China has Reasons to Smile About the COP28 Climate Summit
01.15.2024 By Tank Terminals - NEWS

January 15, 2024 [Think China]- Erik Baark takes stock of China’s gains at COP28 in Dubai in December 2023. The status of China in the negotiations was clearly enhanced by the compromise achieved by the US and China with the Sunnylands Statement in November 2023. On the difficult matter of establishing an international consensus on the approach to fossil fuels, China also seems to have found room to manoeuvre in the call for countries to commit to “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems”.


When COP28, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held in Dubai ended after an extra day of negotiations on 14 December 2023, the final text of the agreement was both praised and criticised.

The Chinese foreign ministry official spokesperson Mao Ning put it this way: “The success of the Conference reflects the strong consensus of all parties on the urgency of addressing climate change issues. Its outcomes sent out a message of multilateralism and tackling climate change with greater solidarity and stronger action.”

However, she also argued: “That being said, no substantial progress has been made in fulfilling the pledges made by developed countries of taking the lead in reducing emissions, and providing support of capital, technology and capacity building to developing countries. The issue of unilateral measures hindering international cooperation has not yet been properly resolved. To build a global climate governance system that is fair, reasonable, cooperative and win-win remains an uphill task.”


China’s preparations for COP28

For China, the Paris Agreement of 2015 has been a very important guidepost for its climate policy, and the country has been seen as providing the essential targets for the future commitments of both developed and developing countries. In addition, the declaration by President Xi Jinping in 2020 that China would peak its carbon emissions before or during 2030 and would aim to become carbon neutral in 2060 — the so-called “dual carbon” policy — has provided an ambitious framework for China’s nationally determined commitments (NDCs).

The recently published China’s Policies and Actions on Climate Change 2023 Annual Report reviewed the progress in key areas of greenhouse gas emission control, climate change adaptation and carbon market construction. It also provided a preamble to China’s position on COP28, namely that it should adhere to the goals, principles and institutional arrangements of the UNFCCC and its Paris Agreement, send a strong signal to promote cooperation among all parties to deal with climate change, and ensure that global climate governance stays on the right track for long-term stability.

As part of the preparations for the climate conference, Dr Sultan Al Jaber, COP28 president and minister of industry and advanced technology of the United Arab Emirates, visited China in September 2023, where he held meetings with China’s then special envoy on climate change Xie Zhenhua.

In his speeches, Al Jaber emphasised that the COP28 agenda should work towards a fast, fair, equitable and well managed energy transition, and China’s remarkable leadership in this transition. Moreover, he argued: “This great country has already installed 1000 GW of renewable energy capacity and will add another 500 GW in wind and solar in the next three years alone. This aligns closely with COP28’s call for a global goal of tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030. And with China leading the way, I am sure the whole world can do it.”

Another important process involved the US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry and Xie, who met in Beijing from 16 to 19 July 2023 to reaffirm their commitment to work jointly and together with other countries to address the climate crisis.

This led to the joint Sunnylands Statement on Enhancing Cooperation to Address the Climate Crisis adopted on 7 November 2023, which featured an agreement on setting up a working group to address areas of the climate crisis that can benefit from US-China cooperation. In addition, the statement included a series of commitments to furthering the international process, including the two countries’ commitments under the Paris Agreement.

This agreement between the two countries — which together are responsible for 41% of global greenhouse gas emissions — clearly shaped the outlines of climate action that served as a basis for the ultimate agreement reached in Dubai.


The COP28 show in Dubai

The Chinese delegation at COP28 in Dubai was headed by Executive Vice-Premier Ding Xuexiang, whose remarks at the World Climate Action Summit reiterated China’s key positions, stressing that mankind shares a common destiny in the face of the challenges of climate change, and all parties should strengthen their determination and capacity to jointly address it.

He also called on nations to accelerate green transformation, actively increase the proportion of renewable energy, promote the clean, low-carbon and efficient use of traditional energy, and accelerate the formation of green and low-carbon production methods and lifestyles.

Given the position of China in the global supply of low-carbon and renewable energy technologies, it came as a surprise that China did not sign the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge adopted during COP28.

China also hosted a schedule of more than 100 side events at the China Pavilion, which ranged from methane emissions and “green” banking to overseas energy investments and UK-China cooperation on climate science. The exhibitions at the China Pavilion also highlighted Chinese capabilities in green and low-carbon technologies.

