Environmental Diplomacy: China’s Attitude and Effort Towards Climate Change


With the rapid process of industrialization and modernization there has been notable increase in carbon emission leading to global change in climatic conditions in the last two decades. This phenomenon has been occurring worldwide and has drawn concern on mitigating global climate change. However, developed economies have been furthering their economic interests at the expense of the environment through industrialization while others have become victim of the trend of climate change creating a transboundary environmental problem. The concept of environmental diplomacy rose as a result of such transboundary environmental problems in order to negotiate on environmental governance between state entities.

According to Climate Action Tracker, China, the world’s most populous country, alone accounts for around twenty-seven percent of global carbon emission. China itself being subject to ill impacts of climate change and understanding the global threat it poses, has proactively drawn attention of world leaders to formulate and implement policies not just to mitigate the impacts of climate change rather eliminate the problem as a whole. As a rising power, and one of the major contributors to the global carbon footprint, China should play proactive role and cooperate with other international actors in tackling this global problem. This article explores the concept of environmental diplomacy, its emergence and importance, further analyzing China’s Environmental Diplomacy, its formulation in close coordination with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Environmental Diplomacy

Due to its evolving nature, no universally defined definition exists for Environmental Diplomacy. Various scholars from diverse background have defined environmental diplomacy in different ways. Whereas the scholars of environmental studies have defined it as negotiations concerned with conflict resolution over natural resources as well as instrumental use of the environment in resolving disputed and peace building. In reference to international relations, environmental diplomacy is understood asa negotiation between the states on environmental policy. In general terms, environmental diplomacy addresses issues and actions related to environmental security, global environment governance and environmental peace building involving a wide range of actors. As the environment is borderless, the issues continue to be addressed at a multilateral level. Despite different disciplinary backgrounds there is a shared focus on negotiation in studies on environmental diplomacy.

It was in late 1970s the world became aware and grew concerned over this issue when a scientific finding revealed about the phenomena of ‘acid rain’. This phenomenon indicated the initiation of international environmental problem and necessity to exercise international diplomacy was felt. The efforts to exercise environmental diplomacy goes back to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which was initially signed by 15 nations in 1946 and came into force in 1948. The term environmental diplomacy got prevalence after the formation of United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in 1973. After the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development(UNCED), known as the Earth Summit or Rio Summit in 1992, the term became more common. Acid rain was only the indication, so far there have been whole lot of transborder environmental problems like high pollution, unusual warming of atmosphere, ecological decline of world oceans, melting of glaciers, extreme weather patterns etc. providing greater attention to need of international environment diplomacy than ever before.

Lawrence Susskind in his book Environmental Diplomacy in 1994implied environment diplomacy to encompass multilateral environmental agreements and mentioned best practices to negotiate them in the context of broader international security priorities. Susskind has pointed out three key areas of scholarship within political science and international relations that the term environment diplomacy has acquired over past twenty years: First, is the environment security, a genre emerged after cold war where scarcity of resources has been posited as a potential source of violent conflict. Second being Global Environment Governance, to understand the key drivers of behavior within organizations that have international underpinnings, particularly within the United Nations’ system. Third, is Environmental Peace-Building where the derivative potential for environmental issues in securing peace actively in situations of conflict.

In June 1992, tens of thousands of official delegates and unofficial activists met in Brazil at an “Earth Summit” sponsored by the United Nations where the world’s attention was focused briefly on these global environmental problems. In 2002, the organizers of the “World Summit on Sustainable Development” (WSSD) purposely took out the word “environment” from the title of what was meant to bea ten-year milestone. Millennium Development Goals became the measure for the following ten years of environmental diplomacy. A forty-nine-page manifesto called the “The Future We Want” within the framework of a “green economy” repackaged the common aspiration towards sustainability at Rio Plus 20 in 2012. All these changes show that our system needs renewed analysis.(Susskind and Ali: Environmental Diplomacy,2015)

UNEP lists over 155 environmental agreement that has been negotiated at regional and global level since 1921. The task of achieving international agreement on any issue is extremely difficult especially for environmental issues. It combines scientific uncertainty, citizen and industry activism, politics and economics. The negotiation themselves are complex and time consuming usually preceded by extensive scientific findings. Humanity has now faced range of environmental problems that affect everyone globally and can only be managed through cooperation between all countries of the world.(Pamela S. Chasek: Earth Negotiation, 2001).

