New Partners? The EU and China in international climate governance


In current international climate governance many eyes are on the EU and China as two of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Since the Trump administration announced the US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement their relationship in the climate realm has changed considerably. But how do they view their own roles as ‘partners for the planet’? Julia Gurol and Anna Starkmann analyze this question from a role theoretical perspective. They argue that EU-China relations bear a lot of potential for closer collaboration on climate issues.

With the global pandemic ravaging economies worldwide, questions of climate change and how to address it, have slightly got out of focus. Yet, with the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP) in the UK, the adverse effects of the deteriorating climate are brought back to the table of international negotiations and discussions. In that context, all eyes are on China. As one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, a rising power yet also a still developing economy, the People’s Republic plays a crucial role that might determine the failure or success of many international climate measures. Ever since the Trump administration announced the withdrawal of the US from the 2015 Paris Agreement (PA), China’s role in international climate governance has been brought to the fore. Together with the EU, China had been eager to fill the resulting leadership vacuum left by the US in 2017. The two major emitters reaffirmed their commitment to the PA and intensified their cooperation on climate change. Despite prevailing tensions in other policy fields, EU-China climate cooperation has evolved over time from rather technical to high-level political cooperation. In our article, we discuss the complex relationship between the EU and China in international climate governance and seek to answer the question of how they view their own roles and responsibilities to combat climate change. In a nutshell, we argue that none of the two can tackle this issue unilaterally and that therefore, they have become new ‘partners for the planet’ – albeit with a complicated relationship.


Role-theory as a useful approach to climate cooperation between the EU and China

Applying role-theory to the analysis of this relationship helps us to identify three things. First, we can shed light on how the EU and China regard themselves as actors in international climate governance. This is called ‘self-conception’. Second, we can identify the external expectations of other actors concerning how the EU and China should navigate in international climate governance. And last but not least, role-theory helps to uncover the changes of these self-conceptions and expectations over time and therefore also to explain the changing relationship between the EU and China. In short: by using this approach, we seek to take into account both external factors as well as the actors’ positions and thoughts.


The roles of the EU and China from Copenhagen to the US withdrawal from the PA

EU-China climate relations are heavily influenced by critical events in global climate politics.  Specifically, we identify three events that contributed to the recent increase in climate cooperation and a development from technical towards political cooperation, despite the overall political constraints in EU-China relations: the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, the PA in 2015, and the US’ announced withdrawal from the PA in 2017.

How did these events shape the roles of the EU and China in climate governance? The EU has considered itself a leader since the beginning of international climate cooperation. It has asserted its normative power status by a strategy of “leading by example” and advocating for strong international rules and binding agreements. However, the 2009 COP in Copenhagen revealed a discrepancy between the EU’s self-conception as unilateral leader and external role expectations and recognitions. At this conference parties failed to agree on a follow-up agreement for the Kyoto Protocol, and the EU was sidelined in the negotiations. Consequently, the EU had to adapt its role performance. It became a “leadiator”, a combination of a leader and a mediator, actively building bridges between other actors.

China, on the other hand, has long understood its own role as that of a developing country, with the right to economic growth and development, and hence claimed a “right to emit”. Consequently, it placed the responsibility to mitigate climate change and curb emissions exclusively on the historical culprits for climate change, i.e. the US, Europe, and other highly industrialized nations. While China still makes strategic use of this weak power face, China has since the run-up to the PA undergone a tremendous role change, towards a more proactive policy creator, willing to accept responsibility and peak its emissions. This role change was affected by ambiguous internal role conceptions between developing country role and great power aspirations as well as clashing external expectations to play an active role as the world’s largest emitter of CO2 emissions since 2006.

Consequently, the first critical juncture was the 2009 COP, which led to a to a role adaption of the EU role towards a bridge-builder supplementing its leadership claims in international climate governance. The second critical event was the PA, which became possible due to the of role change of China from a policy-taker or even policy-negator towards a policy-maker in climate change. The third critical juncture was the US’s withdrawal from the PA, which created a leadership vacuum, opening a window of opportunity for the EU and China to readjust their positions in the international climate governance system and fostered EU-China cooperation.


Conclusion and Outlook

In short, we argue that internal role conceptions influence the behaviour of the EU and China in international negotiations and bilateral cooperation. Also, conflicts between different self-perceptions of actors (the conflict between China’s developing country and major power role) or between internal conceptions and external expectations (the EU’s international leader role conception, which turned out not to be widely shared in Copenhagen and external expectations on China as major emitter that stood in contrast to China’s self-conception as developing country) led to a change in role performance.

Thereby, the roles of the EU and China have become more compatible which led to increased cooperation efforts in the realm of climate change. However, this does not mean there are no disagreements between the two actors. While the 2019 EU Strategic Outlook on China underlines the need for cooperation between the EU and China because the “partnership is essential for the success of global climate action”, there is also criticism of China’s investments in coal energy and a clear call to swiftly peak its emissions. This implies that the EU is unsure whether China lives up to its role as a leader.

What can we expect from EU-China relations in the realm of climate policy looking forward? With the European Green Deal, the EU firmly reaffirmed its role conception as a global leader. The communication also expressed the EU’s ambition to reinforce bilateral cooperation and explicitly pointed to opportunities for strengthening the partnership with China. Thus, much hints at deepening ties in the future despite existing disagreements. Accordingly, the EU and China could indeed be new partners for the planet when it comes to mitigating the adverse effects of climate change. The future will show whether the US under the new Biden administration, who has already announced to re-enter the agreement, will join this partnership or alter the EU-China relationship on climate issues.


This blog post draws on JCMS article, “New Partners for the Planet? The European Union and China in International Climate Governance from a Role-Theoretical Perspective.”

Dr Julia Gurol is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Chair for International Relations at Freiburg University. Her research focuses on global governance in the Global South, EU-China (security relations), Chinese foreign policy and transregional authoritarian practices.

Twitter: @JuliaGurol


Anna Starkmann’s research focuses on international climate and environmental governance, EU external climate policy, regional organizations and comparative regionalism.

Twitter: @anna_starkm