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Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

Xie Zhenhua: China and the U.S. Have Not Broken Ties on Climate Issues

"I won't talk about the opening remarks, I will leave the time to the media," Xie Zhenhua said, cutting to the chase.

Xie Zhenhua, China's special envoy on climate change affairs, spoke at the special press conference of the Chinese delegation to the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) on November 9.

The climate summit is taking place November 6 to 18 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. This year, the conference focuses on implementation and the promotion of the global response to climate change. The issue of "loss and damage" was listed on the agenda for the first time, and negotiations on climate financing were also a large focus.

Xie Zhenhua emphasized at the press conference that he hoped developed countries would fulfill their annual aid commitment of US$100 billion as soon as possible, and give a roadmap for doubling climate adaptation funds, so as to enhance mutual trust and synergy between the Global North and South.

The 73-year-old Xie Zhenhua is a veteran figure in China's climate and environmental protection circles. So far, he has led the Chinese climate delegation to participate in international climate negotiations for 15 consecutive years.

Here's a rundown of the discussions at the press conference.

China, U.S. still discussing climate issues informally

On August 2 this year, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan in disregard of China’s strong opposition, causing Chinese-U.S. relations to drop to a freezing point, including the suspension of the China-U.S. climate change negotiations.

During COP27, China-U.S. climate cooperation was one of the topics of high concern to the outside world. Xie Zhenhua clarified that although China and the United States have not yet resumed formal climate cooperation talks, the relationship between China and the United States on climate issues has never been interrupted.

He mentioned that China and the United States have a good long-term cooperation history on climate change issues, and jointly worked to make the Paris Agreement come to life. In 2021, China and the United States issued two joint statements and are also planning to set up a joint working group. However, when the cooperation between the two sides was progressing very smoothly, Pelosi visited Taiwan. 

"We hope that the U.S. side will remove the obstacles first. The door is closed by the U.S. side," Xie Zhenhua said.

Xie Zhenhua said in order to make COP27 a success, China and the United States have started informal talks, referring to his 25-year friendship with U.S. Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry. 

"We exchanged 8 letters, and also conducted informal communication and consultation among friends to discuss how to support Egypt, the host country of COP27, and adhere to multilateralism in solving climate issues," he said.

Developed countries should spend $100 billion first this year

As early as the Copenhagen Climate Conference (COP15) in 2009, developed countries promised to provide US$100 billion in aid to developing countries every year by 2020. Over the past 13 years, the promises have not been fulfilled, and developed countries have accumulatively defaulted on aid funds of more than U$260 billion.

Xie Zhenhua suggested that the developed countries first contribute $100 billion in 2022, and determine the timetable and roadmap for further capital increase after 2025 according to the established commitments.

Xie Zhenhua said considering the different national conditions and capabilities of countries, the basic principle of the Paris Agreement is "common but differentiated responsibilities." 

“Now is not the time to renegotiate the Paris Agreement but to implement it. The aim of this conference is to focus on implementation, and implementation must come with action,” he says.

"Loss damage" is on the climate conference agenda for the first time. Xie Zhenhua said China very much supports the "loss and damage" claims of developing countries and vulnerable countries. China is also a developing country, and this year's climate disasters have also brought huge losses to China, leading the Chinese side to feel the same. China is willing to help developing countries improve their adaptability through South-South cooperation, including their allocation of 2 billion yuan to help other developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Developing countries are particularly concerned about climate adaptation. Xie Zhenhua said that adaptation and mitigation of climate change should be given equal importance, as "adaptation" has not received due attention in the past few years.

Not in favor of unilateral carbon tariffs

The European Commission plans to start the carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) from January 1, 2023. This mechanism will introduce carbon price constraints on imported products, meaning the importer needs to pay the corresponding carbon tariff for the imported goods to match the European Union's industry trading prices in the Emissions Trading System (ETS) , with a 3-year transition period.

Xie Zhenhua responded that the calculation of carbon footprint is complicated and requires a unified standard rather than a country's final say. Carbon pricing must not only comply with the WTO reciprocity principle, but also abide by "common but differentiated responsibilities." It also needs to be implemented based on consensus between the negotiating parties. If unilateral measures are taken and the atmosphere of multilateral cooperation is destroyed, the result will only be counterproductive, he said.

Xie Zhenhua suggested that the sixth global carbon market agreement in the "Paris Agreement" should be improved first, and global carbon trading rules should be established. Under this mechanism, carbon leakage should be prevented instead of unilateral measures. When it comes to China's domestic carbon market, Xie Zhenhua said that China's carbon market will raise the level of legislation, expand the scope of the industry, and consider cooperating with the European Union, the United States, Japan, and South Korea to establish a regional and even global carbon market, so that Article 6 of the Paris Agreement can be implemented.

Immediate phase-out of coal power is not scientific and unrealistic

This summer, Sichuan has experienced high temperature and drought, and its hydropower output has dropped sharply, leading to a crisis of power cuts. 

"In an area with a population of over 100 million, the main power supply is not enough," Xie Zhenhua said. He explained that the guarantee of supply depends on coal power plants. It is unscientific, unrealistic, and unrealistic to immediately phase out coal power.

Taking the European energy crisis as an example, he talked about restarting coal power in many countries, increasing coal consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, which are also based on reality. "We understand this, so China's current approach is scientific and practical," he said.

Energy transition is a complex and long-term process of systems engineering. The outside world is hotly discussing the balance between China's coal increases and emissions reductions. Xie Zhenhua explained renewable energy is intermittent, and energy supply and power must be guaranteed. For system security, coal is still needed, and while China is increasing coal-fired power plants, it has also phased out 120 million kilowatts of outdated coal-fired power plants, greatly increasing the installed capacity of renewable energy. 

"The new thermal power plant is mainly to maintain the stability of the power grid, and it is not running at full capacity, and the carbon emissions remain flat," he said.

Methane emissions control program has been completed

Methane is the second largest greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, and its greenhouse effect is more than 20 times that of carbon dioxide. In the field of methane emissions reduction, China has started research and monitoring, and has begun to formulate strategies and programs related to methane emission control. During the COP27 meeting, the outside world is also quite concerned about whether China has a new position in the field of methane emission reduction.

Xie Zhenhua revealed that China has completed the action plan strategy for controlling methane emissions and is currently in the approval stage. Next, the main focus of methane emission reduction is oil and gas, agriculture and animal husbandry, and garbage and waste. The plan also clarifies the corresponding goals, plans and incentive policy measures.

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published in Mandarin by Caijing on 11 November 2022 and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Xie Zhenhua, China's Special Envoy for Climate Change Affairs, attended a special press conference of the Chinese delegation at COP27 / Credit: Xuewan Chen.