The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. More than 195 countries are Parties. The UNFCCC is the world’s principal multilateral agreement on climate change.1

China ratified the UNFCCC in 1993. It has participated in all annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the UNFCCC and many related meetings, with a steadily growing delegation and role.2

In negotiations under the UNFCCC, China has been a forceful advocate for the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Under that principle, set forth in Article 3.1 of the Convention, all countries are responsible for contributing to solutions to climate change, but the nature and extent of those responsibilities vary. China has also advocated strongly for:

    • flexibility for developing countries on a range of topics, including monitoring, reporting and verification of emissions;
    • financial and technical support from developed countries to developing countries to help with emissions reductions and adaptation to climate change; and
    • priority attention to the adaptation needs of developing countries.3

In the 1990s, China and other developing countries insisted that they—unlike industrialized countries—should not be subject to binding emissions limits under the UNFCCC. That position was reflected in the structure of the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties (COP 3) in 1997 and entered into force in 2005.

By the time of the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 (COP 15), China had become the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases. Prior to the Copenhagen conference, China pledged to cut CO2 emissions per unit of GDP 40%–45% from 2005 levels by 2020—its first international pledge to limit CO2 emissions. China also pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 15% and increase forest cover by 40 million hectares from 2005 levels, both by 2020. Premier Wen Jiabao traveled to Copenhagen, where he met with several heads of state in the final, dramatic hours of the conference. The Copenhagen conference was widely perceived to be a failure, and China, along with many other major emitters, received considerable criticism for the meeting’s outcome.4

In the years that followed the Copenhagen conference China’s leaders increasingly sought common ground on climate change with other countries, including the United States. In 2014, President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama made a historic joint announcement on climate change, announcing domestic emissions goals and plans to work together toward a new global climate agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Paris in December 2015. The joint announcement marked a turning point in the global climate negotiations, with the leaders of the world’s two largest emitters—the largest developing and developed countries—pledging to work together to achieve a global agreement.5

In connection with the Paris climate conference (COP 21), Parties to the UNFCCC agreed to submit national action plans for addressing climate change (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs). China submitted its INDC in June 2015. In its INDC, China pledged to peak its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and make best efforts to peak earlier. It also pledged that, by 2030, it would (1) lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP 60%–65% from the 2005 level, (2) increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% and (3) increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level.6

President Xi Jinping joined the opening ceremonies of the Paris climate conference, declaring that “tackling climate change is a shared mission of all mankind.” The Chinese delegation participated actively in shaping the Paris Agreement, which was adopted on December 12, 2015. China ratified the Paris Agreement on September 3, 2016 in a joint ceremony with the United States.7

In June 2017, following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the Chinese government strongly reaffirmed its commitment to the accord. The Chinese government has reiterated that position on many occasions since. In October 2017, in a high-profile report to the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping said that China is “taking the driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change.”8

The Chinese delegation played a central role in the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 24), held in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018. The principal issue facing negotiators at Katowice were the terms of the “Paris rule book”—a detailed set of requirements on topics including the monitoring, reporting and verification of emissions. Unresolved issues prior to the Katowice conference included the amount of transparency that would be required and the obligations of developing country Parties. In a compromise with the EU and other developed countries, China accepted a common set of standards for all Parties, with some flexibility for developing country Parties in implementation.”9

In a September 2020 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Xi Jinping announced that China would “aim… to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.” The pledge implied dramatic changes in the Chinese economy in the decades ahead and made headlines around the world.10

In December 2020, President Xi Jinping participated in the Climate Ambition Summit convened by the United Nations, the United Kingdom and France. President Xi reiterated that China aims “to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060” and announced four new commitments, pledging that by 2030 China will:

  • lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65% from the 2005 level;
  • increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25%;
  • increase the forest stock volume by 6 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level; and
  • bring its total installed capacity of wind and solar power to over 1.2 gigawatts.11

In October 2021, China formally submitted two documents to the UNFCCC pursuant to its commitments under the Paris Agreement.

  • In its updated Nationally Determined Contributions, the Chinese government reiterated the pledges made by President Xi at the Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020. The document opens by stating that “Climate change is a grim challenge facing all mankind” and emphasizes that “to address climate change is not at others’ request but on China’s own initiative.”12
  • In its Mid-Century Strategy, the Chinese government reiterated its 2030 carbon peaking and 2060 carbon neutrality goals, while discussing strategic priorities including to “foster a green, low-carbon and circular economic system,” “build a clean, low-carbon, safe and efficient energy system,” and “establish a low GHG emission industrial system.”13

China was an active participant in the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 26), held in Glasgow in November 2021. China joined the Glasgow Climate Pact, agreeing for the first time to language targeting coal use in a UNFCCC document. (The Chinese delegation insisted that the text call for accelerating efforts to “phase down” instead of “phase out” unabated coal power.) China joined the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use but did not join the Global Methane Pledge announced by more than 100 countries at the conference. China joined with the United States in announcing the U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s. In the U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration, the Chinese government pledged “to develop a comprehensive and ambitious National Action Plan on methane” before COP 27 (in November 2022).14


UNFCCC, “Parties,” (accessed August 8, 2022).
Craig Hart, Zhu Jiayan and Ying Jiahui, Mapping China’s Climate and Energy Policies(December 2018) at pp. 108-135.
Malcolm Moore, “China announces carbon target for Copenhagen,” Telegraph (November 26, 2009); “Why did Copenhagen fail to deliver a climate deal?” BBC News (December 22, 2009); Mark Lynas, “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room,” Guardian (December 22, 2009).
See “Xi Jinping’s Speech to 19th CPC National Congress” (in Chinese) (November 3, 2017); Michael Swaine,“Chinese Attitudes Toward the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Accords,” China Leadership Monitor (September 11, 2017).
Lily Hartzell, “A Shift in Climate Strategy: China at the COP 24,” China-US Focus (January 25, 2019); Kalina Oroschakoff and Paola Tamma, “UN chief intervenes as climate talks stumble,” Politico (December 12, 2018).
People’s Republic of China, China’s Achievements, New Goals and New Measures for Nationally Determined Contributions (October 2021). See Chapter 4–Climate Goals.

Guide to Chinese Climate Policy