China’s changing allies in the UN Climate Change Regime (Part I): China+G77 and CBDR

United Nations, New York, 7 March 1972 - The Preparatory Committee for the UN Conference on the Human Environment opens its fourth and final pre-Stockholm session. Source:
United Nations, New York, 7 March 1972 – The Preparatory Committee for the UN Conference on the Human Environment opens its fourth and final pre-Stockholm session. Source: UNEP 

Under the UNCCC framework, China has been pushing for a strict divide between developed and developing countries’ mitigation responsibilities and favored proposals that allow soft targets, protect developing country autonomy, and call for more ambitious actions on the part of industrialized countries. This can be demonstrated by China’s historical role in the establishment of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) doctrine. It provides that all states should be held accountable for international environmental problems, but the degree of their responsibilities differentiates according to their respective historical and current contributions to the creation of global environmental problems and their respective capabilities to address these issues. Developed countries, given their historical contribution to environmental degradation and greater financial and technical capacity to tackle these problems, bear a larger responsibility in the international pursuit of sustainable development. (Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration 1992 and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change)

Early environmental agreements were based on principles largely counter to CBDR, such as sovereignty equality and reciprocity between states. Rather, CBDR was constructed through decades of political action and negotiating effort by the developing world, with China a key player in this process. China’s influence traces back to the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. At the last stage of this meeting, some states expressed dissatisfaction with the draft Declaration’s inadequate treatment of the needs of developing states and insisted on their right to propose amendments. Upon request of China, as amended by Iran, a working group on the Declaration was established by the Conference. China took the initiative again in the Working Group to suggest the adoption of some of its proposed principles, which opened a “blizzard of amendments”. This working group finally produced a new version of the Declaration with two new principles regarding the need to balance development with environmental protection, a strong position favored by developing states. The principles derived from Chinese proposals are: Principle 2 and 4.

Principle 2: The protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the well-being of peoples and economic development throughout the world; it is the urgent desire of the peoples of the whole world and the duty of all Governments.

Chinese proposal: The conservation and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the livelihood and economic development of the people throughout the world as well as an urgent which of the peoples of the whole world and the bounden duty of all governments.

Principle 4: In the developing countries most of the environmental problems are caused by under-development. Millions continue to live far below the minimum levels required for a decent human existence, deprived of adequate food and clothing, shelter and education, health and sanitation. Therefore, the developing countries must direct their efforts to development, bearing in mind their priorities and the need to safeguard and improve the environment. For the same purpose, the industrialized countries should make efforts to reduce the gap between themselves and the developing countries. In the industrialized countries, environmental problems are generally related to industrialization and technological development.

Chinese proposal: At the present stage, the world environmental issue falls into two categories. In the developing countries, most of their environmental problems are caused by under-development which prevented them from taking energetic measures to improve the environment. Therefore, the developing countries must mainly direct their efforts to develop their national economy, build their modern industry and modern agriculture, safeguard their state sovereignty and independence and under this prerequisite, to adequately solve their own environmental problems. As to the few highly industrialized countries, where pollutions are most serious and even endanger the environment of neighboring countries and that of the world, the speedy solution of this problem has become the strong desire of the people of the countries concerned and the world as a whole.

Principle 2 binds the protection and improvement of the environment with the well-being of peoples and economic development. In the early drafting stages, states were reluctant to accept “such broad obligation of an indeterminate scope”. But somehow, the Chinese delegation managed to persuade the other members of the Working Group to accept this broad obligation and put it in the forefront of the Declaration. As with principle 4, the working group retained the Chinese proposal’s emphasis on development as a prior obligation for developing states, but deleted the Chinese proposal’s reference to developing countries’ duty to safeguard their sovereignty and independence. The new text also softened the Chinese wording urging the developed countries to provide speedy solution for domestic environmental problems by loading the responsibility to help developing countries to reduce the gap between them and the industrialized countries upon developed states.

In the following three decades, China continued to strongly advocate developed countries’ responsibility in various fora leading to the final enshrinement of the CBDR principle in Rio Declaration and Johannesburg Plan of Implementation 2002. During the negotiations of the Montreal Protocol, both India and China refused to sign the protocol and insisted that industrialized nations should pay all the incremental costs incurred by developing nations as they reduced consumption and production of ozone depleting substance. It was not until the developed countries agreed to establish a monetary fund to warrant assistance provided to developing nations to achieve ODS phase-out, did China and India finally signed the Protocol. This push further enhanced the notion of developed countries’ responsibility under the international environmental framework. When hosting the Beijing Ministerial Conference in 1991, China maintained to keep the notion of CBDR at the forefront of the climate change negotiations. This helped China to mobilize developing states and bind them around the notion of CBDR.

At Rio, the two markers of differentiation between countries, contribution and capacity, were specifically outlined and the notion articulated as the CBDR principle. At Johannesburg, the CBDR principle was eventually reiterated in full in numerous places in the text of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation 2002. Although China did not create the CBDR principle, it has been one of the principle’s key constructor and most vocal advocates.


1.Louis B. Sohn, “The Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment,” 14 Harvard International Law Journal (1973), 430-32; 443-44.

2. Lavanya Rajamani, Differential Treatment in International Environmental Law, Oxford Scholarship Online (March 2012), at 132.

3. Andrew Pfluger, “Why the Montreal Protocol is Not a Template for Multilateral Environmental Agreements: an Examination of Why China and India Ratified,” 43 Middle States Geographer (2010), at 97-8.

One thought on “China’s changing allies in the UN Climate Change Regime (Part I): China+G77 and CBDR

  • January 4, 2017 at 1:28 am

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