China and climate justice: moving beyond statism

  • Paul G. HarrisEmail author
  • Alice S. Y. Chow
  • Rasmus Karlsson
Original Paper


China is the largest national source of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution causing climate change. However, despite some rhetorical progress at the 2011 Durban climate conference, it has consistently rejected calls to take on binding targets to reduce its GHG emissions. The Chinese Government has understandably argued that developed states are responsible for the predominant share of historical GHG emissions, have greater capacity to pay for the cost of mitigation, and indeed have an obligation to do so before China is required to take action. However, due to the explosive growth in its GHG emissions, China is now in a position to single-handedly dash any hope of climate stability if its position does not change. On the diplomatic level, other big polluters, particularly the United States, will not enter into new binding agreements to reduce substantially their own GHG emissions without a credible commitment from China. Challenging the “statist” framing of the climate justice, this article explores the possibility for China to take on a leadership role in climate change diplomacy in a way that allows it to maintain its long-standing principled resistance to binding national emissions targets while making meaningful progress toward combating the problem. Action by China’s rapidly growing affluent classes may hold the key to long-term climate stability.


China Climate change Climate justice International justice Responsibility Statism 



Ability-to-pay principle


Beneficiary-pays principle


Carbon dioxide


Equalized-mitigation-costs principle


Greenhouse gas


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change




Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development


Polluter-pays principle


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change



Research was fully supported by the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (General Research Fund Project No. HKIEd 340309, Principal Investigator: Paul G. Harris). Rasmus Karlsson gratefully acknowledges support from the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Research Fund of 2012.