For instance, Yan Huo, the general manager of LONGi Green Energy’s brand, stated: “LONGi hopes that through its participation in COP28, it will represent Chinese photovoltaic (PV) enterprises to have high-end dialogues with relevant international organizations, so that more key decision-makers in energy and climate overseas and around the world will understand the efforts and contributions made by Chinese PV enterprises to global energy transition and carbon emission reduction.”

Given the position of China in the global supply of low-carbon and renewable energy technologies, it came as a surprise that China did not sign the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge adopted during COP28, although in the Sunnylands deal, China agreed to “support the G20 Leaders Declaration to pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030”.

One reason may be that China in general has been reluctant to adopt the pledges or agreements negotiated “on the sidelines” of the regular COP negotiations. Another reason may have been that the precise implementation of the targets of the pledge is formulated in general terms for all countries collectively and thus somewhat unclear, for instance, by not strictly defining the base year for the ambition to triple the capacity, and furthermore, by not including hydropower as renewable energy. Finally, it is clear that it will be harder for countries that already have substantial renewable energy generation capacity to increase this capacity three — or even two — times.


The fossil fuel debacle

For most observers, the most important issue at COP28 was whether an international consensus could be established for “phasing out” or even “phasing down” fossil fuels.

Xie Zhenhua, had also said in September that “completely eliminating fossil energy is not realistic”.

It was expected that this would be difficult, given that the conference was hosted by one of the leading global producers of fossil fuel and led by Dr Al Jaber, who had argued that “there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C”. Xie Zhenhua, had also said in September that “completely eliminating fossil energy is not realistic”.

The negotiations were difficult, with the head of OPEC urging member nations to reject any COP28 agreement that “targets” fossil fuels, causing the UN’s climate chief Simon Stiell to urge all parties to lift “tactical blockades” to a deal to phase out fossil fuels.

In the end, the Outcome of the First Global Stocktake adopted at the conference on 13 December 2023 noted that Parties were off track in terms of meeting their Paris Agreement goals, and called on Parties to accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power, phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and other measures that would drive the transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems.


China resisted funding contribution

The most vulnerable developing countries had high hopes regarding the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund that had been one of the key outcomes of COP27. The good news was that, on the first day of COP28, delegates formally agreed to establish this fund. Moreover, a combined total of just over US$700 million was pledged by various governments in developed or oil-rich countries.

While this figure is an important start, it, unfortunately, constitutes a fraction of the funding needed to cover the economic losses that developing countries incur due to global warming, which has been estimated to amount to between US$100 billion and U$580 billion every year.


China has resisted the call to start contributing to this fund based on its perceived status as a developing country…

Despite strong international political pressure, China has resisted the call to start contributing to this fund based on its perceived status as a developing country and arguing that China already offers extensive funding for south-south projects related to climate change.

From a Chinese perspective, the countries that have historically contributed most to carbon emissions should also contribute most funding and technology — but increasingly the large size of greenhouse gas emissions that China has been responsible for during more than three decades of rapid economic growth places it among the top emitters historically.


A successful COP28 for China

China’s chief negotiator at COP28, Su Wei, has argued: “Judging from the final result, despite the ups and downs of the process, all parties finally reached a ‘good result’ on the Global Stocktake. This is not a result that everyone is completely satisfied with, but at least it is an acceptable result and is better than expected.”

He also revealed that fossil fuels were the core and most difficult issue to negotiate at COP28. At the critical moment when the negotiations reached a deadlock, China, the US and the host country had face-to-face communication and made suggestions on the final text.

The status of China in the negotiations was clearly enhanced by the compromise that the climate envoys from the US and China, John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua, had reached with the Sunnylands Statement in November 2023. Many of the final expressions in key decisions reached in Dubai such as the Global Stocktake reflect a similar tone and occasionally more or less identical formulations as the text from Sunnylands.

The formulations concerning fossil fuel in the COP28 negotiations were also weakened — or simply deleted — for the final decision on the Global Stocktake.

China is also likely to benefit substantially from the decision to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, which should drive new global demand for renewable energy and low-carbon technologies, in particular, due to the dominant position that Chinese industries occupy in wind and solar energy and new energy vehicles. In fact, this potential demand for Chinese technologies would benefit China regardless of whether or not it signed the Global Renewables and Energy Efficiency Pledge.

The formulations concerning fossil fuel in the COP28 negotiations were also weakened — or simply deleted — for the final decision on the Global Stocktake. Furthermore, sensitive issues such as China’s heavy reliance on coal and the Chinese government’s continued construction of coal-fired power plants, which constitute the opposite of “phasing out, or down”, can still be defended (with a bit of political imagination) as part of a “transition” away from fossil fuel! Why should China not be happy with this?


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