GEM PhD School

Globalisation, Europe & Multilateralism

Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate

Coraline GORON


"Climate Revolution or Long March?"

"Low carbon governance in China from Rio (1992) to Paris (2015)" (provisional subtitle)

My research is interested in understanding the structural changes brought about by the new problematic of climate change and "low carbon development" to traditional modes of ensuring the provision of interdependent and sometimes contradictory public goods of economic growth, energy security and environmental protection in industrialising societies. I focus on the case of China, in order to evaluate how "low carbon development" discourses predominantly elaborated and analysed in western, liberal democratic and industrialised societies shape and are reshaped by the politics of the emerging eastern power. Interactions between domestic and international political spheres is at the core of my analysis, which is essentially interpretative and historical-institutionalist.

Prior to entering the GEM PhD program, I studies at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, from which I hold a LLM in European, International and Chinese Law (2012, Beijing, China) and at the ULB, where I studied a Master's Degree in European Studies of Institute for European Studies of the ULB (2011, Brussels, Belgium). I have been an Associate with the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) since 2011, where I used to work as Programme Coordinator. I have good commands of Mandarin Chinese. My professional experiences also includes 6 months internship in the Environment and Climate Change section of the EU Delegation in Beijing, as well as several ENGO works.

More broadly, my research interests cover European and Chinese domestic politics and policies, Climate Change politics, Environmental and Energy Governance, International Political Economy, Regional cooperation in Europe and Asia.

Academic Degrees

LLM in European and International Law and University Certificate of Chinese Law taught in English (2012). China-EU School of Law (CESL), China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL), Beijing, PRC, Award: Best Student First Scholarship of 60 000 RMB. Dissertation: “The EU Aviation ETS caught between Kyoto and Chicago: unilateral legal entrepreneurship in the multilateral governance system”.

MA in European studies, major in political science (2011). Institute for European Studies, Free University of Brussels (ULB), Brussels, Belgium. Award: Grande DistinctionDissertation: “EU-China Relations in the Climate Change Regime: Institutional Dynamics between Bilateral and Multilateral Cooperation”

BA in French-Anglo-American Law (2008). UCP, Cergy-Pontoise, France. Third Year Erasmus Exchange at the RUG, Groningen, The Netherlands. Award: Distinction

Work Experience

2014 – Teaching Undergraduate students in Political Science, ULB: two seminar classes (40 students) under the course “Exercices sur des questions d’histoire politique contemporaine”; Seminar’s topic “Democracy in Contemporary China History”. 

2013 – Research Intern, European Delegation to the P.R China: Doing policy research and analysis, as well as organisation of official visits and meetings, with the EU Attaché on Environment and Climate Change. 

2012 – Research Coordinator, European Institute for Asian Studies: Coordinating several research projects undertaken by the Institute, in particular a research on the European human rights policy towards the DPRK and a research on EU-ASEAN trade relations. Supervision of the research work of junior researchers; editing and publication on the website, conference organisation 

2012 – (short term) Assistant, International Relations Department, International Green Economy Association IGEA, Beijing: Organising a “Green Business Summit” in Beijing, contacting international corporations and institutional partners; brokering “green projects” between Chinese IGEA member industries and foreign businesses; translation from Chinese to English; working language: Chinese and English. 

2012 – (short term) Part-time internship at Huanzhu environmental public interest Law firm, Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), CUPL, Beijing, China: Translation work from Chinese to English of pollution case support reports and articles relating to environmental issues, and assisting the Chinese lawyers with international cooperation projects and legal research in English and Chinese

2011-2012 Part time English teacher, Language School “Road to Success”, Beijing, China: Teaching English to a small class of Chinese children (6-7 years old) twice a week.

Specific Research Title, Area and Promotor(s)

Specific Research Title:

"Climate Revolution or Long March?"

"Low carbon governance in China from Rio (1992) to Paris (2015)" (provisional subtitle)

Area: Political Science

Sub-research fields: Environmental/Climate Politics; (Comparative) Political Economy; Chinese Politics


Professor François Foret (ULB)

Professor Shaun Breslin (Warwick University)

Description of research work

Research objectives

The thesis is interested in the politics surrounding the choice and consequences of policy strategies to address climate change. It does not address the politics of the issue of climate change itself.

In particular, we are interested in demonstrating whether these responses are patterns of broad institutional transformation akin to a “new social revolution”, which environmentalists have pleaded, or, instead whether they are just limited institutional adjustments designed to address an (admittedly complex) policy challenge.

