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China and the Global South: What to Watch at COP27

Mohammed ABED / AFP

By Cecilia Springer

This week, delegations from around the world are convening in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for the annual 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP27.

With Egypt hosting, this year’s climate talks promise to spotlight the concerns of the Global South. How will China factor in? Will there be overtures to repair the US-China climate relationship at COP27? Will China build bridges to advance the global climate agenda or pursue a more unilateral approach?

China strongly positions itself as a developing country within the negotiating blocs at the climate talks, but China is also well aware of its own carbon footprint. In assessing the relationship between China and the Global South at COP27, it will be key to watch the discussions surrounding loss and damage, natural gas development in Africa, and any overtures on climate cooperation between the US and China.

First, the biggest topic for this year’s talks is loss and damage (L&D): the idea that the global community needs to mobilize finance to support climate impacts communities cannot adapt to. These so-called “climate reparations” would go above and beyond climate finance commitments that wealthy nations have already made (and have yet to deliver on). As China continues to be the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter and bilateral financier, it will be interesting to see how its position on L&D may change. 

Second, climate negotiators will be attuned to the role of natural gas in Africa’s energy and development future. While last year’s climate talks in Glasgow focused on coal, this year, natural gas is making headlines as African leaders are uniting behind the idea that their countries cannot develop without fossil fuels – especially natural gas, which is less carbon-intensive than oil and coal, and plentiful in many African countries. China’s own fossil-heavy development path is seen as further justification for fellow Global South countries to follow the same trajectory before doubling down on decarbonization.

Even if African countries unite at COP27 to push for financing for domestic gas development, it seems unlikely that China would lend a helping hand – or any money at all. Indeed, China has financed less natural gas overseas than major multilateral development banks, and its primary interest in overseas gas is to secure its own domestic supply. However, China has emphasized that it follows host country demand, and if African countries truly unite behind a pro-gas platform, the status quo may change.

Third, it will be interesting to watch China’s new stance on climate cooperation unfold. While the so-called “G2” relationship between the US and China was crucial to the adoption of the Paris Agreement at the 2015 climate talks, that relationship has since fallen apart. China cut off climate talks with the US following Congresswoman and Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan earlier this year, and both countries are pursuing a more unilateral approach to climate policy. However, China did recently release a concept note on green energy cooperation that heavily emphasizes Global South partners and a development-oriented approach to green energy.

The fact that delegations from China are attending at all, given ongoing travel restrictions, is notable. Last year’s climate talks in Glasgow were noticeably short of the usual China Pavilion – the China Corporate Pavilion was there instead, and many participants joined remotely. This year, there already seems to be more attendance planned from the broader climate community in China, despite the risks that travelers will face when returning to China in terms of quarantine times and costs. Chinese leader Xi Jinping will not attend this year’s climate talks, though this is hardly surprising – he hasn’t attended since the Paris talks in 2015.

Ongoing shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and increasing climate catastrophes mean that the Global South is bearing the brunt of high prices, disrupted supply chains, and continued financial instability. As Global South countries evaluate their potential energy development paths, what role will they ask of China, and to what extent will China continue to push forward its own green Belt and Road Initiative agenda? China has committed to stepping up support for green and low-carbon energy in developing countries, but a boom in China’s overseas renewable energy investment has yet to emerge.

In all, COP27 will be a revealing moment for determining the future of the energy and climate relationship between China and the Global South.

Cecilia Springer is the Assistant Director of the Global China Initiative at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center. Follow her on Twitter: @han_cecilia.

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