COP27 climate talks: China is the world’s largest emitter. What’s its position at COP?


COP27 climate talks: China is the world’s largest emitter. What is its position at COP this year?

This special COP27 briefing originally appeared in our flagship daily newsletter, Grid Today. Sign up for it here to get the context and consequences of the news in your inbox each day.

While the U.S. is the world’s largest cumulative carbon emitter, China is quickly catching up as the largest annual emitter. Last year, when China submitted its updated climate goals under the Paris accords, experts were disappointed that it recycled previously announced targets — committing only to peak emissions “before 2030.” That target directly conflicts with the Paris Agreement ambition of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels. Meeting that goal would require the world to cut its emissions in half from 2019 levels by 2030.

Will China offer fresh targets this year?

Don’t hold your breath for major updates. Countries were encouraged to come to this year’s COP with new targets if their previous submissions weren’t aligned with the Paris targets, but few have. China is facing strong economic headwinds again this year, partially driven by its onerous zero-covid policy. This makes it unlikely that China will put forward new headline targets, but experts told Sixth Tone that China might offer up some new language, such as formally committing to reach net-zero emissions for all greenhouse gases, not just carbon, by 2060.

One positive development: China’s longtime climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said that China has established a plan to reduce its methane emissions, the second-most important greenhouse gas. Last year, in a joint pledge with the U.S., China committed to tackling these emissions, although it didn’t sign on to a U.S.- and EU-led deal to reduce methane emissions 30 percent by 2030.


The shadow of U.S.-China relations

Last year, the U.S. and China managed to pull together the joint climate pledge, including the methane commitment. This year, no such collaboration is expected. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan this summer — the highest-level U.S. visit to Taiwan in decades — Chinese leaders responded by cutting off climate talks with the U.S.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and Xie have taken advantage of COP to meet informally, though. The New York Times reported that the two envoys, who’ve worked together for decades, have already met at least three times on the sidelines of the conference, which began less than a week ago.

Where China stands on loss and damage

As my colleague Dave Levitan has reported, “loss and damage,” effectively climate reparations from rich countries to poor nations, is one of the big agenda items in Egypt. At a press conference, Xie said China is open to the idea of establishing a loss and damage fund, but China itself wouldn’t contribute to the fund. For the first time this week, the Association of Small Island Nations called on China and India to pay for loss and damage. China has historically clung to its status as a developing country to argue that it shouldn’t contribute to other U.N. climate financing mechanisms, but it has supported developing countries on its own terms through its own “south-south” climate fund.

What to watch for

Tomorrow, President Joe Biden is expected to deliver his speech at COP. President Xi Jinping will not be attending. But the two presidents will meet in person on Monday, ahead of next week’s G-20 meeting — the first time they’ve done so since Biden took office. Kerry told the New York Times, “It is conceivable that when they meet in Bali, something may break through,” so look out for any signs of progress on the two superpowers resuming climate talks.

  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.