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Climate Change

Japan and US take aim at China's 'developing' status on emissions

Pressure builds on world's No. 2 economy to accelerate decarbonization push

A coal-fired heating complex in Harbin: China is the world's second-largest economy and largest emitter of greenhouse gases.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan and the U.S. will begin discussing concrete measures to pressure China to curb greenhouse gas emissions, including ending preferential treatment on climate issues afforded to Beijing as a developing economy.

They believe that China must step up its efforts as the world's second-largest economy, and plan to raise the issue at the Group of Seven summit next month in the U.K. and the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in November.

Under a bilateral climate partnership launched last month, Japan and the U.S. pledged "to ensure all key stakeholders are involved in efforts to reduce domestic emissions and undertake international obligations and responsibilities, including contributions for climate finance, befitting to their positions."

Specifics have yet to be discussed, but Japan and the U.S. are looking into measures that would stop China from receiving climate-related assistance aimed at developing economies.

They could also enlist support from European nations. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has expressed an interest in reevaluating how development assistance works at the upcoming G-7 summit, which he will chair. The European Union is also weighing the idea of a carbon tariff on certain carbon-intensive products.

Helping developing countries lower their carbon footprint is considered key to an effective global climate strategy. But Japan and the U.S. question whether China should be grouped in with other developing countries.

China's economy began maturing later compared with countries like Japan or the U.S., and Beijing has long claimed that emissions restrictions on par with advanced economies would unfairly hold it back. But China's gross domestic product is now second only to the U.S. The country also accounts for 28% of global greenhouse gas emissions -- more than any other country in the world -- and aggressive measures by China will be vital to the global fight against climate change.

U.S. President Joe Biden is seen on the screen as European Council President Charles Michel attends a virtual U.S. global climate summit on April 22.   © Reuters

There have been doubts about China's commitment to reducing emissions. Japan and the U.S. had urged the country to set new goals for 2030 at the Leaders' Summit on Climate last month, but China instead reiterated its existing plan to peak emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2060.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has described China as the world's largest emerging economy. At last month's summit, he called on developed nations to help accelerate climate action in developing countries by providing financing and technology, aligning himself with the latter camp.

Developed economies are under pressure to set and achieve more ambitious reduction goals than developing countries, which require large-scale investment at home. Xi likely considers it to be in China's interest to be considered a developing country, at least when it comes to climate issues.

Generally, countries are considered to be developed once they surpass about $12,500 in per capita gross national income. China's figure came to $10,410 in 2019, falling under this threshold.

At the same time, China has been working to expand its global clout by actively providing economic assistance to developing countries. China's defense budget for 2021 was also set at 1.35 trillion yuan ($209 billion), one of the highest figures in the world. Such developments have only fueled criticism over China's stance.

The Paris climate accord, which took effect in 2016, affirms that developed countries should provide financial assistance to developing countries for curbing emissions. But the agreement did not set explicit criteria on which countries are developed or developing.

This means that the classification is still based on the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change from 1994, and China, as a developing country, still qualifies for assistance from climate funds established by developed countries.

The U.N. framework established a Green Climate Fund with a portfolio of $8.4 billion. Of that, 1.2% has been allocated to China. The country also received 38% of the $3.8 billion Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol.

Adjusting China's status under the Paris accord will be an uphill battle, since it requires support from both China and other developing countries. Japan and the U.S. will consider alternative measures like updating rules at climate funds to halt funding to China.

China is also categorized as a developing nation in the World Trade Organization, which grants it preferential trade treatment and other advantages. The organization allows each country to classify themselves as a developing country. 

"We are now at a point where we need to reevaluate the responsibilities of developed and developing countries in decarbonization efforts," said Kyoto Sangyo University professor Hideaki Fujii.

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