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China and the COP28

The UN Climate Change Conference, also known as the COP, begins in Dubai on November 30 and ends on December 12. For the 28th time, the world's heads of state and government of 197 countries plus the European Union will discuss, among other things, how a rapid energy transition – away from fossil fuels and towards renewables – can be achieved, how CO₂ emissions can be significantly reduced by 2030 and how the multilateral fund initiated to help developing countries cope with the damage and loss caused by the climate crisis can be structured. China will also participate at COP28 as one of the most influential actors in climate policy. Our MERICS Lead Analyst Nis Grünberg comments on China’s climate policy and on its role in addressing climate change: 

Where does China stand in its effort to fight climate change?

With around 26 percent of global CO₂ emissions in 2022, China has become the world’s largest emitter. In 2021, Xi Jinping pledged to peak emissions before 2030, and to make China CO₂ neutral by 2060. To reach this goal in just three decades is very ambitious. Most European economies peaked in the 1990s, but plan neutrality only by 2050. China, too, still has a long way to go. 

This year’s COP needs to address far too slow progress on reducing emissions globally, also China’s current pathway, still adding new coal power plants, is not sufficient to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius. On the positive side, China is a world leader in the roll out of renewable energy and clean tech. This year alone, China is expected to install over 300 Gigawatts of wind and solar power, more than the rest of the world combined, a trend that could mean accelerated replacement of fossil fuels with renewable power. 

How does China position itself in the runup to COP28, and what does Beijing expect from the conference?

China insists that the main responsibility to address climate change lies with the developed economies, which still have the largest carbon footprint historically – although China is quickly catching up also in this calculation. It presents itself as developing economy, and with that wants to buy itself time  from taking over more costly responsibilities. 

Positioning itself as a voice for developing economies, China has long maintained that it is up to each nation to define differentiated climate policies without interference from others. Beijing insists that specific conditions of individual nations (e.g. power system, GDP levels etc.) should be taken into consideration before voicing demands to those countries. 

China’s President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden agreed to a tripling of global renewables capacity during their recent meeting. Notably, neither nation committed to quantitative targets at home. China, however, is already fostering a strong clean tech industry, efforts that can be expected to pay off. 

What are China's red lines at the conference?

China’s climate policy is connected with its overarching foreign policy and its view on energy security and geopolitics. Negotiations at the COP will have to balance putting pressure on China – and others – to do more to rescue the 1.5/2.0° C target from failing, and at the same time creating a conciliatory agreement that China, the US, European actors, and developing economies can agree on. Putting a sharp and concrete deadline to phase out fossil fuel is not on the cards for China. It will insist that developed economies bear the main responsibility to fight climate change, including financing loss and damage. Mechanisms such as the loss and damage fund being managed by actors China sees as controlled by the West (e.g., the World Bank), will be difficult to negotiate. 

What importance does Xi still attach to climate policy?

By announcing the 2030 and 2060 targets himself, Xi has put climate politics (and decarbonization more generally) on the list of high-level priorities. However, security and domestic stability are and will remain his top concern. The current domestic drive for self-reliance will push clean tech and renewable energy in the long run, as it promises solutions for energy security and self-reliance, and is seen as an important driver of China’s export-oriented manufacturing sector. But for now, Beijing will maintain that the speed of climate action and decarbonization are a function of national needs, such as energy security and socioeconomic stability. Negotiators at the COP will not have much room to maneuver away from this.  

What does Xie Zhenhua's departure mean for negotiations with China at the COP? 

Chinese climate politician and diplomat Xie Zhenhua is a uniquely connected and experienced official that is soon to leave the Chinese negotiating team. Xie was an instrumental figure in China’s environmental and climate agencies for decades, leaving big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, Xie’s scope for negotiations also used to be predetermined by top-level instructions, leaving him little room to give. His successor, Liu Zhenmin, likewise a seasoned negotiator in the UN system, will not mean more or less authority, or room for negotiation on the substance of China’s policy. It will take time, however, for Liu to build his own rapport in the climate community. 


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