 (2021), COP 27 (2022), and UN Biodiversity Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (2022). At each forum, China furthered its commitment to the climate agenda and reminded the international community that it would progress toward targets that also suited its own development.
The Relationship between China’s Domestic Policies and International Environmental Law
Western countries are generally more — though not entirely — comfortable yielding sovereignty to the international level. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia have provisions in place for the signing, ratification, enactment, and enshrinement of treaties. Importantly, these countries have the ability to integrate treaties and make rapid changes to domestic laws and policies to reflect the intentions of international agreements. Thus, international laws do influence and shape their domestic politics. (Although there are, of course exceptions — for example, there are cases in which the U.S. Congress has failed to ratify treaties agreed to by the executive branch.) These countries usually act in their own interests, but those interests are often shared internationally. Shared challenges, especially with respect to climate, can only be solved through international cooperation, and so international cooperation is pursued as part of the domestic policy program.
China does not share this approach. Historically, China has not returned from international forums and made rapid adjustments to its domestic law to reflect international targets. While China does have a provision in its domestic law for treaty incorporation, it is almost always the domestic context and policy priorities that shape China’s response to the international level. While it bears international agreements in mind, China makes changes to its domestic laws first, at a time when it has the capacity and the ability to succeed, and only then does it pursue international agreements that it knows it can meet. In China’s case, the domestic context drives its approach and response to international environmental law.
I put forward that China embodies a distinctive “domestic-first” approach to its engagement with international environmental law. While other countries also put their domestic needs first, they still actively engage with international instruments and attempt to align their domestic agendas with those instruments. China is not as responsive in this direction. Its policy changes evolve alongside the progression of its domestic capacity and stability. This is an important observation when speculating about China’s engagement in future international forums.
The framework in which China’s domestic priorities and politics determine its response to international environmental law is exemplified by two case studies of China’s obligations and responses to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.
Case Studies: China’s Obligations and Responses under the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Agreement (2016)
It can be difficult to understand the complexity of China’s engagement with international environmental law, especially as it has evolved significantly over time. A comparative exploration of two strikingly different climate instruments — the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement — helps illuminate the changes in China’s response. It also provides an opportunity to observe China’s domestic-first approach.
Case Study One: The Kyoto Protocol
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted on December 11, 1997. Because of the complexities of the ratification process, the Protocol did not enter into force until February 16, 2005. It was ratified by 192 countries — only the United States failed to do so. The Protocol “operationalizes the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by committing industrialized countries and economies in transition to limit and reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions in accordance with agreed individual targets.” The Kyoto Protocol was the first international agreement to place legally binding emissions targets on so-called Annex I countries. China was not listed as an Annex I country, and therefore it was not bound by the same expectations.
Contrary to popular belief, this did not mean that China made no progress on its environmental agenda during this time. China’s domestic policy is encapsulated in its Five-Year Plans, the first of which was released in 1953. The 10th Five Year Plan (2001–2005) was the first plan to reference climate in any way. The plan spelled out China’s commitments to general environmental targets in the areas of forestry and air pollution but excluded any discussion of climate change and energy efficiency. Although China was not bound by the Kyoto Protocol, it ratified the instrument in 2002. After ratification, China became involved in projects under the Clean Development Mechanism. In that capacity, China achieved significant success and recognition, establishing a record for the largest number of registered projects and achieving the highest annual certified emissions reductions. This equated to 880 registered projects with the potential to reduce carbon emissions by 590 million tons annually.
China continued to strengthen its domestic climate presence as it dealt with the negative impacts of intensifying economic growth and development. At the same time, there was growing concern within China about declining air quality and increasing pollution. In response, the National People’s Congress passed the Renewable Energy Law in 2005. The impact of this law was twofold: it set national renewable energy targets while also establishing feed-in tariffs for renewable energy. Although this law lagged the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by three years, it highlights China’s commitment to looking at renewable energy at a time when it had the domestic capacity to do so. This legislative achievement also symbolized China’s alignment with the Kyoto Protocol goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adopting cleaner energy. It should be emphasized that China enacted this legislation and made these commitments even though, as a developing country, it was not legally bound by the Protocol’s targets. China assessed its internal environment and realized that it was able to make this significant step.
China’s commitment to the environmental agenda continued in its 11th Five Year Plan (2006–2010), when it established its first binding target for energy efficiency. The target required a 20 percent reduction in energy intensity per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) from 2005 to 2010, which was to be achieved by assigning customized energy efficiency targets to all provinces. Provincial and local leaders were made responsible for achieving these targets and would be held accountable if the provinces failed to reach them. China took the response further and bolstered the accountability of local leaders, whose career progression became largely dependent on their performance in meeting the targets. This signaled China’s dedication to improving its climate stance while reinforcing the key goal of reducing emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Domestically, China’s climate agenda was continuing to advance and, as it did, it kept in mind the objectives of the Kyoto Protocol and, more broadly, the international community.