We analyse these politics in one particular context: China. The objective is to understand the interaction between discourse(s) on “low carbon development” as a response to the global challenge of climate change and a specific institutional and political settings in the Chinese context over time. The institutions we are interested in are institutionalised forms of political authority organised concomitantly by the State and the Market. We want to examine how the new problematic of climate change has challenged the interaction between the two systems of organised authority in China.


In the analysis, we assume that these politics take place within a new normative framework where any (in)actions by any actor (state = policy; or non-state = strategy) is pursued with regard to the dominant discourse that “business as usual” is not an option and that widespread and deep change must somehow be done to the status quo of industrial development.

The contentious issue then is essentially distributive in nature: Who is responsible so that adequate results can be secured? Who will bear the costs and who stands to benefit? “What” change is also left to appreciation, as it directly links to distributive issues. Hence, even if we accept the idea that in the end and everyone globally stands to benefit from climate action, the politics must balance it against a realm of other political objectives. Paramount among them is ensuring a continued improvement in social welfare.

Because climate change is a global issue, the distributive issues have been historically addressed mainly in the global climate governance framework in terms of “national targets”. The principle of “CBDR”, a division of responsibility between developed and developing countries. Then it was left to the states to decide how to implement it domestically. Marxist and neo-Gramscian studies rather emphasised a division along class domination lines, setting the responsibility with the industrial “capitalist”/polluter class who beneficiated from “dirty” development. Both divisions overlapped to the extent that for a long time, the dominant capitalist class has been identified with the industrialised “West”. In this context, China’s position as a developing country and an emerging world economic power has been contentious since the outset, only to increase over time (Economy, 1997). But again, how such division of responsibility interacted within domestic environments was not tackled.

Against this backdrop, most “green theories” have emphasised “democratisation” of climate politics, basically advocating a decentralisation of power below and above the state, so that “coalitions of the willing” based on civil society networks and smaller political units (typically, cities) could be formed and empowered to take meaningful climate actions. In its most extreme acceptation, any kind of formal structure of political power was rejected (radicals and anarchists environmentalist). In softer forms such as “participatory democracy”, the liberal dimension of this agenda coincides with the vision of “market environmentalists” of a world without borders where green innovations could spread throughout global markets with the demand of “green consumers” and the “democratisation” of their price making them affordable to the largest number.

In this scenario, the state has been rejected not only as a monolithic unit speaking on behalf of their nationals in international negotiations, but also because of a presumption that is was a hindrance to climate action.

This vision does not offer a plausible explanation of the empirical reality, for not only states have remained a key target of civil society and industry lobbying on climate, but also it has become increasingly apparent that decentralised climate actions have been most successful in contexts where the state has favoured them. More fundamentally, this “decentralised” vision overlooked the fact that markets are embedded in societies and that the state continues to play a critical role in their organisation. This claim has been made repeatedly by scholars from Polanyi (1946) to Scockpol (1984), Vogel (1996) and Schmidt (2009) when studying the industrialised world. But the rise of China’s so-called “state capitalism” after 1990 has given it a new dimension to the debate in the “globalised era”.

Coming back to our main interest, we can see that “change” in the climate/environmental field is not a spontaneous process. It is a political agenda. Even more, “change” accommodates a plurality of political agendas. A basic assumption is that “climate actions” are never politically neutral, even when they are backed by science. Different agendas constrain or unable different actors, and allocate public resources differently. Getting both dimensions “right” is crucial for actors pursuing a transformation of society towards a “low carbon future”.

State and Market as alternative, yet coexisting systems of public authority

What we are heading to is the fundamental argument that “authority” is central to climate change politics. In order to study climate politics, we need to focus our attention on “how” and “by whom” authoritative decisions implementing change in society are taken. “Who” is entitled to exercises it is the principal contest of normative discussions on climate governance. We argue that it should also be the centre of the empirical and historical analysis of climate politics. Hence, these “transformative” agendas are promoted towards the existing institutions endowed with the power to make such political decisions at national level and in the global “system”. These institutional contexts are made of two ordaining systems: 1) the state and 2) the market. [1]

Envisaged from a functional perspective, both the state and the market dictate norms of behaviour and allocate resources. But they do it differently. In a nutshell, the state is hierarchic. Decisions about norms and allocation of resources are imposed “top-down” according to public policy objectives. On the contrary, decisions in the market are individual and decentralised. Resources are allocated according to “supply and demand” through the institution of the “price”. Historically and empirically both co-exist, and the whole history of the industrial age has powerfully been summed up as being one of their interaction and one of the evolving balance of forces between the two systems (Weber, Polanyi). Of course this does not challenge the idea that political authorities are involved in “creating markets”. The question is rather when this creation eventually takes over political authority of its own right.

