Menu Expand



Zhao, Y. The Chinese Approach to International Environmental Law. German Yearbook of International Law, 64(1), 179-209.
Zhao, Yuhong "The Chinese Approach to International Environmental Law" German Yearbook of International Law 64.1, 2022, 179-209.
Zhao, Yuhong (2022): The Chinese Approach to International Environmental Law, in: German Yearbook of International Law, vol. 64, iss. 1, 179-209, [online]


The Chinese Approach to International Environmental Law

Zhao, Yuhong

German Yearbook of International Law, Vol. 64 (2021), Iss. 1 : pp. 179–209

Additional Information

Article Details


Author Details

Yuhong Zhao, Faculty of Law, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.


Modern international environmental law, shaped by the Stockholm Conference (1972), Rio Summit (1992), and Paris Climate Conference (2015), tackles global environmental challenges through its unique approach to the allocation of responsibilities, institution building, and compliance mechanisms. As the world’s biggest developing country and second largest economy, China’s position and practice of international environmental law are crucial to global environmental governance. This article examines the Chinese approach to international environmental law from a historical perspective and in the context of domestic socio-economic development through the Mao, Deng, and Xi regimes, with a special focus on China’s participation in the landmark UN conferences in Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro, and Paris. It first reviews the profound impact of the Stockholm Conference (1972) on China’s awakening to environmental issues during the Mao regime (1966 – 1976) and explains the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ that has guided China’s interaction with the world. Secondly, it explores how Deng’s pragmatic leadership, focusing on economic reform and opening-up to the world, has transformed China from a passive participant at the periphery of the international legal order to an active member of established legal regimes by signing and ratifying environmental treaties and advocating the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities for fair allocation of legal obligations at the Rio Summit (1992). The article addresses how China under Xi responds to new greater expectations of a rising China in the construction of the post-2020 climate regime. Fourthly, it reflects on change and continuity of the Chinese approach to international environmental law over the fifty-year journey beginning in Stockholm and argues that while enhanced economic power has seen a more assertive and confident China making commitments under the Paris Agreement (2015), the unwavering adherence to sovereign equality and right to development has remained unshaken. The article concludes with the prospect that a politically stable and economically prosperous China will be more capable of delivering its climate commitments as a responsible great power in a world that is increasingly divided by intensifying nationalism, regional conflicts and ideological struggles.

Table of Contents

Section Title Page Action Price
Yuhong Zhao\nThe Chinese Approach to International Environmental Law 179
I. Introduction 180
II. Early Exposure to International Environmental Law 181
III. Active Participation Since the Reform Era 184
A. Signing and Ratifying International Environmental Treaties 185
B. China’s Principles and Position on Global Environmental Issues (1990) 188
C. From Rio to Copenhagen: China and the CBDR Principle 190
IV. Critical Contribution to the Post-2020 Climate Regime 194
A. China as Co-Leader with the United States in Climate Negotiations 194
B. China’s Climate Leadership in the Post-2020 Climate Regime 197
C. South-South Cooperation and Assistance 199
V. Change and Continuity 201
A. The Green Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) 201
B. The Community of Shared Future for Mankind 205
C. Unchanged Principles and Position 207
VI. Conclusion 208