China’s domestic agenda and the global politics of geoengineering

Given the fractious nature of international climate politics, an emerging global governance framework for geoengineering could be derailed if China is not fully engaged in the process

Should we fear future international conflict over geoengineering of the earth’s climate? As the impacts of climate change become more apparent, might China and the United States take such divergent approaches that cooperative global governance of geoengineering will be impossible? Careful analysis of Chinese domestic political factors suggests that a feared scenario in which unilateral Chinese implementation of geoengineering triggers international conflict is highly unlikely, although not impossible.

A recent debate in chinadialogue over the capacity for international negotiations to prompt domestic action on climate change has highlighted the importance of transnational interaction for national climate politics. Where Li Shuo of Greenpeace China argues that international agreements spur domestic Chinese efforts, Thomas Hale questions the potential for the UNFCCC negotiation process to constrain national GHG emissions; rather, he argues that external actors can best influence national climate polices through strategic engagement with domestic policymaking.

Hale cites the recent Xi-Obama Sunnylands agreement to regulate HFCs under the Montreal Protocol as a case where international negotiations strengthened the hand of reform advocates within China, and so shifted the balance of domestic political forces. In Hale’s account effective international interventions must be strategic and engaged with domestic policy debates.

In an article in The Pacific Review, we consider the Chinese domestic policy factors and transnational interactions that will ultimately shape the international governance of solar radiation management (SRM). SRM refers to forms of intentional geoengineering of the planetary environment that seek to counteract climate change by blocking the absorption of solar energy.

While there are many possible forms of SRM, most discussion currently surrounds techniques that would reflect sunlight by dispersing sulphate particles in the upper atmosphere. We know from previous volcanic eruptions that stratospheric sulphates have the capacity to cool the planet and studies suggest that the warming impact of GHG emissions could be negated by SRM for a fraction of the cost of constraining emissions.

Although SRM has economic appeal, it is widely viewed as an undesirable fallback measure because a planet cooled by SRM would possess novel atmospheric chemistry; the environmental consequences are not fully understood but would include changes in rainfall and weather patterns, continued ocean acidification and potential harm to the ozone layer.

Despite the obvious pitfalls, the continuing failure of global climate negotiations to arrest GHG emissions growth means that some form of planetary intervention seems increasingly inevitable. It is testament to this growing interest that the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014) will, for the first time, review the science of geoengineering.

Since SRM could be initiated by any technologically capable country, but would have profound global implications, it creates a serious global governance challenge. Some scholars, including Clive Hamilton in a recent chinadialogue interview, have worried that China might be tempted to implement SRM unilaterally. Fortunately, however, early steps toward strategic international engagement over SRM have been promising. In September 2011 a group of international scientists involved in the non-governmental SRM Governance Initiative (SRMGI) conducted high-level meetings with Chinese scientists and government officials. These meetings raised SRM’s profile in China and have coincided with increasing interest within Chinese scientific funding bodies.

The result has been that the first serious discussion of SRM in China has occurred within an internationally connected scientific community. This context has reduced the likelihood that governance of SRM will be framed as an attempt by the developed West to impose restrictions on China’s development in the name of environmental protection. Early international scientific engagement also increases the possibility that states will share common perceptions concerning the costs and benefits of SRM. Shared conceptual perceptions of SRM are likely to ensure that perceptions concerning state interests also converge, and so are key to lowering the probability of future conflict.

Our research shows that there is currently more convergence than divergence between the public discussions of geoengineering in China and in the developed world. Media coverage of geoengineering in China mainly appears in the form of articles translated from Western sources, such as The Guardian or The Economist. As in the developed world, such coverage has shifted in a relatively short period from incredulous reporting of seemingly outlandish schemes toward more serious consideration of the pros and cons of various technologies.

Despite this reliance on foreign news sources and the reluctance of the Chinese media to investigate China’s possible role in research and implementation of SRM, indigenous voices are beginning to emerge in the geoengineering debate in China. Senior scholar-officials such as Ding Yihui and Fang Jingyun have made public comments about geoengineering and will likely play an important role in shaping Chinese policy. Ding, who is the Deputy Director of the National Climate Change Experts Committee, has said that geoengineering technologies should only be used if we reach a point of sudden, irreversible change.

However, Fang, who headed an important 2009 project that investigated China’s climate change research strategy and in 2010 became a panel member on the InterAcademy Council’s UN-sponsored review of the IPCC, has stated that study of the feasibility and impact of geoengineering technologies should begin ‘as soon as possible’.

The open discussion in the Chinese media and the broad range of views put forward by Chinese experts indicate that there is not yet any official government position on geoengineering. China’s limited contribution to a 2010 debate over a partial international moratorium is also consistent with this supposition. Given this vacuum, it seems likely that China’s scientific community – which is increasingly internationally networked – will have a real capacity to influence emerging policies.

While there is no shortage of media attention to geoengineering in China, actual research and implementation of SRM technology is much harder to locate. Despite the Chinese state’s expertise in weather modification and utilitarian attitude toward reshaping the natural world for human use, China has not been quick to embrace SRM research.

If anything, China is only now beginning to follow the lead of countries such as Germany and the UK and engage with the geoengineering issue at a policy level. In the last two years geoengineering has been included in the list of priority research topics eligible for government geoscience funding, but it is still unclear how many Chinese scientists have actually applied for grants and how much money the state is investing in such projects. Fang’s call for more geoengineering research may have more to do with ensuring China stays abreast of international developments than with any desire to actually implement SRM technology in the foreseeable future.  

The current convergence between Chinese and global debates over geoengineering make it more likely that as China proceeds toward SRM research, and possible implementation, it will do so in a way that aligns with developing international norms. However, this does not mean we can assume cooperation is inevitable. Given the fractious nature of international climate politics as well as the general potential for friction between China and the US in their bilateral interaction, a nascent global governance framework for geoengineering could be derailed if China is not engaged fully in the process.

A geoengineering regime negotiated without Chinese involvement will be vulnerable to charges of Western ‘eco-imperialism’ regardless of whether it takes a relatively permissive or restrictive stance towards SRM research and implementation. China’s desire to maintain a leadership role in the G77 might also see it seeking a distinctive ‘developing world’ perspective on geoengineering. The prospect of future implementation of SRM may free China to maintain its strict interpretation of the norm of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ by reassuring vulnerable developing states that they can continue to take a hard line in global climate negotiations without fear of environmental catastrophe.

The important differences between China’s political system and those of states in the developed West can make it difficult for outside observers to understand China’s national climate politics. However, strategic international engagement with domestic Chinese debates over geoengineering is vital if a cooperative SRM governance framework is to emerge.

Opponents of geoengineering may be unhappy with any attempt to legitimise SRM technology, but if Chinese perceptions of its risks and opportunities are in alignment with an emerging international consensus then at least any eventual moves toward implementation should occur in a context of multilateral cooperation.