COP28 preview: China in the world’s spotlight

While China will come under international pressure on ‘loss and damage’, there is still potential for climate cooperation with the US and contributions to the global emission-reduction agenda.

While COP28 is still a month away and no one knows quite what US–China climate relations will look like then, experts see collaboration between the two countries as key to combating global warming. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

This year’s UN climate conference, COP28, will bring countries together to discuss measures to reduce warming emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.

The key topic of the conference, taking place from 30 November to 12 December in Dubai, is likely to be how to close the gap between current plans for emission reduction and what is needed to put the world on a path to rein in global warming.

Experts have told China Dialogue that China will face “increasing pressure” at COP28 on issues such as enhancing its climate action, as well as its involvement in the “loss and damage” fund, designed to compensate global south countries for unavoidable climate change impacts.

At the same time, they expect China to push the world to meet more ambitious goals for both renewable energy development and loss and damage.

While COP28 is still a month away and no one knows quite what US–China climate relations will look like then, experts see collaboration between the two countries as key to combating global warming. Will they deliver another joint message of unity on climate action, as they did at the Paris and Glasgow COPs of 2015 and 2021?

A world falling short on climate action

The collective effort of countries to lower emissions is insufficient to meet the 1.5°C or 2°C warming thresholds decided at the 2015 Paris COP. That was the verdict of a recent report on the UN’s first stocktake of global climate action. It offered guidance on how plans – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – towards reaching the Paris goals might be updated and enhanced.

According to the report, to keep the 1.5°C target achievable, by 2030, the world needs to have reduced its annual emissions a further 20.3-23.9 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent from current NDC commitments.

China has an established preference for underpromising and overdelivering on its climate targets, and has made clear that it will not yield to external pressure. In parallel, Chinese officials have been critical of what they consider ‘rich-world underperformance’ on climate change.

Chris Aylett, coordinator, Chatham House Environment and Society Centre

There will naturally be concern about whether China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, will update its NDC and step up efforts to reduce emissions. But experts say that, given it did so in 2020, it may not do so significantly again soon.

Chris Aylett, coordinator of the Environment and Society Centre at UK-based think-tank Chatham House, says China’s focus is on the enormous task of implementation, rolling out the policies and technologies needed to meet the carbon peaking and neutrality targets set by President Xi in 2020.

However, this doesn’t mean there won’t be pressure on China at COP28 to do more, Aylett notes. The EU has recently called on China to commit to the Global Methane Pledge, launched at Glasgow COP26 in 2021, as well as to the global goal of tripling renewable energy deployment by 2030, featured in the recent G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration. The US has called on China to contribute to multilateral climate finance, something it has resisted thus far on the principle that as a developing country, which it defines itself as, it is not required to within the UN climate process.

“China has an established preference for underpromising and overdelivering on its climate targets, and has made clear that it will not yield to external pressure,” Aylett explains. “In parallel, Chinese officials have been critical of what they consider ‘rich-world underperformance’ on climate change.”

China could, however, announce some additional measures, such as its own long-awaited methane control plan, and a raised target for renewable energy installed capacity, said Li Shuo, senior global policy advisor at Greenpeace East Asia.

In the joint declaration made with the US in Glasgow, China stated it would create a comprehensive national action plan to reduce methane emissions from fossil energy sources, the waste sector, and agriculture. The central government says the plan is still being developed, while industry insiders say a draft has long been finalised. The delay in announcing it may have been influenced by the rocky US–China relationship or China’s negotiating tactics on climate issues, they say.

While the release of the methane plan is slightly behind schedule, the growth in China’s installed wind and solar power is significantly ahead. Given this trend, Li Shuo said, “it is widely believed that it will be no problem at all to reach the wind and solar installation targets in China’s NDC.

“So, will China raise this target? Such expectations still exist.”

Contributing to global renewable energy targets

The success of the climate conference will be measured in part by how well it moves the needle on the fossil fuel phasedown, and whether more ambitious renewable energy deployment targets are set.

Aylett thinks China is unlikely to sign up to the language of fossil fuel ‘phaseout’ that the EU and others will advocate for at COP28. Meanwhile, Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy for climate change affairs, has said that phasing out fossil fuels is “unrealistic”. Following the severe power outages the country experienced in 2021, estimated to have affected as much as 44 per cent of industrial activity, Chinese energy policy is today organised around the principle of “establishing the new before destroying the old” – retiring fossil fuel infrastructure only when the new low-carbon system is fully in place.

However, as the world’s number one manufacturer of solar panels and wind turbines, Aylett thinks China “certainly has an incentive” to push for a more ambitious renewables target.

In the first half of this year, the country’s wind and solar installed capacity reached 820 gigawatts (GW). Meanwhile, its total renewable power capacity exceeded 1,300 GW, or 48.8 per cent of total power capacity, putting it ahead of coal power. China’s wind and solar power is expected to reach its 1,200 GW target by 2025, five years earlier than planned, found a report by think-tank Global Energy Monitor.

China has the potential to push the world to reach a more ambitious 2030 target for renewable energy installations under the UN’s climate process, says Yao Zhe, strategic communications director at the Institute for Global Decarbonisation Progress (iGDP), a Beijing-based think-tank.

At the G20 Summit in September, nations including China agreed to “pursue and encourage efforts” to triple global renewable energy capacity by 2030 and “accelerat[e] efforts towards phasedown of unabated coal power”. But it set no binding country-specific climate targets.

According to Yao Zhe, if the world can agree on a target for installed renewable energy capacity at COP28, it would favour China given the country’s domestic progress on this front. “Having such an expectation will drive the market, which will benefit China’s industrial exports, as well as cooperation with supply chains in other countries,” said Yao Zhe.