Different environmental discourses (Dryzek, 1996) adopt different normative positions towards this division or overlap of “public authority”, explicitly or implicitly when they make prescriptions regarding specific public policies on climate change. Some bend towards the “state” (understood as public authority distinct from society); this is the case for instance of the original “survivalist” models in the 1970s and the “administrative rational” models implemented by “green” civil servants in public administrations. Others favour the market; this is the case of earlier “promethean discourses” denying the need to take any action, and “market rationalism” models. Still others discourses are institutionally “agnostic” can theoretically accommodate both. This was originally the case of the “sustainable development” discourse and its offspring in the climate field, the “low carbon development”.

The international development of the “low carbon development” discourse has been coloured in practice by the dominant economic liberal ideology of the actors promoting it. Historically, climate governance has developed since the 1990s during an era of economic globalisation, where the balance of power seems to have tilted towards attributing more and more authority to the market. This trend is widely represented in the discourse. But what does it become when integrated in the Chinese reality?

Our aim is to recast existing categories of environmental discourses along this continuum of “state-market” relations. Then, we want to see where “China” sits on this continuum and whether change has been brought about by a specific influence of the “low carbon discourse”.

Indeed the “Climate era” has also seen the emergence of China, a non-democratic regime where the post-communist state claims a dominant role over both society and the market. The unpredicted event has been China becoming an advocate of “green development” around the turn of the century. As previously noted, this revived the debates regarding state and market, but also the debates, which seemed to have closed in the 1980s, regarding which, of authoritarian or democratic regimes, are more apt to tackle an ecological crisis (Drysek, 1996; Taylor, 1996; Barry, 1999; Holden, 2002; Humphrey, 2007; Eckersley, 2004, Beeson, 2010, Gilley, 2012)[2].

Authoritarian China, however, just like its democratic western counterparts, has endorsed a low carbon development strategy which emphasises the virtuous role of markets[3]. This apparent mismatch of convergent policy discourse and instruments in divergent institutional contexts constitutes our empirical puzzle.

Research Questions

The thesis thus explores the interaction between “low carbon development” liberal discourses and institutions developed internationally and the Chinese reality over time.

This enquiry has two dimensions:

-  How has “low carbon development” influenced the institutional reality of China’s climate governance? In particular, has it led to a transfer of political authority to the market?

- How has the “Chinese” dimension influenced “low carbon development” discourses in the Chinese context and in the international context? In particular, has it triggered an evolution of the concept towards more “State”?

Indeed, we cannot assume that the influence is unidirectional, especially considering the material importance of China in the global economy and also in global climate change diplomacy. Yet, this second dimension will be less emphasised than the former one. The bulk of the empirical research will be focused on the domestic Chinese context.

Time frame

The thesis explores these evolutions over a period of time spamming from the negotiations of the UNFCCC (1990-1992) to the Paris Conference in 2015. This period also corresponds to the end of the “communist world” and the progressive integration of China in the world economy. It covers exactly five Chinese “five-year-plans”: 8th FYP (1990-1995); 9th FYP (1996-2000); 10th FYP (2001-2005); 11th FYP (2006-2010); 12th FYP (2011-2015). Climate change was mentioned for the first time in the 10th FYP.

Contradictory empirics

A series of signposts indicate contradictory trends in the Chinese context of climate governance. On the one hand, the contemporary dominant discourse seems to place quasi-unlimited faith in the Chinese “green authoritarian” government to impose “low carbon” change, using the levers of State power to rain into powerful economic interests without bothering to compromise. A number of institutional innovations compound the trend to reinforce State control in the field of climate change, such as the consolidation of the “target-responsibility system” holding state officials (and SOE leaders) politically and hierarchically responsible for the achievement of emissions’ reduction targets; and the institutionalisation of political “small leading groups” on climate change to centralise public action at all levels of government.

