Could China’s Status as a Developing Nation in Climate Treaties Finally Be Coming to an End?

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At the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) currently underway in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, representatives from developing nations are doing what they always do at such meetings—clamoring for handouts from the developed world. But in a first, China is not assumed to be among them. The U.S. delegation and others have asserted that China no longer deserves the developing nation status it was originally granted in the 1992 UNFCC.

Several other developing nations are also questioning whether China, the world’s second largest economy and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases by far, should still get to play victim. Bringing an end to China’s treaty status as a developing nation would be a very useful step, though it alone falls far short of fixing the disproportionate burdens imposed on the U.S. by U.N. climate measures.

Momentum toward realism on China began last month when the Senate unanimously supported the long-overdue reclassification of China’s status during the ratification debate over the Kigali Amendment, a U.N. climate treaty targeting widely used refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as greenhouse gases. There, China was clinging to a U.N. determination from 1987 that it is a developing nation. As such, it would have been given a decade-long grace period from Kigali’s costliest restrictions, which will soon boost the cost of air conditioning and refrigeration for American homeowners and businesses. China would have even qualified for financial assistance from a U.N. Fund to help developing nations comply with the agreement.

Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Mike Lee (R-UT) submitted an amendment to the treaty requiring the State Department to formally request that the U.N. start treating China as a developed nation under the Kigali Amendment. This provision passed the Senate unanimously, 96-0, while the overall vote on this otherwise-problematic treaty was 69-21. So, while Kigali is still a bad deal for the U.S., at least it came with the silver lining that the Senate is on record against China’s free ride.

The momentum has carried over to UNFCC debate in Sharm el-Sheikh. Even U.S. Special Envoy John Kerry, who in the past ignored the unfairness of America’s largest industrial competitor enjoying developing nation status for the sake of facilitating negotiations, has apparently had enough. He now believes China should be considered a developed country and even wants it to chip in to help developing ones.

Getting China off the developing nation dole in climate agreements would be a very sensible step, but it would hardly dent the disparities between it and the U.S. China also insists on a much longer emissions reduction timeline that allows it to continue increasing fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions until it reaches a peak several years from now. And China’s record of treaty noncompliance means that even these weak targets may be flouted.

Bottom line: U.N. climate agreements would still allow the Chinese economy access to affordable coal-fired power and thus keep a big advantage over American-based competitors for years to come.

For its part, China has resisted any reclassification, and it may only consider one in exchange for other concessions. Nonetheless, that the discussion is even happening is an acknowledgment of reality, a rarity in climate conferences.

In sum, the belated recognition that China is no longer a developing nation is a useful step, but it only scratches the surface of all that is wrong with U.N. climate agreements.