The Chinese government issued its first National Assessment Report on Climate Change in 2006. The report comprised the work of more than 20 ministries and government agencies. It found that climate change posed serious threats to China. In 2007, China joined the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a key contributor to the Fourth Assessment Report, which warned that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” During the same time, China’s National Climate Change Coordinating Group was elevated to a higher bureaucratic level, becoming the National Leading Group on Addressing Climate Change. China also outlined its climate policies in the National Climate Change Program. Articles 8 and 9 of the Kyoto Protocol specified that legally bound countries should undergo a periodic review of their compliance with the Protocol’s objectives. Even though China was not bound by the Protocol, its engagement with the IPCC and domestic publication of climate reports demonstrated the country’s commitment to the intent of the Kyoto Protocol.
In 2011, the National Development and Reform Commission published a white paper titled China's Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change, which provided an overview of China’s actions and achievements in addressing climate change. It is important to note that China’s responses to climate change do not fall exclusively under the purview of the central government. Rather, China’s responses to climate change increasingly have been a joint effort of multiple government departments. These include the Ministry of Agriculture, State Forestry Administration, State Council, State Oceanic Administration, Ministry of Health, China Meteorological Administration, Ministry of Civil Affairs, Ministry of Finance, National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, and Ministry of Science and Technology, in addition to local, provincial, state, and central government leaders.
It is evident that China’s domestic climate policy continued to advance. While China’s policies reflected the objectives of the Kyoto Protocol, they were not made with that intention. Furthermore, they were indicative of China’s domestic advancement. China’s internal context dictated the pace and capacity of policy change; however, when the policy was created, it reflected the work of the international community. China did not specifically create new laws to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, but instead employed long-standing domestic policy to reflect the Protocol’s intent, albeit in its own time.
Case Study Two: The Paris Agreement
Now I turn to the Paris Agreement to highlight the differences in China’s approach. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change that set a clear goal to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius — preferably 1.5 degrees — compared with preindustrial levels. The agreement came into force on November 4, 2016, after its adoption by 196 countries at the 21st Convention of the Parties — known as COP21 — in Paris on December 12, 2015.
A defining feature of the Paris Agreement compared with other instruments of international environmental law, such as the Kyoto Protocol, is that it defines intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) and nationally determined contributions (NDCs) representing the action that each nation agrees to take to meet international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The INDCs and NDCs are determined by each nation. This arrangement differs from most other instruments of international environmental law, especially the Kyoto Protocol, that created preset targets. The presetting of targets forced countries to alter their domestic agenda to work toward meeting them. However, this method does not take into account the status and development stage of state parties.
In China’s case, the process for setting the INDCs and NDCs reflected its domestic-first approach. To create these targets, China had to look inward. Just as it had done since the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, China examined its domestic context and set its INDCs and NDCs based on projections of what the country could practically achieve based on its capacity, strengths, and likelihood of success. The international community’s shift away from standardized targets with little consideration given to individual nations was replaced by China’s preferred approach all along — a domestic-first approach.
China’s domestic drive to set strong INDCs and NDCs was evident in its 12th Five Year Plan (2011–2015). The 12th Five Year Plan was central to China’s effort to control greenhouse gas emissions, adjust the country’s industrial structure, save energy, increase energy efficiency, optimize the energy structure, increase carbon sinks, adapt to climate change, and build capability.
In 2013, China identified areas that needed to be addressed to respond to climate change. China reformed its industrial structure and set energy conservation and efficiency targets, while also increasing energy-saving assessments and inspections and accelerating the implementation of key energy conservation projects and the promotion of new energy conservation technologies and products. China’s commitments to emissions reductions continued in 2014, when the Chinese government issued the 2014–2015 Action Plan for Energy Conservation, Emissions Reduction and Low Carbon Development, which committed to a 4 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP in 2014 and 3.5 percent in 2015. This was followed by the publication of China’s National Plan on Climate Change for 2014–2020, which provided a road map for addressing the climate agenda. These policy pieces were put in place at the same time that the Paris Agreement was being developed, when countries were considering the formulation of INDCs. China was looking at its performance from the standpoint of economic growth and development to ascertain the best way to integrate environmental policy.
In late 2014, China realized the need to optimize its energy structure and began to examine its coal consumption, develop non-fossil-fuel energy, and increase its carbon sink capacity. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and the National Development and Reform Commission published Rules on Implementing the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution in Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and Neighboring Area, which set a goal to reduce coal consumption by 83 million tons by the end of 2017.
China’s adaptation strategy covered infrastructure, water resources, agriculture, coastal areas, ecosystems, and public health. In each category, a number of new policies were implemented, primarily by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, but also by other government departments. These policies included stronger alert systems and infrastructure to prevent and respond to natural disasters and the development of water-saving agricultural technology to increase the efficiency of farming. More specific environmental policies were also developed. For example, the Ministry of Water spearheaded initiatives to examine water allocation and tighten water-drawing permissions, while the State Forestry Administration focused on biodiversity conservation by creating protection areas to secure wetland environments. China also acknowledged the relationship between climate change and public health at this time. In response, the National Health and Family Planning Commission strengthened the prevention and control of diseases closely related to climate change, such as mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever and foot-and-mouth disease. Furthermore, local and provincial governments in China developed closer relationships with central government authorities to better inform citizens of the need to take climate change seriously.
