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How long till China becomes a climate debtor?

As the world’s biggest carbon emitter, the pressure on China to cut its emissions and pay for less developed countries to cope with climate change is likely to increase

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As developed countries have historically contributed the most to the build-up of greenhouse gases, they should take on the bulk of emission cuts, argue Chinese officials (Image by Greenpeace/Vinai Dithajohn )

Ahead of the latest international climate talks in Warsaw, Chinese officials put the onus on the US, Europe and the other developed countries to meet emission cut targets and provide climate finance to developing countries.

The latest climate science report from the IPCC warned that total emissions needed to be kept within a maximum limit – known as the carbon budget – to avoid dangerous climate change.

As developed countries have historically contributed most to the build-up of greenhouse gases, said Xie Zhenhua, deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), they should take on the bulk of emission cuts and give poorer countries, including China, room to grow their economies and emissions.

But how much longer can China remain part of this latter group of countries, in terms of climate negotiations? And should the decision be based on total emissions, emissions per capita or per person average income?

Speaking at an event in London last week organised by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Tom Mitchell, head of climate change at the ODI, said the threshold point is getting closer for China.

“Every country in the world needs to push to get us within the carbon budget. Everyone is in debt, including China. The historic responsibility is important but we all have to find a way to reduce. There must be a threshold point where you switch from a net contributor to net receiver,” said Mitchell.

Speaking at the same event, Monica Araya, a climate advisor from Costa Rica, said China is likely to be considered a climate debtor after 2020.

“In one sense China says it is poor in negotiations on climate change, but at the same time it is coming to Costa Rica and providing US$1 billion in finance for fossil fuel infrastructure,” she said, adding that China is likely to be more receptive if the push for it to cut emissions and pay to help countries adapt comes from developing countries, rather than just the US and others in the West.

As international negotiators meet to discuss progress on meeting emissions cuts and climate finance, figures from ODI, released last week, suggested US$35 billion in climate finance had been raised so far - exceeding the US$30 billion developed countries agreed to raise at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. Germany, Japan, Norway, the UK and the US were the largest contributors, with Asia the largest recipient.

However, observers have highlighted the lack of finance being given for adaptation projects. More than 70% of the finance went on supporting mitigation, with just 17% on assisting developing countries in adapting and strengthening their resilience to the impacts of climate change.

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