Negotiating the unnegotiable: climate diplomacy and climate action

04 May, 2018

Philosopher William James once said ‘whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is’.

This complexity and intensity of dialogue may be particularly true in diplomatic practice. As a form of institutionalised communication, diplomacy in international fora is charged with different interests, values, meaning and symbolism. The climate conversation under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) epitomises such a case. With near-universal membership – 197 countries are Parties to the Convention – the multilateral process of the UNFCCC retains its centrality in global efforts to address climate change.

I had the honour and pleasure of being a member of the University of Oxford Delegation to the UNFCCC COP23 in Bonn last November and personally witnessed how countries come together to try to improve global climate governance. COP23 took place at a sensitive time; the Trump administration had just announced its intention to leave the Paris Agreement and such an undiplomatic action from the world’s second-largest producer of carbon dioxide brought uncertainty and confusion to a topic already laden with emotions. The timely diplomatic gathering underscored the necessity of building high-level political support in climate cooperation, and arguably, inspired two of the most important international actors – the EU and China – to step up their cooperation to address climate change.

Political leadership

Building upon the Convention and with its goal of ‘keeping a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels’, the Paris Agreement is the historic achievement of multilateralism for the international community. Key to such a success was strong political commitment from the highest level of governments across more than 190 countries. The potential void left by the US in global climate governance may act as the catalyst for a new era of multilateral climate diplomacy; more than ever before, climate mitigation requires robust political leadership and concerted diplomatic efforts. As UN Secretary General António Guterres affirms, ‘If one country decides to leave a void, I can guarantee someone else will occupy it’. Indeed, as European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete said during his high-level visit to China, ‘The EU and China are joining forces to forge ahead on the implementation of the Paris Agreement and accelerate the global transition to clean energy. Our successful cooperation on issues like emissions trading and clean technologies are bearing fruit. Now is the time to further strengthen these ties to keep the wheels turning for ambitious global climate action’.

The EU and China are both parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and both have a critical role to play in addressing climate change. The EU has endeavoured to provide leadership in international climate diplomacy since the UNFCCC was adopted in 1992. Keen to project its values and norms regarding sustainability and green growth beyond its borders, the EU has been at the forefront of pushing for stringent international commitments and a major driving force for emission reduction targets.

China aspires to be the champion of action against climate change. China sees its efforts in coordinating both domestic and international dimensions of climate mitigation as a pathway to the country’s transition towards a low-carbon economy, and to affirm its responsible great power role in international affairs.

In light of this political logic, the EU and China institutionalised their cooperation in the climate field with the establishment of the EU-China Partnership on Climate Change in 2005. The partnership provides ‘a high-level political framework’ that sets out concrete climate actions and includes ‘a regular review of progress’ in the context of the annual EU-China Summit. Both sides are committed to ‘tackl[ing] the serious challenges of climate change through practical and results-driven cooperation’ (Joint Statement of the 8th EU-China Summit).

Decarbonisation action

Closely intertwined with the progress of the UN-led international climate negotiations is the strengthening of national and regional decarbonisation policies. Putting a price on carbon, in the form of carbon tax or emissions trading (cap-and trade system), is a valuable market-based policy instrument for climate mitigation and has become a central pillar of global climate governance.

The cooperation between the EU and China on emissions trading constitutes an important area of decarbonisation. Albeit not a new area of conversation, emissions trading is particularly germane to meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets from large emitters through a market-based approach. Putting a price on carbon and creating a carbon market plays an essential role in the EU and China’s transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

The EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) is intricately linked to the global leadership role that the EU aspires to play. The EU’s ETS is the world’s oldest and biggest emissions trading market, accounting for over three-quarters of international carbon trading. The EU’s climate diplomacy aims to encourage other countries to commit to emissions reduction targets, and to gradually encourage building a global carbon trading market.

China has launched emissions trading market pilots across seven cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangdong, Hubei and Shenzhen – paving the way for the national ETS which was launched at the end of 2017. The EU cooperated closely with China to support the design and implementation of China’s ETS. China has already reached its 2020 carbon emission target three years ahead of schedule largely due to China’s carbon trading system. EU-China cooperation on carbon markets speaks to the fact that effective coordination between developing and developed regions in tackling climate change enhances the progress of climate mitigation. 


Tackling climate change requires top-level political leadership and resolve to make diplomatic mechanisms more effective. Carbon has no passport; effective mitigation of climate change requires deeper and wider international cooperation. Reconciling climate change diplomacy and decarbonisation policy requires the dual focus of long-term strategic vision and ever closer collective action.

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About the author(s)
Lucie Qian Xia
Research Student