COP27 Dispatch: China’s Rapidly Evolving Role in Global Climate Negotiations

Scott Moore, Director of the Penn Global China Program, discusses China’s perspective on loss and damage finance, and the country’s future role in the Paris climate process. 

Experts from the University of Pennsylvania are on the ground at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. In this special series from Energy Policy Now, they share their observations from the global climate conference and insights into key issues under negotiation.

Scott Moore, Director of the Penn Global China Program, discusses China’s role in global climate negotiations in an era of tense U.S.-China relations. Scott explores China’s role in getting loss and damage finance included in this year’s COP agenda and the tensions created by China’s position as both a developing country and a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Scott Moore’s work focuses on China, climate change, and international relations. He is the author of the recently published book, China’s Next Act: How Sustainability and Technology are Reshaping China’s Rise and the World’s Future.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and recording from COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Over the two weeks of COP, I’m holding short conversations with experts from the University of Pennsylvania on a number of priority issues that are being discussed at this year’s global climate change conference.

In this episode, I’ll be speaking with Scott Moore, Director of the Penn Global China Program. Scott’s work focuses on China, climate change, and international relations. We’ll be talking about developments relating to China here at COP. Scott, welcome to the podcast.

Scott Moore: Thanks so much, Andy. It’s great to be here.

Stone: Now you have just published a book on China and sustainability. I wanted to ask you about it before we have our conversation.

Moore: Absolutely. So the book focuses on what I think is a rapidly changing part of China’s role in the world, and that is actually that although we’re used to thinking of China primarily as an economic player, the world’s second-largest economy, it has also become one of the leading players when it comes to addressing global challenges like climate change, as the world’s largest emitter. And that is something we’re seeing in spades here at COP27. The book is really about trying to explain how and why that shift takes place, with China becoming a critical player in sustainability, as well as more traditional areas like economics, and what that means for countries like the United States.

Stone: Okay, could you give us a sense of how China’s role at this COP is shaping up, compared with past years?

Moore: So just to kind of give a brief overview of what that looked like in the past, for the first really almost twenty years of these climate conferences, there was a pretty sharp and deep divide between developed and developing countries. And China positioned itself pretty firmly in solidarity with other developing countries. And it was an influential voice within something called the G77, which is the largest kind of caucus or grouping of developing countries within the U.N. climate talks.

In 2014-2015, though, you saw a really significant shift in China’s position, where it agreed through several joint statements and declarations with the United States to acknowledge its distinctive role as the world’s largest emitter. And China became the world’s largest emitter in the early 2000s. It agreed to take some actions that were more ambitious than those agreed by other developing countries, in particular to take steps to peak and eventually reduce its greenhouse gas emissions independent of direct pledges of financial assistance and technology transfer from richer countries, which had been the position of developing countries before that.

What you’ve seen at this conference of the parties which is new and to me very interesting is that you’re starting to see some pressure from other developing countries for China, which in addition to being the largest emitter, is the second-largest economy, to increase its support for adaptation, as well as what’s known as “loss and damage” — which is essentially compensation for the effects of climate change to countries that have been heavily impacted.

So that pressure is new, and what it kind of signals is that there may be some widening divides among the developing countries that had historically functioned more as a bloc. It’s a little bit early to see what this trend looks like and what direction it will take, but it is a new trend, and it’s very interesting. It has some potential to reshape the politics and dynamics of these negotiations.

Stone: As you’ve just begun to talk about the Group of 77 and China advocated for loss and damage finance to be included on the COP agenda, it has, in fact, been included at COP for the first time here in Sharm El Sheikh. To me, it’s sort of an awkward situation, though. China is both a developing country, and at the same time, it’s the world’s leading emitter of GHGs by far.

Moore: That’s right. And in fact, China’s emissions are so large that they’re now, in annual total terms, twice as large as the United States, even though on a per capita basis, they’re about half those of the United States. But they’re so enormous and have been so large since the start of the 21st century that you’re actually seeing China’s emissions so far approach about 13% of total historical emissions since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, where developed economies contribute somewhere closer to 20%. So the gap, even in total cumulative historical terms, has started to shrink, and that really underscores, as you said, that China is in a little bit of a special category, both as the largest emitter but also the largest developing economy, and one that on a per capita basis is richer than other large, developing economies like India that are also significant emitters.

So for that combination of emissions and economic reasons, you’re right that China is in a bit of a special position, and it has become increasingly awkward. And I think fundamentally that is why you’ve seen China step out a little bit on its own, first when it comes to mitigation about seven years ago, and now, possibly with adaptation going forward.

Stone: What is China’s view and interest in L&D finance?

