Unilateral or Reciprocal Climate Policy? Experimental Evidence from China

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2463

Article | Open Access

Unilateral or Reciprocal Climate Policy? Experimental Evidence from China


  • Thomas Bernauer ETH Zürich, Center for Comparative and International Studies, Switzerland
  • Liang Dong China Foreign Affairs University, Institute of Asian Studies, China
  • Liam F. McGrath ETH Zürich, Center for Comparative and International Studies, Switzerland
  • Irina Shaymerdenova ETH Zürich, Center for Comparative and International Studies, Switzerland
  • Haibin Zhang Peking University, School of International Studies, China


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Abstract:  The traditional political economy account of global climate change governance directs our attention to fundamental collective action problems associated with global public goods provision, resulting from positive or negative externalities as well as freeriding. The governance architecture of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol uses the traditional approaches of international diplomacy for addressing such challenges: legally binding commitments based on principles of reciprocity and (fair) cost/burden sharing via formalized carbon-budgeting. Yet, the 2015 Paris Agreement has essentially abandoned this approach, as it now operates on the basis of internationally coordinated and monitored unilateralism. On the presumption that public opinion matters for government policy, we examine how citizens view this shift in climate policy from reciprocity to unilateralism, after many years of exposure to strong reciprocity rhetoric by governments and stakeholders. To that end, we fielded a survey experiment in China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter. The results show that there is, perhaps surprisingly, strong and robust public support for unilateral, non-reciprocal climate policy. To the extent China is interested in pushing ahead with ambitious and thus costly GHG reduction policies, our results suggest that China can leverage segments of public support in order to overcome domestic obstacles to GHG mitigation policies.

Keywords:  China; climate policy; reciprocity; unilateralism

Published:   8 September 2016


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v4i3.650


© Thomas Bernauer, Liang Dong, Liam F. McGrath, Irina Shaymerdenova, Haibin Zhang. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.