Bottom-up climate change policy: China (it’s) in your hand

By Matthew Winning, on 14 May 2013

Green China (c) istockphoto freeprint

image (c) istockphoto

Climate change policy is currently undergoing a sizeable paradigm shift in the way it is tackled on the world platform. Over the last 20 years, since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, we have seen a concerted effort to provide a top-down approach to tackling climate change through the United Nations.

A global agreement was required which had to overcome the many inherent problems, such as ‘free-riding’ and ‘the tragedy of the commons’ that are faced in tackling the global problem of climate change. The Kyoto Protocol was considered the main solution and it was ratified in 2005. However, Kyoto has appeared to have achieved little substantive change and when negotiations faltered for a legally binding extension beyond Kyoto, at the Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in 2009, for many this was the beginning of the end.

In contrast to an international agreement, I and many others now believe that a bottom-up approach through individual government action is the way forward in achieving worldwide action on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Professor Robert Stavins at Harvard said of the UNFCCC Doha talks in November 2012 that there is “increasing recognition that abottom-up international policy architecture is probably the future path forward, not a top-down approach”.

The UK has helped push forward this bottom-up country-led approach over the last five years with the Climate Change Act (2008) and the introduction of the independent Committee on Climate Change in order to steer the process over the coming decades. Other countries have continued this trend and there are now climate change legislation in Australia and Mexico, carbon taxes on the table in Japan and South Africa, and emissions trading underway in California and set to begin in South Korea.

However, in terms of solving the larger problem, the UK and other smaller nations can do very little alone in terms of mitigating worldwide emissions. One main reason given by countries such as the UK for enacting such legislation is to show an example and leadership for others to follow suit. This being the case, I would put forward the proposal that extensive lobbying effort should be exerted by smaller countries on persuading China to undertake greater efforts to reduce their GHG emissions through legislation and policy instruments.

These may seem obvious but there are two main reasons as to why China is so integral to the climate change solution. Firstly, China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases of any individual country and already emits over one quarter of total world GHGs. A considerable proportion of these emissions arise from the production of exports to developed countries. Therefore, any solution to the global climate change issue must have China firmly involved.

Secondly, China has the political system in place to achieve radical change in the time-scale necessary to tackle climate change. Stating this fact is simply at declaration that the current political setup in China lends itself to tackling the long-term considerations of climate change much better than any short-termism democratic process can. In most democratic countries there is an incentive for governments to alter climate change policy instruments e.g. lowering carbon taxes in order promote short-term growth. Therefore there is underinvestment in low-carbon technologies who do not believe the credibility of the market-based instrument over the lifetime of their investment. While most democratic nations require some process to overcome this time-inconsistency problem and remove climate change from the political process e.g. UK carbon budgets, in China this is not the case. There is no real need for an independent climate change advisory body, like the CCC, to provide consistency of policy. The Chinese Governments goals are believed at face-value as they do not face the prospect of re-election or such short-term goals, and so they have the credibility to overcome much of the time-inconsistency problem. China therefore does not face one of the main obstacles to tackling climate change that most other nations find it difficult to overcome.

Things are already progressing in this direction. China has agreed to reduce its emissions intensity per unit of output by 40-45% by 2020 from 2005 levels. In 2013 China is initiating an experiment with seven different emissions trading schemes across its regions, the first of which is to begin in Shenzhen in June. Given the recent problems with the EU ETS and the news this month that CO2 emissions have passed 400 ppm in the atmosphere then substantial action in China is extremely important and welcome.
It may be that many of the shortcomings of both the bottom-up and top-down approaches to climate change policy are eventually overcome by combining the two, once a critical mass of individual country legislation is achieved. For the time being, however, the answer lies, post-haste, to efforts in the East.


Matthew Winning is a Research Associate at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources