The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. More than 195 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) under the UNFCCC and many related meetings, with a steadily growing delegation and role.2
In discussions 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. 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 (the 15th annual Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC), China had become the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases. At 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 nonfossil 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.
In the years that followed the Copenhagen conference, the Chinese delegation to the UNFCCC sought common ground with other countries in the UNFCCC process, including in particular 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 of the UNFCCC in Paris in December 2015.
In connection with the Paris climate conference, 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. (It was the first developing country to do so.) In its INDC, China pledged to achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030, making best efforts to peak early. It also pledged that, by 2030, it would (1) lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60%–65% from the 2005 level, (2) increase the share of nonfossil 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.3
President Xi Jinping joined the opening ceremonies of the Paris conference (COP-21), declaring that “tackling climate change is a shared mission of all mankind.”4 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 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.”5
1. UNFCCC, “Parties,” https://unfccc.int/process/parties-non-party-stakeholders/parties-convention-and-observer-states (accessed July 2, 2018).
2. See generally Yu Jie, “Entering the mainstream: an evolution in China’s climate diplomacy,” China Dialogue (December 1, 2015), https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/8369-Entering-the-mainstream-an- evolution-in-China-s-climate-diplomacy.
3. People’s Republic of China, Enhanced Action on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (June 2015), http://www4.unfccc.int/ndcregistry/PublishedDocuments/China%20First/China%27s%20First%20NDC%20Submission.pdf.
4. “President Xi’s speech at opening ceremony of Paris climate summit,” China Daily (December 1, 2015), http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/XiattendsParisclimateconference/2015-12/01/content_22592469.htm.
5. See “Xi Jinping’s Speech to 19th CPC National Congress” (November 3, 2017), http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2017-11/03/c_136725942.htm; Michael Swaine, “Chinese Attitudes Toward the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Accords,” China Leadership Monitor (September 11, 2017), http://carnegieendowment.org/2017/08/28/chinese-attitudes-toward-u.s.-withdrawal-from-paris-climate-accords-pub-72920.