China’s Environmental Diplomacy

As mentioned earlier, China is the “world’s largest emitter of the GHGs” accounting for a staggering twenty-seven percentage. However, it can not be denied that China has also been facing the potential threat of climate change. Since 1990s climate change has been recognized as a source of environmental threat. In China, global warming has led to rise in sea level and extreme weather events causing coastal floodings, degradation and scarcity of water resources. Though China has contributed to regional economic growth, it has also equal role of being region’s largest polluter.Enermous amount of green house gas is emitted by burning of fossil fuel. China is the world’s largest pollutant responsible forcausing global warming. This unwantedrecord has attracted global concernand created pressure on China to take responsibility. In order to protect its image in international arena, China had to take some steps in forming its policy in the area of climate change in context of UNFCCC.

As the consequences of global warming and climate change is increasing, governments have started working unilaterally to adapt and mitigate climate change. The international cooperation on global warming began with in 1992 UNFCCC, signing at the Earth Submit. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol laid a path for reduction of green house gases for developed countries following steps for its implementations. China as an emerging power has been a participant ofin all those negatiationsand is a core member of the negotiation group “China plus G 77”. It is crucial for China to play an influential role as doing so is in the best interest of China, its humongous population and in turn in it’s economy.

In 1990 the Chinese diplomats and environmental professionals joined the Inter-governmental Party on Climate Change (IPCC). Qu Geping, former Minister of Environment Protection Authority made a commitement to support global struggle against climate change. After the five round of engagement of IPCC for negotiation, UNFCCC was established on May 9, 1992. Same year in Rio Summit Chinese former Premier Li Peng adressed that global warming was threatning the national security of relevant countries and signed the UNFCCC. Since then, UNFCCC has been implicated in the concern and agenda setting of Chinese national interest and foreign policy. To join UNFCCC China had to go through three stages. The first stage from 1990-1992 was to make China integrate its principles and  policy into the negotiation of UNFCCC. In the second stage from 1992-1997 great challenge to policy makers where the Kyoto Protocol and trade mechanism imposed on developing countries like Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Joint Implementation (JI) and Iternational Emission Trade (IET). The third stage from1997 to present where China ratified the Kyoto protocol and beganto introduce Clean Development Mechanism. (Hongyun: Global Warming and China’s Environmental Diplomacy,2008)

Based on Chinese foreign practise from 1992 China possess three charecteristics toward the international struggle against climate change:

  1. China always insists it principle on “common and differential responsibility”
  2. China chooses the strategy of joining the international regimes against climate change formed by developed countries
  3. China tries its best to avoid any concrete responsibility or burden and insists on “no regret” principle.

(Hongyun: Global Warming and China’s Environmental Diplomacy,2008)

In China, National Coordination Committee is responsible for coordinating and formulating policy related to global struggle of climate change. This committee performs two functions: firstly, to cope with climate change issue while protecting its national interest and sovereignty and secondly, to do strategic study on energy and an economic development study in regardsto global climate changes. After its first meeting in 1990, it has only called a conference once just before China joined international negotiation on climate change.


In today’s twenty-first century global warming and climate change have become a major issue. Individual effort of any particular state would not be sustainable enough to fight and reduce impacts of climate change as it is a global phenomena. EveryState-actors should come together underan international regime and make cooperative efforts. The concept of Environmental Diplomacy was introduced to createcooperation between nation-states to negotiate on environmental issue in global level as somecountries have been more victimized than others.Especially industrialized nations are responsible for high proportion of global carbon emissionsleading to global climate change.So far, multiple summit have been held, conventions has been signed and protocols have been issued bounding all most every country. China being the largest GHG emission producer in the world is also a participant of all these negotiations.China has been working on various level to cut down the emission of harmful gases. However, evaluating China’s policy regarding climate change in connection to international regime seems to be of what they call it “no regret” policy. According to which China would not take the burden or full responsibility under international regime of climate change that would reduce China’s economic growth.


Ali,S.H., Vladich,H.V. (2016) Environmental Diplomacy. In C.M Constantinou, P Kerr, P Sharp (Eds),The Sage Handbook of Diplomacy(pp 601-616). City road, 55: SAGE Publication Limited

Susskind, L.E., Ali, S.H. (2015).Environmental diplomacy: negotiating more effective global agreements(2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press

Hongyung, Y. (2008). Global Warming and China’s Environmental Diplomacy. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Carroll, J.E. (1988). International Environmental Diplomacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Chasek, P.S. (2001). Earth Negotiation: Analyzing Thirty Years of Environmental Diplomacy.Tokyo: United Nations University Press

Gupta,N. (2008, March 9) Environmental Diplomacy. retrieved from https://www.borgenmagazine.com/environmental-diplomacy/

Sweta Chalise
Sweta Chalise
Master's Student of International Relations and Diplomacy at Tribhuvan University, Nepal.


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