The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. More than 190 countries are Parties. The UNFCCC is the world’s principal multilateral agreement on climate change.[1]

China ratified the UNFCCC in 1993. It has participated in all annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the UNFCCC and many related meetings, with a steadily growing delegation and role.[2]

In negotiations under the UNFCCC, China has been a forceful advocate for the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Under that principle, set forth in Article 3.1 of the Convention, all countries are responsible for contributing to solutions to climate change, but the nature and extent of those responsibilities vary. China has also advocated strongly for:

  • flexibility for developing countries on a range of topics, including monitoring, reporting and verification of emissions;
  • financial and technical support from developed countries to developing countries to help with emissions reductions and adaptation to climate change; and
  • priority attention to the adaptation needs of developing countries.[3]

In the 1990s, China and other developing countries insisted that they—unlike industrialized countries—should not be subject to binding emissions limits under the UNFCCC. That position was reflected in the structure of the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties (COP-3) in 1997 and entered into force in 2002.

By the time of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 (COP-15), China had become the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases. Prior to the Copenhagen conference, China pledged to cut CO2 emissions per unit of GDP 40%–45% from 2005 levels by 2020—its first international pledge to limit CO2 emissions. China also pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 15% and increase forest cover 40 million hectares from 2005 levels, both by 2020. Premier Wen Jiabao traveled to Copenhagen, where he met with several heads of state in the final, dramatic hours of the conference. The Copenhagen conference was widely perceived to be a failure, and all major emitters, including China, received considerable criticism for the meeting’s outcome.[4]

In the years that followed the Copenhagen conference China’s leaders increasingly sought common ground on climate change with other countries, including the United States. In 2014, President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama made a historic joint announcement on climate change, announcing domestic emissions goals and plans to work together toward a new global climate agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Paris in December 2015. The joint announcement marked a turning point in the global climate negotiations, with the leaders of world’s two largest emitters—the largest developed and developing countries—pledging to work together to achieve a global agreement.[5]

In connection with the Paris climate conference (COP-21), Parties to the UNFCCC agreed to submit national action plans for addressing climate change (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs). China submitted its INDC in June 2015. In its INDC, submitted in June 2015, China pledged to peak its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and make best efforts to peak earlier. It also pledged that by 2030, it would (1) lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP 60%–65% from the 2005 level, (2) increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% and (3) increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level.[6]

President Xi Jinping joined the opening ceremonies of the Paris climate conference, declaring that “tackling climate change is a shared mission of all mankind.” The Chinese delegation participated actively in shaping the Paris Agreement, which was adopted on December 12, 2015. China ratified the Paris Agreement on September 3, 2016 in a joint ceremony with the United States.[7]

In June 2017, following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the Chinese government strongly reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris Agreement. It has reiterated that position on many occasions since. In October 2017, in a high-profile report to the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping said that China is “taking the driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change.”[8]

The Chinese delegation played a central role in the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP-24), held in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018. The principal issue facing negotiators at Katowice were the terms of the “Paris rule book”—a detailed set of requirements on topics including monitoring, reporting and verification of emissions. Unresolved issues prior to the Katowice conference included the amount of transparency that would be required and obligations of developing country Parties. In a compromise with the EU and other developed countries, China accepted a common set of standards for all Parties, with some flexibility for developing country Parties in implementation. Minister Xie Zhenhua, head of the Chinese delegation, said that developing countries are “willing to be transparent because transparency is the basis for mutual confidence. But we have to take into consideration that developing countries vary in capabilities and we must admit that fact.”[9]

Some commentators noted that the United States’ intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement strengthened China’s hand in the negotiations.[10]

Following a high-level meeting at the G20 Summit in June 2019, the Chinese and French governments issued a statement reporting they had reaffirmed their commitment “to update their Nationally Determined Contributions in a manner representing a progression beyond the current one and reflecting their highest possible ambition,” as well as to publish “long-term mid-century low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies” by 2020.[11]



[1] UNFCCC, “Parties,” (accessed July 27, 2019).

[2] See generally Yu Jie, “Entering the mainstream: an evolution in China’s climate diplomacy,” China Dialogue (December 1, 2015).

[3] See Craig Hart, Zhu Jiayan and Ying Jiahui, Mapping China’s Climate and Energy Policies (December 2018) at pp.108–135.

[4] Malcolm Moore, “China announces carbon target for Copenhagen,” Telegraph (November 26, 2009); “Why did Copenhagen fail to deliver a climate deal?,” BBC News (December 22, 2009); Mark Lynas, “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room,” Guardian (December 22, 2009).

[5] US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change (November 12, 2014).

[6] People’s Republic of China, Enhanced Action on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (June 2015).

[7] “President Xi’s speech at opening ceremony of Paris climate summit,” China Daily (December 1, 2015).

[8] See “Xi Jinping’s Speech to 19th CPC National Congress” (November 3, 2017); Michael Swaine, “Chinese Attitudes Toward the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Accords,” China Leadership Monitor (September 11, 2017).

[9] Lily Hartzell, “A Shift in Climate Strategy: China at the COP 24,” China-US Focus (January 25 , 2019); Kalina Oroschakoff  and Paola Tamma, “UN chief intervenes as climate talks stumble,” Politico (December 12, 2018).

[10] Kalina Oroschakoff  and Paola Tamma, “5 Takeaways from the COP24 Climate Summit,” Politico (December 16, 2018.

[11] “Press Statement on Climate Change following the Meeting Between the State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China, Foreign Minister of France and the United Nations Secretary-General” (June 29, 2019).

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