On the other hand, the Chinese government has repeatedly asserted its objective of economic liberalisation using a rhetoric of “giving more power to the market to allocate resources”. It has become a convinced user of “market-based” mechanisms to address climate change and it has been deeply enticed with global liberal institutions (like the world bank) and global climate market-based mechanism (the “Clean Development Mechanism” or CDM, which some even refer to ironically as the “China Development Mechanism” since it came to represent over 60% of the market in the space of a couple of years). The energy sector has been slowly pluralised and privatised. Technology-based renewable energy resources have participated in this trend. For instance, “Born global” solar companies in the late 2000s have challenged incumbent fuel-based power systems and pushed for liberalisation of electricity prices. Yet, the Chinese state has been deeply engaged in their development as well. Besides allocating relatively big amounts of public resources to the development of these sectors, it has also decentralised energy governance and encouraged experimentations at the local-state level. For instance, “low carbon city projects” are clearly encouraged to seek international cooperation. These local initiatives have bloomed to the extent of becoming a visible phenomenon across the country (for instance the Tianjin Low carbon City project in cooperation with Singapore or the Urumqi low carbon city project financed in part by the EU).

Alternative possible scenarios guiding the empirical analysis

From the contradictory elements of empirical evidence presented above, I feel that I cannot yet make a strong claim or formulate a clear hypothesis going one way or another. Therefore, I propose to start the empirical investigations working with three “alternative” guiding scenarios in mind. Hypothesis can be formulated at a later stage in the research.

First scenario:

Transfers of political authority from the State to the Market occur because of bottom-up pressure from society (composed of civil society and business communities). This pressure is influenced by transnational movements which are particularly developed in the environmental and business fields.

In this scenario, the Chinese state only reacts to these pressures; the market takes authority away despite State’s attempts to control it. Explanations can possibly found in the incapacity of the State to exercise control; because “civil society” and “market” gang up against the State claiming more “space” and better results.

Second scenario:

The Chinese state remains in control and even reinforced its power over the market and society through the implementation of the low-carbon agenda.

In this scenario, civil society and the market are the one who react to the initiatives taken by the state. They adjust their expectations and rational calculation according to the signals and directives given by the State in a top-down manner. Marketization, in this context, does not equate a transfer of power away from the state. International influences are selectively filtered by the government to fit its priorities and transnational actors actually adjust their strategies and actions when they operate in the Chinese context.

Third scenario

The Chinese state willingly relinquish some power to the market. The internationalization of State elites in the climate field and their socialization in the neo-liberal discourse of global “low carbon” governance explains this preference. But this attempts are limited by the trade-offs the state is bound to make with different objectives.

It can also explain different sectors, how can it be best explained? A lack of society, a conversion of elites to liberalism?


The project I propose is composed of three main parts:

The first part is mainly theoretical. It discusses ideal-types of “environmental discourses”, with an emphasis on “low carbon development” and specificities of “climate change” as involving environmental and energy considerations. It seeks to recast them along the institutional variable of “concentrated versus decentralised” authority between “State” and “Market”. The reference literature is mainly “western” based.

The second part is empirical and historical: it brings together different concurrent evolutions in the three “policy domains” that make up “low carbon” governance in the Chinese context: Environment; energy and climate change in its own right. The objective is to trace change over time. This part is based on archives, policy documents and relevant academic works in “China studies” (both in English and in Chinese)

The third part is empirical and comparative: it compares two industrial sectors targeted by “low carbon development” policy: the power sector and the transport sectors. They are distinguished by their very different historical relation with the state and international markets. Whereas “power” has been traditionally closely controlled by the State, “transportation”, especially private vehicles, has been dominated by private (and mainly foreign) companies. The goal is to test the dynamics of “state-market” relations in the two different sectors and bring in a complementary insight to the “historical” account with the goal to confirm and/or infirm the correlations between possible changes in power relations and the events identified from the historical perspective. This part is based on a review of the technical literature, Chinese policy documents, relevant academic and think tank publications as well as interviews.

[1] In the real world, “self-governing” civil society (radical and anarchists environmentalists) is not a tangible alternative.

[2] Holden and Humphrey give two convergent and complementary accounts of the debate that took place in the 1970s and 80s among “green theorists”. Holding summarizes the “eco-authoritarian” views of that time as advocating that “only authoritarian regimes have the power required to compel individuals to refrain from consuming too many resources; without such compulsion, the survival of human society, perhaps life itself, is very much in question”. But these views were discredited by discoveries of ecological disasters in communist authoritarian countries (e.g. the Chernobyl nuclear incident in the USSR and the ecological disaster of “Great Leap Forward” industrialisation in Mao’s China). According to Barry, orthodox contemporary green political thought is committed to the democratic project.

