Screen-shot-2011-06-06-at-9.54.58-PM1-248x300This article first appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of Yale:Environment.

In Cancún, China Changes Its Image

By Angel Hsu and Yupu Zhao


The U.N.-led climate talks in Cancún last December were largely touted as a success. Countries reached near consensus on critical issues, such as technology transfer and the creation of a new Green Climate Fund to help developing countries adapt to global warming. The standing ovation for the Mexican hosts that erupted in the summit’s final plenary session came in stark contrast to the Copenhagen summit’s glum finish behind closed doors.

Another marked change in Cancún was China’s tone and communications strategy, which were criticized during and after Copenhagen. Copenhagen was a watershed event for China. In the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, Beijing voluntarily committed to reducing carbon intensity by 40 percent to 45 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels, breaking a precedent of avoiding specific emissions targets. By making this pledge, as well as by recognizing that it would not be first in line to receive financial assistance from developed countries for adaptation and mitigation measures, China stepped into a leadership role. Despite these efforts, the country’s relative lack of experience in climate diplomacy doomed it to be Copenhagen’s scapegoat.

“China was surprised by the emphasis on MRV (measurement, reporting and verification of emissions reductions) in Copenhagen and the negative media attention it received, since it felt like it had brought a lot to the table by agreeing to reduce its carbon intensity and taking significant steps to improve energy efficiency and renewables,” said Alvin Lin, China climate and energy policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Transparency of emissions data has been a key sticking point for the United States in climate negotiations. In Copenhagen, U.S. delegates, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry, insisted that major emerging economies, like China and India, must be transparent about their emissions before the United States would enact climate legislation and provide climate aid. China reluctantly agreed to international consultation and analysis of its climate pledges—a less-stringent version of MRV required of developed countries.

China learned that it needed to improve its climate diplomacy and revamp its image to avoid shouldering further blame, particularly if the Cancún talks failed. The government started by releasing domestic media accounts that portrayed China’s role in Copenhagen as constructive. Then, in October, China hosted its first U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in Tianjin. That meeting before Cancún was a prime opportunity for China to showcase itself and reaffirm its commitment to the UNFCCC process. But, while Tianjin provided Chinese media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with ample training, eyes were really turned to Cancún, anticipating China’s performance after the previous year’s public relations fiasco.

So how did China’s strategy change in Mexico? First, China assumed a much lower profile than it had in Copenhagen. In Denmark, China joined other countries in setting up a pavilion in the Bella Center, where experts gave lectures and senior members of the negotiation team held daily press conferences. But among Cancún’s pavilions, China’s was notably absent.

Second, the Chinese negotiation team’s public comments were muted in Cancún. A New York Times article pointed out that Chinese negotiators avoided mention of the United States, instead “obliquely” referring to it as an “Annex I country that is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol,” which was a far cry from the Sino-U.S. blame game that erupted in Tianjin. The language was so restrained that major media organizations prematurely reported that the United States and China were close to brokering a deal on MRV before the two delegations had even met.

In Copenhagen, Chinese officials were elusive when they opposed MRV on grounds of violating the country’s national sovereignty. But leading up to Cancún, Chinese officials were forthcoming. Xie Zhenhua, vice minister of China’s National Development and Reform Commission and head of the Chinese delegation, said in Chinadialogue that “China will be transparent.”

Chinese civil society organizations also helped refashion the country’s image in Cancún. A coalition of China-based NGOs was active in organizing side events and distributing materials that showcased China’s climate success stories. U.S. and Chinese youth emphasized the need to build trust based on dialogue and mutual understanding. And Chinese and U.S.-based NGOs, taking their cue from youth collaborators, formalized a long-term plan for cooperation. Meanwhile, the private Chinese company Broad Air Conditioning demonstrated its sustainable building technologies at an off-site “Chinese pavilion” that was marked on shuttle bus maps.

Chinese media also worked hard to portray China positively in Cancún, helped by the negotiation team’s efforts to make themselves available for interviews. China Daily, for instance, produced two 16-page glossy specials that were distributed during the first and second weeks of the Cancún summit and covered various aspects of China’s actions on climate change, such as efforts to promote low-carbon growth in cities and international collaboration on clean energy.

Cancún failed to determine whether the new climate agreements are legally binding or to resolve what to do when the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012—two key questions for China and other major developing countries. Will China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, be more conciliatory, as it was in Cancún, or hold its ground as it did in Copenhagen? What we do know is that China’s nascent climate diplomacy will be tested before the next major climate meeting in Durban, South Africa, in December.

This edited commentary originally ran in China Dialogue (  Angel Hsu is a Ph.D. candidate and Yupu Zhao is a master’s candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.  Both represented the Yale Climate and Energy Institute as COP-16 Fellows in Cancún.