France-China statement heralds progress on path to climate conference

Beijing accepts legally binding text with reviews every five years in major breakthrough

A joint statement on climate change signed by France’s president François Hollande and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping this week has been hailed as a major step towards agreement at the November 30th-December 11th COP21 climate conference in Paris.

China is watched closely by developing countries which are eager to replicate its rapid economic growth, while avoiding environmental damage. The November 2nd statement "could inspire compromise", says a source close to France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who will preside over the conference.

“China is a really important player in this game,” says Céline Ramstein, head of the COP21 project at SciencesPo. “To have them signing on is a powerful political symbol.”

The 21-article text painstakingly respects the delicate balance between the interests of developed and developing countries. The French are determined not to repeat the Danish mistake at the last climate change summit in 2009, of attempting to impose its own text at the conference.

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China has positioned itself as an arbiter between the G77 (in fact, 134 developing and emerging countries) and the developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In the past, Beijing refused to consider any deadlines before 2030, when it has promised its carbon emissions will peak.

In a major breakthrough, Xi this week signed on to a review clause that would require all parties to increase their commitments every five years. The clause is one of the main ambitions of the French, because without it there is no hope of limiting the rise in world temperatures to 2 degrees by 2100.

The review clause is opposed by India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but with the EU, US and China supporting it, they may be forced to concede.

If an accord is announced on December 11th, it will not take effect until 2020. Paris also obtained Chinese acceptance of a “facilitating dialogue” to take stock of progress in 2017-18. China’s endorsement of the call for a “legally binding” accord is also seen as significant progress.

Article 5 begins to break down the rigid delineation between developed and developing countries, as defined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Until now, only developed countries had obligations, while developing countries were asked to act on a volunteer basis. The Franco-Chinese statement foresees that the latter will “progressively orient themselves towards quantifiable reductions or limitations in emissions”.

In other signs of compromise, China allowed an OECD report which was rejected by the G77 to be mentioned, and supported the position that funding for energy transition in the developed world must be private as well as public.

The joint statement “didn’t just happen”, notes the source close to Fabius. The French foreign minister has visited China 12 times in 18 months. In the run-up to the Beijing signing, he received Chinese negotiators twice in person, then spent two 45-minute sessions on the telephone with them, going through the text, word by word. “It was touch and go,” says the foreign ministry source.

The day after the joint statement, the New York Times revealed that China has for years underestimated the amount of coal it burns by up to 17 per cent. French officials see the news in the context of the Franco-Chinese call for "improved transparency".

"The International Energy Agency said that in 2014, global emissions did not increase, for the first time," notes a French diplomat. "The main reason is because China is slowing its coal carbon emissions."

At the same time, Chinese statisticians are improving their methods. “What happened in China will strengthen the debate [at COP21] on verification measures,” the diplomat predicted.

“The Chinese want to be dealmakers at COP21,” she continued. “They’ve been positioning themselves for the past year. They were telling us for a long time that they wanted to make a really substantial joint declaration that would create a decisive impetus.”

Xin Wang, China researcher at SciencesPo’s COP21 project, notes that China has adopted a much more assertive foreign policy under President Xi. However, severe air, ground and water pollution is the main motivation for the country’s recent espousal of an “ecological civilisation”, enshrined in the communist party’s five-year plan.

“Pollution has become a threat to social stability, which is the leading concern of the party,” Wang says. China’s economic slowdown is also a factor. “The transition to a low carbon, green economy is considered a sustainable driver for economic growth.”

The Chinese public are being reminded that nature was respected in ancient China. “It makes the idea more acceptable, because people say, ‘This is something from our ancestors’,” says Wang.

Ramstein says the Chinese feel aggrieved to be constantly denounced as the world’s leading carbon emitter when, on a per capita basis, they rank seventh. In a related debate, she asks: “Can we really blame China for the emissions they create producing goods we consume?”