Moore: It’s worth maybe just saying a little bit more about what loss and damage is in distinction from adaptation. Just as a quick sort of background, roughly you can sort of divide climate policy into a couple of areas. There’s mitigation, which are actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sort of reduce the extent of climate change, so to speak. Then you’ve got adaptation which is finding ways to effectively respond or deal with climate change effects that are happening or will happen into the future.

And then you’ve got issues like loss and damage, which are sort of related to adaptation but are a little bit different in that they specifically refer to the kind of moral need for the countries that have contributed most to causing climate change, to effectively compensate those who have been most negatively affected. And in terms of climate negotiations like this one, the way that plays out is pressure from countries like small island developing states that are, in some cases, at risk of literally disappearing because of climate change — being wiped off the map — pressing large, rich economies like the United States, like the European Union, like Japan to compensate their people for those likely effects.

So on that basis, China’s position historically has been, again, in sort of lockstep solidarity with developing countries, that loss and damage is a legitimate claim that developing countries make on the developed world. And that it should be a developed country’s responsibility to compensate those countries for the loss and damage suffered as a result of climate change.

What you’re seeing now at this COP, which is again, a little bit new and different is that some countries — and I emphasize that at the moment it’s a few, it’s not a mass movement — are starting to press China for loss and damage claims because of the sheer scale of its emissions and because of its contribution to climate change. And that is something that so far China has resisted conceptually, the idea that China as a developing country may, in fact, have responsibility for causing climate change. The position so far has been that any responsibility lies with the richer, developed countries.

Stone: Has China itself been seeking financing to address loss and damages within its own borders that may be the result of climate change?

Moore: That’s a great question, Andy, and I have not seen or heard that, that China is actually specifically seeking compensation. But I think that would actually be an effective tactic. And certainly what China has emphasized, even going back really to the start of the international climate talks back in the early ’90s is that China is heavily affected by climate change. The tag line that China has used quite often is that China is one of the developing countries most exposed to climate change impacts.

So I think that argument is implicit in China’s climate policy, but it has not been made explicit, to my knowledge. But just as a final point, I could see that being a likely response, if this pressure from other countries on China continues. And I might just quickly add that at this COP, I’m sure you’re starting to hear the U.S. and countries like Germany also sort of press China for some more ambitious commitments when it comes to adaptation and loss and damage.

Stone: You know, there has been some deadly flooding in Central and Northern China this year. Has climate change been identified as a contributing factor in that flooding?

Moore: Yes, in short. It’s always worth saying the caveat that specific, extreme weather events — that kind of attribution — is quite complicated. But it can be said with some certainty that the extreme weather events that China has seen in recent years are linked to climate change. And in addition to severe flooding, China just this past year experienced the most extreme heat wave anywhere in the world in the meteorological record, both in terms of how long it lasted, its intensity, and the number of people in the area affected. So you see superlative statistics like that, and it’s hard to imagine them not being linked to climate change, particularly when all of the models and a fair amount of observational science, as well, makes that linkage between those types of extreme weather events and climate change.

Stone: Scott, a final question for you here. How do you see China’s role evolving after this COP?

Moore: I think it’s going to depend quite a lot, actually, on whether this pressure that we’ve seen on China from some developing countries and some developed countries builds and whether there’s sort of a widening gap between China and other developing countries going forward. But I think in a sort of ideal world, actually, it will create some pressure on China to increase its commitment to adaptation financing, which to date has been pretty limited. And it has been mostly through existing mechanisms for foreign investment that China has established. And one thing that’s very clear is that we do need enormous new sums of money for adaptation, so if that can come from China or other large, developing economies, I think that will have some positive impacts.

The other thing to note is that this COP is the first one where there is formally no U.S./China dialogue or contact on climate change. Beijing decided to suspend that dialogue and that cooperation in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan back in August. And though there have been numerous informal conversations and contacts, that dialogue remains suspended. And so I think a key question going forward is if that suspension will be lifted. I think it will, but it’s not clear exactly when. But it could be before the end of the year. But I think that will be a key question, too, in terms of how China’s role evolves, whether that U.S./China cooperation is revitalized. If it is not, I think you’ll see China engaging more intensely in different multilateral groupings. China has been an active participant in G20 discussions regarding aspects of climate change policy, green finance, for example. So I would expect to see China increase its involvement in multilateral fora like that in response.

Stone: Scott, thanks very much for talking.

Moore: Thank you, Andy.

Stone: Thanks for listening to this special episode of the Energy Policy Now podcast, recorded at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Check out Energy Policy Now on the Kleinman Center website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. To keep up with research and events from the Kleinman Center, visit our website.

Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now and have a great day.


Scott Moore

Director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives
Scott Moore is a former senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and the Director of China Programs and Strategic Initiatives. He is also a practice professor of political science.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.