How China, the largest annual climate polluter, avoids paying reparations

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

A lot has changed since then: China is now the world’s second-largest economy and the largest annual emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases. 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 developed-nation diplomats who say it has allowed Beijing to avoid paying its fair share to help poor countries cope with the ravages of climate change.

The debate over what China owes to countries least responsible for global warming, but most harmed by its effects, has dramatically escalated 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 nations agreed to set up a fund to compensate vulnerable countries for the costs incurred in dealing with rising sea levels, stronger storms and other warming effects global.

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

COP27 leaves world on dangerous warming path despite historic climate fund

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

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

“Developed countries, including the United States, need to take more responsibility,” Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said in an email. “This is not moral but with reason. From the mid-18th century to 1950, developed countries accounted for 95 percent of all carbon dioxide released.

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

“China is still on the side of developing countries on this funding issue,” said Byford Tsang, senior policy adviser at the international climate think tank E3G. “Wealthier, more developed nations have made it easy for China to take that position because they haven’t delivered on their pledge on climate finance that was made more than a decade ago.”

Tsang added that he does not expect China to attempt to withdraw money from the new fund aimed at helping vulnerable countries cope with the irreversible effects of global warming, known as “loss and damage” in the parlance of the United Nations climate negotiations.

“I don’t think politicians in Beijing are taking the position that they should receive the 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 sea prices. seas.

Chinese officials have not officially stated whether they will contribute to the fund. When asked about the issue at COP27, Chinese 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 climate disasters have also caused huge losses to China this year. We sympathize with the suffering of developing countries and fully support their demands.”

Xie added that while “not our responsibility,” China has provided 2 billion yuan ($280 million) to help developing countries cut emissions and adapt to global warming through a separate fund for South-South climate cooperation.

Analysts said Beijing officials seemed unlikely to send climate aid through UN channels or make more aggressive pledges when under pressure at home to address an economic slowdown caused in part by strict “zero covid” policy. ” of China and a downturn in the real estate market. In response to an energy shortage last year, China approved a huge increase in coal capacity.

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

“It would be like accepting responsibility for the developed country, and that’s always been a red line for China,” he said.

While US diplomats have agreed to set up the loss and damage fund, reversing long-standing US resistance to the idea, there is no guarantee that Congress will appropriate the money. Last year, President Biden requested $2.5 billion in international climate finance but only secured $1 billion, and that’s when Democrats controlled both houses.

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

“The idea that we owe developing countries some sort of climate remediation is preposterous,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) said in an interview. “If anything, we could send them a bill 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 to the effort. “I would think if John F. Kerry had a modicum of patriotism as he negotiated this nonsense, he would insist that China pay,” he said.

Asked for comment, Kerry spokeswoman Whitney Smith pointed to a previously released statement saying the United States “will continue to pressure major emitters like China to significantly improve” their climate ambitions. but they did not specify whether they push China to pay for climate damage. .

During the COP27 negotiations, the European Union sought to separate China from other developing nations by offering to pay a fund to the most vulnerable countries, provided that large emitters such as Beijing were included as potential donors and excluded as potential recipients.

“We call it 1992 world against 2022,” said a European negotiator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

In the closing hours of the talks, negotiators reached a compromise, agreeing to prioritize the most vulnerable countries and allowing China to contribute, but only if it wishes.

At previous United Nations climate summits, China allied with a group of more than 100 developing countries who pressed the rich world for more financial assistance. Leading this push at COP27 was Pakistan, one of China’s closest diplomatic partners, which relies heavily on Chinese investment for its energy transition. Pakistan, historically responsible for less than 1 percent 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 damages. Scientists said the floods were overburdened 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-stricken Pakistan leads the campaign to make polluting countries pay

While developing countries negotiate as one large group at United Nations climate conferences, they often have very different interests. Saudi Arabia, which is still considered a developing country despite its wealth from its oil reserves, has sought to eliminate language in United Nations climate accords calling for the phasing out of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the small island nation of Vanuatu, which could be swallowed by rising seas, has struggled to include language calling for a rapid reduction in emissions.

For some countries, the misalignment is sustainable as long as China is willing to use its weight to defend the interests of the most vulnerable.

“China has always been on the side of developing countries’ interests,” said Malik Amin Aslam, who served as Pakistan’s climate change minister until earlier this year. “This is different from the developed world.”

He said that in his view, it is more important for China to support assistance from richer nations than to contribute its own money. “I don’t see China as the big bad here,” she said.

Other politicians think differently.

“They’re always looking for language that protects them, gives them less responsibility, no obligation for developing countries,” said a former climate diplomat from a coastal developing nation who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation from part of Beijing. “That firewall between developed and developing [has] he protected them.”

Ultimately, any future move by the United Nations 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 failure,” Li said of Greenpeace. “We will never be able to recategorize.”

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

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