Environment

The Role of NGOs in China’s Climate Change Governance

The role of NGOs in China’s climate change governance, and in environmental issues more generally, is fundamentally different than that of its counterparts in Western countries in many respects.

Non-government organizations (NGOs) have been important actors in international climate negotiations, including the achievement of the recent Paris Agreement. However, the role NGOs play in climate governance can differ across countries as a result of differing political, legislative, and even cultural contexts.  As the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, China is engaged in the challenging process of low-carbon development, with increasing urgency as a result of domestic pressures due to severe air pollution and international pressures due to rising emissions.  Yet low-carbon development may not be achievable through exclusive reliance on top-down management and voluntary actions by the business sector.  The participation of NGOs as a central element of civil society could be crucial.

However, as explained in an Advanced Review recently published in WIREs Climate Change, the role of NGOs in China’s climate change governance, and in environmental issues more generally, is fundamentally different than that of its counterparts in Western countries in many respects. Instead of being a critical “gadfly” or interest group, urging government action in a particular direction, Chinese climate NGOs are usually more of a supplement to government climate change efforts, and can act as a bridge between the state and the rest of society as well as interested actors on the international scene (for instance through participation in UNFCC activities).

There are many advantages as well as disadvantages to this role, in terms of effecting positive climate actions, and there are different kinds of NGOs, from purely domestic organizations to those supported by an international network. Climate change is still a relatively new topic for China’s NGOs, and it has been difficult to differentiate the involvement of NGOs in climate change issues from their involvement in environmental issues more generally.  Overall, the role of NGOs in China’s climate change governance can be said to have four primary features: partnership with the state within a limited political space; organizational development limited by inadequate professional capacity; strong reliance on international financial reliance but with growing domestic support; and increasing public advocacy but with low social recognition.

Kindly contributed by Tong Wu.

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