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China and Climate Change: Domestic Environmental Needs, Differentiated International Responsibilities, and Rule of Law Weaknesses

Patricia Ross McCubbin

Southern Illinois University School of Law


Energy & Environmental Law & Policy Journal, Vol. 3, 2008

China recently become the world's largest emitter by volume of greenhouse gases. As the U.S. moves forward with domestic efforts to restrict its GHG emissions, some policymakers will continue to condition any U.S. obligations on China's commitments to curb its own emissions. Fortunately, the opportunity exists for a mutually beneficial U.S.-China dialogue on this issue, since, as this article makes clear, China's central government recognizes that climate change could cause devastating sea level rises that will affect major population centers in the country, as well as droughts and other natural disasters. The central government likewise understands that measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly improved energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy sources, will also help alleviate the very serious public health threats posed by the high levels of other air pollutants released from the coal-fired power plants that account for 70% of the energy production in the country. Thus, the Chinese leaders are attempting to identify and implement means to reign in air pollution for both domestic and international benefit.

Nevertheless, as this article discusses, there are economic, social and legal challenges in China that make any efforts to address environmental issues difficult. One of those challenges is the tremendous poverty of the vast majority of the citizenry, who have not yet benefited from the explosive growth of China's economy during the last 25 years. As a result, while environmental protection is of great importance to the central government, its single most pressing goal is continued economic development. This article analyzes the implications of that economic reality for any dialog with China about climate change, whether in the context of the post-Kyoto negotiations among all the nations of the world or in other discussions among a select group of the major developed and developing countries.

Another challenge is the inability of the central government - despite what we might expect in this "state controlled" society - to actually get its policies implemented at the local and provincial level. Weak enforcement penalties, the absence of an independent judiciary, the limited role for citizen suits, and corruption of local and provincial officials and judges all contribute to the absence of a true rule of law. This article explores the extent to which any multilateral agreement on climate change can and should seek changes from China in its legal regime that would be essential to ensuring the success of any Chinese commitments to control greenhouse gases.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 44

Keywords: environmental law, China, EPA, greenhouse gases, climate change, global warming, Kyoto Protocol, rule of law, international law

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Date posted: August 9, 2008  

Suggested Citation

McCubbin, Patricia Ross, China and Climate Change: Domestic Environmental Needs, Differentiated International Responsibilities, and Rule of Law Weaknesses (2008). Energy & Environmental Law & Policy Journal, Vol. 3, 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1212562

Contact Information

Patricia Ross McCubbin (Contact Author)
Southern Illinois University School of Law ( email )
1150 Douglas Drive
Mailcode 6804
Carbondale, IL 62901-6804
United States
618-453-8759 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.siu.edu/fac_staff/mccubbin/
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