US–China climate cooperation

Whether China and the US can make new progress in climate cooperation will be a major point of interest at the COP. Since 2013, when the US–China Climate Change Working Group was established, climate issues have generally been a cooperation “safe zone”. John Kerry, the US president’s special envoy on climate change, has repeatedly said that climate is a key mutual issue, independent of any disagreements the two countries may have.

Kerry’s visit to China in July marked the first time the two countries have touched on climate matters since the suspension of US–China climate talks in August last year. Since then, the world has been full of expectation that China and the US will resume working together on climate issues.

Li Shuo told China Dialogue that if relations remain stable for the rest of the year, the two countries may issue a joint statement at COP28 that includes unilateral, bilateral and multilateral elements. This would follow the example of the joint presidential statement made in the lead up to the successful Paris COP of 2015, as well as the Glasgow statement of 2021.

The two countries could announce measures on climate assistance and investment, overseas energy, as well as cooperation on joint research and information sharing regarding low-carbon technologies like carbon capture and storage, Li Shuo said.

He said that because US–China climate talks are ongoing, it may be challenging for the two sides to reach a joint statement under the current complicated international situation. “Even if a joint statement can be reached, it will be difficult for it to be as groundbreaking as the 2015 [one]. It may be more about paving the way for negotiations rather than setting the tone for the global process,” he said.

Aylett thinks the value of the US–China talks is arguably more symbolic than substantive. “They represent the importance of putting differences to one side to tackle a shared challenge, and keep alive the spirit of cooperation between the two superpowers that was critical to the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015,” he said.

Loss and damage, and alternatives

Whether or not China will inject money into the “loss and damage” fund – designed to compensate developing countries for unavoidable climate impacts – has been the focus of international attention. China Dialogue has previously devoted an article to China’s position on the issue.

African countries have been pushing developed ones to contribute to loss and damage compensation. A report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) predicts that Africa’s loss and damage for 2020-2030 will cost between US$290 billion and US$440 billion.

According to the UN climate process principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, states are not equally responsible for addressing global environmental destruction, and China’s ‘developing country’ status means it is not obliged to pay into the fund. However, since the formation of the convention 30 years ago, the country’s economic position and emissions have grown rapidly, and it is currently the second-largest economy and top emitter. This has led developed economies such as the US and European Union to argue that it should also pay into the fund.

Xie Zhenhua declared at last year’s COP27 that China does not have the “responsibility” to contribute financially to loss and damage. But given the large sums China has invested in building infrastructure overseas, through its Belt and Road Initiative, there is clear potential for it to contribute further towards supporting development in Africa.

“China can play a big role in enabling the rollout of renewable energy across the African region,” says Marina Agortimevor, coordinator of the African Coal Network, a network of civil society organisations working on the energy transition.

She believes Africa could benefit from China’s support for renewable energy, not only in terms of infrastructure, but also skills and technology development. “We’ve seen the possibility of a comprehensive strategy around renewable energy that includes job creation, enabling local manufacturing and skills development.”

The same is true for developing infrastructure that reduces and adapts to climate change.

Aylett says, in lieu of paying into the loss and damage fund, China can contribute to the fund’s overarching aim, of enabling vulnerable countries to recover from climate impacts, by directing investment and technical cooperation under the BRI towards climate-resilient development. If substantial and sufficiently visible, this could increase the pressure on developed countries to do more, he adds.

Recently, China released a white paper, “Policies and Actions to Address Climate Change”, in which it stated that the country would push for COP28 to reach a decision on a global framework of adaptation targets, and finalise the financial mechanism for loss and damage and related financing arrangements.

Yao Zhe told China Dialogue that, along with other big emitters, China will continue to be under pressure from the international community on loss and damage this year. “China would like to see less finger-pointing and pressure,” she believes.

At the last COP, Yao Zhe says, some developed countries shifted attention to large developing emitters in order to reduce pressure on themselves. This kind of practice cannot solve the problem and can undermine mutual trust, she says. Nevertheless, China can play a crucial role in promoting more constructive communication on loss and damage, she adds.

A beefed-up Chinese delegation

For Chinese attendees, COP28 will be the first normal UN climate conference since the pandemic begun. At COP27 last year, outbound travel restrictions reduced China’s delegation to fewer than 80 people. For comparison, the largest delegation, from the United Arab Emirates, had 1,073. The China Office and China Corner were situated in a remote part of the conference venue, relatively far away from the media centre and side event stalls.

Humoured, Xie Zhenhua remarked that the layout of the venue was arranged by the organisers, not individual countries: “My pedometer shows that I walk an average of more than 13,000 steps a day … I don’t want to walk so far either, but I take it as my daily exercise.”

Xie will continue to lead the Chinese delegation this year, which is likely to feature a larger delegation than in Egypt. Chinese non-governmental organisations and enterprises of all kinds have also expressed enthusiasm about participating in the conference and rebooting international exchanges.

Yao Zhe’s organisation, iGDP, will participate as part of civil society in the side events hosted at the China Pavilion. The themes of this year’s events include climate investment and finance, mitigation, adaptation, and digital transformation. There will be a special session for businesses and industries, hosted by provinces and cities that are making rapid progress in mitigation and adaptation, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Private companies including LONGi, Tencent, Ali and Vanke will be in attendance.

The pavilion will also host a day themed around renewable energy, inviting domestic energy enterprises to share China’s experience in solar and wind power and hydrogen storage, according to a report in The Paper

Yao Zhe said this reflects how Chinese companies, both state-owned and private, are paying more attention to climate change, and showing more commitment to providing solutions.

“The Chinese delegation is very willing to show the international community the progress of China’s domestic action on climate change and low-carbon transition,” she said.

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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