The Future of China Climate Action with Dr. Gao

On December 1st 2016, members of the Tsinghua-SAIS program met with Dr. Gao Xiang. Currently an associate professor at the Energy Research Institute in Beijing, Dr. Gao received his Ph.D in environmental science from Fudan University, Shanghai in 2008. Since 2009, he has participated in the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) as a member of the Chinese delegation, focusing on mitigation and transparency issues. He recently returned from the UN Climate Conference in Marrakesh

Dr. Gao detailed his overall experience and impressions as a member of the Chinese delegation in the UN climate talks. Having earned his PhD in environmental science, his expertise on climate change comes from a more technical background than a diplomatic one. His work at the Energy Research Institute is scientific as well, and his participation in the Chinese delegation is more like a part-time job.

When he began participating in the negotiations as a member of the Chinese delegation, he found the sets of skills needed for science and negotiation to be quite different. In particular, language is a challenge. This is not only because English, the working language of the UNFCCC, is a second language for most negotiators, including Dr. Gao, but also because terms in a language are not always legally equivalent to their translations in other languages. While some countries get informal help from other delegations on this problem, more legal experts would help the delegations. In terms of climate science, China is one of the few developing countries with the resources to pursue its own research prior to negotiations, instead of relying on the science of developed countries. However, it is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking.

On his participation at the recent UNFCCC conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, Dr. Gao explained it was smaller in scale than last year’s Paris conference, and received less attention. In Paris, delegations were under considerable pressure to finalize this historic agreement. In contrast, Marrakesh is only the first of several conferences in the next two years, at which they will determine details of the implementation of the Paris agreement. Marrakesh was therefore planned as a milestone-setting session, to plan out progress in five different areas: mitigation and nationally determined contributions, adaptation communication, transparency, global stock taking (keeping the global warming below the two-degree recommended limit), and compliance. Each section was organized with co-chairs from a developed and developing country. Dr. Gao was paired with the United States on the transparency issue.

In making predictions for the future of the Paris agreement, Dr. Gao does not think the United States will withdraw from the agreement, even following the presidential election of Donald Trump. Because of the system of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of carbon emission mitigation, there is little benefit for a country to withdrawal, regardless of its individual approach to climate change. Each country can adjust its NDC up or down based on its political will. While ensuring the Paris agreement succeeds will benefit the entire planet, every country tries to balance this with its own national interest. For example, China is still developing, and will not choose to impede its rate of development by making the same commitments as more developed countries. With higher funding and technology access, it is generally easier for developed countries to pursue clean energy or reduce industry pollution than developing ones. To help mitigate this divide between developed and developing countries, China has pursued South-South cooperation with other developing countries on climate change.

This raised the wider issue of compliance and obligations. According to Dr. Gao, the Kyoto Protocol used a “top-down” approach to ensure compliance, which failed. The Paris agreement is a hybrid of top-down and bottom-up approaches. While each country decides its own NDC without external determination, they can be deemed non-compliant by the UNFCCC if they fall behind schedule to achieve that NDC. Dr. Gao thinks the best approach is to promote support for countries failing to reach their goals, to help reach them, rather than punishment. Nevertheless, compliance will be a difficult issue to work out in the future UNFCCC conferences.

Dr. Gao’s experiences and explanations were invaluable to understanding the complex structure of climate negotiations, which will affect every nation’s future in the years to come.