How China, the world's biggest polluter, avoids paying for climate damage

How China, the world’s biggest polluter, avoids paying for climate damage


In 1992, the United Nations classified China as a developing country because hundreds of millions of its citizens lived in poverty.

Much has changed since then: China is now the world’s second largest economy and the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases that warm the planet. The average Chinese today are 34 times richer and almost four times more polluting. But the classification has remained the same for the past three decades, frustrating diplomats from developed countries who say it has allowed Beijing to avoid paying its fair share to help poor countries deal with the ravages of climate change. .

The debate over what China owes the countries least responsible for global warming – but most affected by its effects – has intensified considerably in the wake of the recent United Nations climate change conference in Egypt. At the end of the two-week summit, known as COP27, negotiators from nearly 200 countries agreed to create a fund to compensate vulnerable countries for the costs of rising seas, stronger storms and other effects of global warming.

Analysts say China is unlikely to contribute to the fund, despite the country’s rapidly rising contribution to global warming greenhouse gases.

COP27 leaves the world on a dangerous warming trajectory despite historic climate fund

“The facts are clear: China is currently the largest emitter in the world,” said Li Shuo, senior policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia. “So it’s a very valid question to talk about China’s growing responsibility on the international stage.”

The issue is politically sensitive. Policymakers in Beijing are bristling at the suggestion that China should be considered a developed nation, pointing to pockets of extreme poverty that persist across the country. They also point to the obligations of the United States, which has released more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other country in history, even as China overtakes America in annual carbon dioxide emissions. of carbon.

“Developed countries, including the United States, need to take more responsibility,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in an email. “It’s not moral but with good reason. From the mid-18th century to 1950, developed countries accounted for 95% of all carbon dioxide released.”

Liu added that developed countries had still not delivered on their 2009 pledge to provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries transition to greener economies and adapt to growing climate disasters. In 2020, rich countries lost nearly $20 billion less than they promised.

“China stands with developing countries on this financing issue,” said Byford Tsang, senior policy adviser at international climate think tank E3G. “Wealthier developed countries have made it easy for China to take this position because they have failed to deliver on their climate finance pledges made over a decade ago.”

Tsang added that he does not expect China to try to take money from the new fund intended to help vulnerable countries cope with the irreversible effects of global warming – known as “losses”. and damage” in the language of the UN climate negotiations.

“I don’t think policymakers in Beijing are taking the position that they should be the beneficiaries of loss and damage funding,” he said, noting that the fund is reserved for the most vulnerable countries, such as island nations that face an existential threat from rising seas.

Chinese officials have not officially said whether they will contribute to the fund. Asked about the issue at COP27, China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said, “China strongly supports the claims of developing and vulnerable countries for ‘loss and damage’. China is also a developing country, and this year, weather disasters have also caused China huge losses. We sympathize with the suffering of developing countries and fully support their demands.

Xie added that although it “is not our responsibility”, China has provided 2 billion yuan ($280 million) to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to global warming through a separate South-South Climate Cooperation Fund.

Analysts said officials in Beijing appear unlikely to send climate aid through UN channels or pledge more aggressive commitments when under pressure at home to deal with a downturn. economy caused in part by China’s strict “zero covid” policy and a slowdown in the real estate market. In response to an energy shortage last year, China approved a huge buildup of coal capacity.

Lauri Myllyvirta, a researcher at the Helsinki-based Center for Energy and Clean Air Research, said contributing to the fund could set an unwelcome precedent for Chinese policymakers, forcing them to take on more responsibility within the United Nations system.

“That would be accepting responsibility from developed countries, and that has always been a red line for China,” he said.

While US diplomats have agreed to create the loss and damage fund, overturning longstanding US resistance to the idea, there is no guarantee Congress will appropriate the money. Last year, President Biden asked for $2.5 billion for international climate finance, but only got $1 billion, and that’s when Democrats controlled both chambers. .

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This year, Biden has asked for a record $11.4 billion. But Republicans, who generally oppose climate aid, are set to take control of the House in January, further clouding the funding outlook.

“The idea that we owe developing countries some sort of climate reparation is absurd,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) said in an interview. “If anything, we could send them an invoice for all the things we’ve done over the decades on their behalf.”

Cramer called on US climate envoy John F. Kerry to ensure that Beijing contributes financially to the effort. “I think if John F. Kerry had any patriotism in negotiating this nonsense, he would insist that China pay,” he said.

Asked for comment, Kerry spokeswoman Whitney Smith pointed to a previously released statement that the United States “will continue to press major emitters like China to significantly improve” their climate ambitions, but did not specifically say whether this would cause China to pay for climate damage. .

During the COP27 negotiations, the European Union tried to separate China from other developing countries by offering to contribute to a fund for the most vulnerable countries – as long as big emitters like Beijing were included as potential donors and excluded. as potential beneficiaries.

“We call it the world of 1992 versus 2022,” said one EU negotiator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

In the closing hours of the talks, negotiators compromised, agreeing to prioritize the most vulnerable countries and allowing China to contribute – but only if it wants to.

At previous UN climate summits, China has joined a group of more than 100 developing countries that have pressed the wealthy world for more financial aid. Pakistan, one of China’s closest diplomatic partners, which relies heavily on Chinese investment for its energy transition, led this campaign at COP27. Pakistan, historically responsible for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, was devastated this summer by catastrophic floods that killed nearly 1,500 people and caused more than $40 billion in damage. Scientists said the floods were supercharged by climate change.

The United Nations defines developing countries as those with a relatively low standard of living, a smaller industrial base, and lower indicators such as average life expectancy, education, and per capita income.

At COP27, flood-ravaged Pakistan pushes to make polluting countries pay

While developing countries negotiate as a large group at UN climate conferences, they often have very different interests. Saudi Arabia, which is still considered a developing country despite its wealth of oil reserves, has sought to remove language from UN climate agreements calling for the phasing out of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the small island nation of Vanuatu – which could be swallowed up by rising seas – has fought to include language calling for rapid emissions cuts.

For some countries, the mismatch is enduring as long as China is willing to use its leverage to defend the interests of the most vulnerable.

“China has always stood up for the interests of developing countries,” said Malik Amin Aslam, who until earlier this year served as Pakistan’s climate change minister. “It’s different from the developed world.”

He said that in his view, it is more important for China to plead for help from richer countries than to contribute its own money. “I don’t see China as the big bad guy here,” he said.

Other decision makers have a different opinion.

“They are still looking for language that would protect them, give them less responsibility, no obligations for developing countries,” said a former climate diplomat from a coastal developing country who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation from Beijing. “This firewall between developed and developing countries [has] protected them. »

Ultimately, any future United Nations decision to reclassify China as a developed country would require the unanimous consent of nearly 200 nations. One country’s objection could derail the whole effort.

“It’s a political stalemate,” Greenpeace’s Li said. “We can never recategorize.”

Joselow and Birnbaum reported from Washington. Kuo reported from Taipei, Taiwan.

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