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COP27: China's climate obligations come under scrutiny

August 27, 2022
topics: Climate action
by: Chermaine Lee
located in: China
tags: Belt and Road Initiative, China, climate change, climate justice, COP 27

As an economic superpower, the onus is on Beijing to walk the talk and support countries in need of climate financing and adaptation at the upcoming COP27 - experts say.

With climate reparations predicted to take centre stage at the upcoming COP27 discussions in Egypt, China’s position in the conference has emerged as somewhat ambiguous. 

China currently ranks as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for over one-fourth of global annual emissions - more than all industrialised nations combined. And while the United States still tops the chart for cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions from 1850 to 2021, China took over as the biggest emitter annually since 2007. 

Beijing has vowed to reach its carbon peak in 2030, aiming to produce one-fourth of its primary energy from renewable sources. It plans to become carbon neutral by 2060.

But despite being the world's second-largest economy, China has classified itself as a developing nation. It has also been regarded as such by multiple organisations and countries, making its position unclear in the heated climate justice debate between wealthy and low-income nations. 

As various African and small island nations fight for the pledged USD $100 billion in climate aid from industrialised countries for inflicted environmental damages, which bracket does China belong in?

China is home to the largest number of wealthy people  

According to Dr Paul Harris, chair professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, China should be regarded as a developed nation in climate diplomacy talks. 

"Our knee-jerk reaction is to put the blame on developed countries, but it’s vital to not view China as a poor country [in such negotiations]," Dr Harris told FairPlanet. "It wants to side with developing countries, but we have to look at its responsibilities. China is the elephant in the room."

About 100 million people in China now count among the richest ten percent of people worldwide, compared with 99 million in the US, a survey from Credit Suisse shows. 

"China has grown enormously, and its greenhouse gas emissions have exploded since the 1980s," the climate diplomacy expert explained. 

"When the bulk of the emissions was there before the developed nations like the US and EU knew they were causing harm, almost all of China’s emissions occurred since the scientists have been telling us about the negative impact of climate change."

Environmental degradation in China’s Belt and Road projects

China’s far-reaching Belt and Road Initiative, which launched many large-scale China-funded infrastructure projects in developing nations – often the ones most vulnerable to climate change, has stirred controversies over the environmental damages it engenders. These projects, including over 200 coal-fired power plants across Asia and Africa, were found to exacerbate air and water pollution in the participating countries. 

Ahead of COP26 last year, China launched an initiative to promote green energy planning in its Belt and Road projects, and vowed to halt all overseas coal plant construction. Yet, plants with set deals will still be built, including the USD $2.17 billion EMBA Hunutlu power plant in Turkey, which environmentalists criticised for its potential to harm local wildlife and pollute the air. 

With ample political and economic power over BRI countries, China has been urged by climate scientists to adopt a ‘debt-for-nature swap’, which would involve China selling these countries’ debts to environmental trust funds at a discount. These funds will in turn offer grants for local adaptation projects in developing nations. 

"It’s rather self-evident that if you benefit from the harm, you should pay for [those] who have been harmed," said Dr Harris.  "China’s responsibility is larger when it benefits form the system."

He further suggested that instead of forcing national action, COP27 can come up with methods to hold millionaires and billionaires accountable. 

"The solution is to stop attributing obligations to nation states, but to other actors including individuals and companies. If we can only focus on rich people everywhere, it spreads the responsibility to every country."

What else is expected of China at COP27?

A major breakthrough in COP26 was the agreement of the US and China to engage in climate cooperation over the next decade amid growing political tensions. 

Yet after US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi made a high-profile visit to Taiwan in August despite Beijing’s strong protest, China retaliated by halting its climate talks with Washington less than 100 days ahead of COP27. 

"This proves that Beijing doesn’t really care about climate change, and they don’t care about poor people suffering from such impacts," Dr Harris argued. "Their climate policies almost have nothing to do with mitigating climate change."

Beijing is expected to decide on whether it will resume its cooperation with the US. However, Dr Harris added that the two countries have yet to produce any significant mitigation efforts so far.

"It’s a red herring and it doesn’t matter unless their cooperation is radically different [and more] substantial and productive than ever in the past."

He urged both nations to double down on cutting greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously. Beijing has so far resisted the EU’s call to speed up its plan to peak carbon emissions by 2030. Dr Harris expects that China, along with other wealthier nations, will reiterate their pledges with minimal changes amid the EU’s pressure to transition energy sources in the short term over sanctions against Russia. 

"I expect more muddling along and modest developments from China might indicate progress in the future, but I think anybody that expresses a miraculous outcome from any country, including China, will be disappointed, and rightly so," he concluded, highlighting that pollution rates "are still going up globally."

Image by Photoholgic.

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Chermaine Lee
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China
China currently ranks as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
© Fred Dufour
Numerous nations with developing economies that contributed the least to climate change but suffer the most are demanding climate reparations from major polluters. Which category does China fall under?
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