[3] See The Work Plan on Controlling GHG Emissions during the 12th FYP released by the State Council in 2011; Minister of Environment Zhou Xiansheng talks of “low carbon development as “an economic pattern characterized by low energy consumption, low emission and less pollution whose essence resides in higher energy efficiency and a cleaner energy structure”. This definition is commonly endorsed by influential Chinese scholars. See for instance  Fu, Jiafeng, Zhuang ; Guiyang, Gao, Qingxian, (2010) “Conceptual Identification and Evaluation Index for Low Carbon Economy” (ditan jingji de gainian bianshi ji pingjia zhibiao tixi goujian 低碳经济的概念辨识及评价指标体系构建), China Population, Resources and Environment, vol 20.N°8, pp 38-43

Participation in Conferences and Seminars

Participation in Conferences and Seminars by Chronological Order from June 2013.


  • Participation to the 4ème « International Summer School in China Studies », John Hopkins Center, Nanijing University, China, 24 June 2013 to 2 July 2013.
  • Participation to ECPR Annual Conference, Bordeaux, 4-7 Septembre 2013, presentation of the paper « China – EU relations: Low carbon objectives and the management of bilateral Trade Relations ».
  • Participation to the 10th Graduate Seminar on China Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 8-11 January 2014: presentation of a draft paper on “Marketization of Climate Politics in China”.
  • Présentation at the Doctoral Seminar “The EU and China Facing a Multipolar World”, presentation title: "Marketization of Climate Policy in China: Authoritarian environmentalism or environmental marketization to fight climate change?" , ULB, Brussels, 25 April 2014.
  • Participation to the “2014 ECRAN Young Scholar Roundtable” on Europe-China Relations, 17-18 June 2014; Presentation on the theme “climate Capitalism in Europe and China”.
  • Participation to the conference: New European Conference on China Studies, EU Delegation, Beijing, China, 2-4 July 2014. Presentation of the paper « Marketization of Climate Poltics in China ».
  • Two months research stay at the University of Tsinghua, Beijing, Institute of Energy, Environment and Economics, Chine, July-August 2014. With the financial support of the FNRS référence 2014/v 3/5/205 – IB/JN – 7157.
  • Participation to the International Forum of “Young Leaders for Diplomacy” entitled "Facing Global Diplomatic Transformation" co-sponsored by Pacific Forum CSIS (USA) and Department of Diplomacy, CFAU at the China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU), Beijing, 20-21 August 2014. Short Presentation on Global Climate Governance.
  • Participartion at the EU-Asia Dialogue et UN Habitat Conference on « Climate Diplomacy and Urban Resilience » in Yangon, Myanmar,  4-5 September 2014. Chairing the panel entitled « Implementation as key to Success in the International Negotiations ».
  • Participation to the Conference on  « The EU-China Trade Relations Betwen Classic Trade Disputes and Sustainability Issues ». Presentation of the paper entitled « Fighting Climate Change and Fair Trade. Finding EU’s interest in the Solar Dispute with China »  University of Bologna, Italy, 10 October 2014.


Upcoming activiti(es)

  • Selected for participation in the  Conference entitled "Critical Perspectives on the Financialisation of Nature, Theory, Politics and Practice", STEPS center and Center for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex, 19-20 March 2015. Presentation of the research paper entitled ""The Marketisation of Climate Policies in China: an empirical investigation of environmental market construction under authoritarian guidance".

Overview of Publications


  • Goron Coraline (2015) “Fighting Climate Change and Fair Trade. Finding EU’s interest in the Solar Panel Dispute with China” to be published in Baroncini Elisa (ed) The EU-China Trade Relations between Classic Trade Disputes and Sustainability Issues. Springer
  • Goron Coraline (2014) “China – EU relations: Low carbon objectives and the management of bilateral Trade Relations” in Etienne Reuter and Jing Men (eds), China – EU Green Cooperation,Singapore, World Scientific, pp 67-83, see details
  • Goron Coraline (2014) Book Review. Green Politics in China. Environmental Governance and State-Society Relations, Joy Y Zhang and Michael Barr (2013) PlutoPress, publiée dans  Asian Review of Book, 21 May 2014, accessible
  • Goron Coraline (2012). “The EU Aviation ETS caught between Kyoto and Chicago: Unilateral Norm Entrepreneurship in the Multilateral Governance System”, GEM-GREEN Doctoral Working Paper Series, Brussels, November 2012; Translated in Chinese: (2013)  “欧盟航空排放交易系统被困于京都和芝加哥:在多方治理体系中的单方法律设立», 《中国政法大学学报》(China University of Political Science and Law Journal)