  1. Agarwal, A., & Narain, S. (1991). Global warming in an unequal world. New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.Google Scholar
  2. Baer, P., Athanasiou, T., Kartha, S., & Kemp-Benedict, E. (2009). Greenhouse development rights: A proposal for a fair global climate treaty. Ethics, Place and Environment, 12(3), 267–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beckerman, W., & Passek, J. (1995). The equitable international allocation of tradable carbon emission permits. Global Environmental Change, 5(5), 405–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boston Consulting Group. (2009). China’s luxury market in a post-land-rush era. Boston: Boston Consulting Group.Google Scholar
  5. Botzen, W. J. W., Gowdy, J. M., & van den Bergh, J. C. J. M. (2008). Cumulative CO2 emissions: Shifting international responsibilities for climate debt. Climate Policy, 8, 569–576.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. British Petroleum. (2011). BP statistical review of world energy.
  7. Butt, D. (2007). On benefiting from injustice. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 37, 129–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Caney, S. (2006). Environmental degradation, reparations and the moral significance of history. Journal of Social Philosophy, 37(3), 464–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Caney, S. (2010). Climate change and the duties of the advantaged. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 13(1), 203–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. CDC Climat. (2011). China’s 12th 5-year plan: Carbon market(s) in sight. Climate Brief No. 5 (June).Google Scholar
  11. Chakravarty, S., Chikkatur, A., de Coninck, H., Pacala, S., Socolowa, R., & Massimo, T. (2009). Sharing global CO2 emission reductions among one billion high emitters. PNAS, 106(29), 11884–11888.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. China Climate Change Info-Net. (2008). Remarks at the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change (President Hu Jintao).
  13. China Daily. (2011). China to accept binding climate treaty with conditions, China Daily.Google Scholar
  14. Chinadialogue. (2010). China’s Interest must come first.
  15. CO2 Scorecard Group. (2011). China.
  16. Cripps, E. (2011). Where we are now: Climate ethics and future challenges. Climate Law, 2, 117–133.Google Scholar
  17. Croll, E. (2006). China’s new consumers. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. Feng, K., Hubacek, K., & Guan, D. (2009). Lifestyles, technology and CO2 emissions in China: A regional comparative analysis. Ecological Economics, 69, 145–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gallup (2010) Americansglobal warming concerns continue to drop.
  20. Gardiner, S. (2004). Ethics and global climate change. Ethics, 114, 555–600.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gardiner, S. (2011). A perfect moral storm. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Garnaut, R. (2011). The Garnaut review 2011. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Golley, J., Meagher, D., & Meng, X. (2008). Chinese urban household energy requirements and CO2 emissions. In L. Song & W. T. Woo (Eds.), China’s Dilemma (pp. 334–366). Canberra: ANU E Press and Asia Pacific Press.Google Scholar
  24. Gosseries, A. (2004). Historical emissions and free-riding. Ethical Perspectives, 11, 36–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Grubb, M. (1995). Seeking fair weather: Ethics and the international debate on climate change. International Affairs, 71(3), 463–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Harris, P. G. (2010a). Misplaced ethics of climate change: Political vs. environmental geography. Ethics, Place and Environment, 13(2), 215–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Harris, P. G. (2010b). World ethics and climate change. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Harris, P. G. (Ed.). (2011). China’s responsibility for climate change. Bristol: Policy Press.Google Scholar
  29. Heggelund, G. (2007). China’s climate change policy: Domestic and international developments. Asian Perspective, 31(2), 155–191.Google Scholar
  30. Heyward, M. (2007). Equity and international climate change negotiations: A matter of perspective. Climate Policy, 7, 518–534.Google Scholar
  31. Hu, A., & Guan, Q. (2008). Fighting global climate change: China’s contribution. Journal of Contemporary Asia-Pacific Studies, 4, 7–25. (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  32. Hu, A., & Guan, Q. (2009). China’s role in dealing with global climate change. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  33. Hurth, V., & Wells, P. (2007). Averting catastrophic climate change: Confronting wealth. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 2(1), 63–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2007). Climate change 2007: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Kellenberg, D. K. (2009). An empirical investigation of the pollution haven effect with strategic environment and trade policy. Journal of International Economics, 78, 242–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kent, P. (2011). “Statement by Minister Kent”, Media Release. Gatineau: Environment Canada.Google Scholar
  37. Klinsky, S., & Dowlatabadi, H. (2009). Conceptualizations of justice in climate policy. Climate Policy, 9, 88–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lange, A., Vogt, C., & Ziegler, A. (2007). On the importance of equity in international climate policy: An empirical analysis. Energy Economics, 29, 545–562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Lewis, J. (2007). China’s strategic priorities in international climate change negotiations. The Washington Quarterly, 31(1), 155–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. McKibben, W., & Wilcoxen, P. (2002). Climate change after Kyoto: A blueprint for a realistic approach. Brookings Review, 20(2), 7–10.Google Scholar
  41. McKinsey & Company. (2009). The coming of age. Shanghai: Insights China by McKinsey & Company.Google Scholar
  42. Miliband, E. (2009). The road from Copenhagen. Guardian (London).Google Scholar
  43. Miller, D. (2009). Global justice and climate change: How should responsibilities be distributed? In G. Peterson (Ed.), The tanner lectures on human values. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press.Google Scholar
  44. Monastersky, R. (2009). A burden beyond bearing. Nature, 458, 1091–1094.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Myers, N., & Kent, J. (2003). New consumers: The influence on affluence on the environment. PNAS, 100(8), 4963–4968.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. National Bureau of Statistics of China. (2011). China statistical yearbook 2010. Beijing: China Statistics Press.Google Scholar
  47. Pan, J. (2003). Emissions rights and their transferability: Equity concerns over climate change mitigation. International Environmental Agreements, 3, 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Parry, M., Palutikof, J., Hanson, C., & Lowe, J. (2008). Squaring up to reality. Nature Reports Climate Change, 2, 1–3.Google Scholar
  49. Raupach, M., Marland, G., Ciais, P., Le Quere, C., Canadell, J. G., Klepper, C., et al. (2007). Global and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(24), 10288–10293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Ringius, L., Torvanger, A., & Underdal, A. (2002). Burden sharing and fairness principles in international climate policy. International Environmental Agreements, 2, 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Rose, A., Stevens, B., Edmonds, J., & Wise, M. (1998). International equity and differentiation in global warming policy: An application to tradable emission permits. Environmental and Resource Economics, 12(1), 25–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Saran, S. (2010). Irresistible forces and immovable objects: A debate on contemporary climate politics. Climate Policy, 10, 678–683.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Schokkaert, E., & Eyckmans, J. (1998). Greenhouse negotiations and the mirage of partial justice. In M. Dore & T. Mount (Eds.), Global environmental economics (pp. 193–217). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  54. Schussler, R. (2011). Climate change: A question of historic justice? Journal of Global Ethics, 7(3), 261–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Sheehan, P. (2008). The new global growth path: Implications for climate change and policy. Climatic Change, 91, 211–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Shue, H. (1993). Subsistence emissions and luxury emissions. Law and Policy, 15(1), 39–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Shue, H. (1999). Global environment and international inequality. International Affairs, 75(3), 531–545.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. State Council Environmental Protection Commission. (1995). Document Collection of the State Council’s Environmental Protection Commission. Beijing: China Environmental Science Press (in Chinese).Google Scholar
  59. Traxler, M. (2002). Fair chore division for climate change. Social Theory and Practice, 28(1), 101–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. United Kingdom Parliament. (2007). Joint Committee on the Draft Climate Change Bill: Minutes of evidence, examination of witness (Questions 780–799).Google Scholar
  61. Vanderheiden, S. (2008). Atmospheric justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Wang, T., & Watson, J. (2008). China’s carbon emissions and international trade: Implications for post-2012 policy. Climate Policy, 8, 577–587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Wei, S. (2007). China’s actions on climate change: Briefing on China’s National Climate Change Programme. Beijing: National Development and Reform Commission.Google Scholar
  64. Wen, J. (2009). Build consensus and strengthen cooperation to advance the historic process of combating climate change. Address by Premier Wen Jiabao at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit.Google Scholar
  65. Zhang, H. (2010). Climate change and China’s national security. Beijing: Shi Shi Publishing House (in Chinese).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul G. Harris
    • 1
    Email author
  • Alice S. Y. Chow
    • 1
  • Rasmus Karlsson
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Social SciencesHong Kong Institute of EducationTai PoHong Kong
  2. 2.Department of U-PeaceHankuk University of Foreign StudiesSeoulSouth Korea

Personalised recommendations