By the time discussions surrounding the submission of INDCs for the Paris Agreement had begun, it was evident that China had already been working extensively on this issue. China’s 2015 INDCs repeatedly referenced historical and contemporary domestic policy. The INDCs were largely extensions of what China had been building up to domestically. China’s long-standing climate policies were continually evolving. The main goal of China’s INDCs was to peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Additionally, China set goals to “to lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 percent to 65 percent from the 2005 level; increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent; and increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters on the 2005 level.”
China’s INDCs explicitly referenced the areas it would continue to develop to meet the Paris Agreement’s objectives. There was a direct relationship between China’s INDC plan and the goals of the Paris Agreement. This included implementing proactive national strategies on climate change, improving regional strategies, building low-carbon energy systems and energy efficient and low-carbon industrial systems, controlling emissions from the building and transportation sectors, increasing carbon sinks, promoting a low-carbon way of life, and enhancing China’s overall climate resilience. Additionally, emphasis was placed on innovating low-carbon development growth patterns, enhancing science and technological support, increasing financial and policy support, promoting carbon emissions trading markets, improving statistical and accounting systems for greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging broad stakeholder participation, and promoting international cooperation on climate change.
After China’s submitted its INDCs, it continued to implement its domestic policy agenda, putting forward 15 additional categories of policies and measures for greater climate change action. In this way, China committed to accelerating its domestic response to the climate crisis.
In 2021, China submitted its updated INDCs for the next phase of the Paris Agreement. China once again asserted its commitment to the international climate agenda and outlined the ways in which it would continue its domestic work in a manner that aligned with international objectives. In addition to carbon peaks and neutrality, China also adopted the Kigali Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, which focuses on substances other than carbon, such as methane emissions. China continues to take part in COP meetings, and the international community still depends heavily on China’s continued commitments to the climate agenda.
China’s commitments and engagements with international environmental law are determined by its domestic situation. If China is experiencing relative growth and stability (i.e., it is not facing significant internal pressures or suffering from the adverse effects of geopolitical instability), it will be more inclined to deviate from the status quo and undertake bolder commitments to combat climate change. These commitments reflect what China is currently doing domestically and extend to its capacity and ability to achieve success.
This approach is reflected in the differences in China’s approaches to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. Under Kyoto, China was not legally bound by any commitment, and thus policy and legislation lagged significantly as it prioritized domestic economic growth and development. As a result, China advanced climate legislation when it was confidently able to do so. The Paris Agreement, however, perfectly suited China’s domestic-first approach and preferred method of engagement with international law. China was able to put forward and take ownership of climate commitments that would be supported by the convention of parties. During this time, China was actively creating legislation that reflected its domestic situation and capacity. The result was concrete, internally designed goals and targeted legislation that China could follow and achieve.
Looking ahead to COP 28 in late 2023, it is important to consider China’s domestic context. What is happening in China with its economic situation, political outlook, social stability, and geopolitical context will largely determine its domestic climate agenda (and forecast). When China submits its next round of INDCs, those goals will be emblematic of China’s domestic context and the result of its domestic-first approach.
This observation may be particularly useful in future dialogues with China about its climate status and obligations. The conversation should refrain from dictating or demanding that China do more to meet international targets. This approach has not historically been productive. Instead, the conversation should focus on China’s current efforts to shift its capacity and meet its own climate targets and how this work can be part of an international agenda. Examining China’s domestic climate agenda in terms of its progress toward decarbonization and diversifying its renewable energy mix should feature high on the international agenda, in part because China’s participation and success — as the world’s largest emitter — will be the cornerstone of any practical international treaty. Internal factors such as economic conditions, social stability, and political leadership should be discussed in climate conversations. We know that climate change is an issue that affects not only the climate, but a wide range of interlocking areas, including economics, public health, national security, social stability, foreign policy, and geopolitical stability. Understanding the complexity of the topic, especially the degree to which these factors affect China domestically, is crucial to phrasing climate conversations in a mutually productive way.
This paper set out to contextualize some of the key factors driving China’s engagement with international environmental law. In addition, it has showcased China’s historical engagement with international environmental law, demonstrating reason for optimism about China’s continued involvement in international climate discussions.
The domestic situation in China, specifically its economic growth and development and political and social stability, will always determine China’s capacity and capability to commit to international law. Better understanding this dynamic will allow the international community to shape its approach to keeping China engaged in these efforts, providing a critical boost to the credibility, scope, and impact of international environmental law. It also provides insights into how China may engage with international environmental law in the upcoming crucial years for action.
China’s genuine efforts should not go unnoticed, even though we have a long way to go in addressing climate change. There is no solution to climate change without China — so it is about time that we unpack exactly how the world's largest emitter is working, in its own way, toward getting there.