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At CoP26, China’s Cop-out on Xi’s ‘driver’s seat’ Ambition


Srikanth Kondapalli

At the ongoing CoP26 at Glasgow to discuss a reduction in carbon emissions, much attention is on China as the largest polluter in the world since the last decade and a half. However, China’s participation in CoP26 remains subdued, with President Xi Jinping preferring not to physically attend this crucial meeting, instead of circulating a written note. US President Joe Biden took a swipe at Xi for not showing up at Glasgow, despite the latter’s penchant for staking claim to global leadership.

Increasing geopolitical competition between China and the US is weakening consensus-building on climate change issues. In 2014, former US President Barack Obama had signed a climate deal with Xi. This time, Joe Biden’s special envoy on climate change John Kerry visited China in September but the visit was vitiated by the bilateral discord.

China eventually did not accept deeper cuts in emissions citing former US President Trump’s walking away from the Paris Agreement. China has also cited differences with the US on Taiwan, the South China Sea, Senkaku Islands disputes, and AUKUS, bringing them into the discussions related to climate change. The China-US spat at the UN last year on Covid-19 likewise scuttled debate and effective response in tackling the pandemic.

In 2017, at the 19th Communist Party Congress, Xi had declared that China intends to be in the “driver’s seat” on climate change cooperation efforts. However, according to Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy on climate change at Glasgow, the situation has changed since the Paris Agreement – the new ambition is to restrict global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, rather than 2°C — and the target date has been advanced. This would create problems for China’s growth and stability.

Moreover, the US and the EU’s inclusion of another polluting emission — methane (which contributes to about 15% of global pollution) — meant China’s options will get further reduced, in addition to C02 emissions. Xie also criticized the developed countries for not walking the talk on the $100 billion a year climate change finance promise to developing countries.

China has made several decarbonization pledges earlier, including in September 2020 when Xi announced at the UN that China would become carbon-neutral by 2060. Xi also announced this September at the UN that China will not commission new thermal power plants abroad. However, as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative projects, China has already pledged to finance over 24 GW of thermal power projects in several countries.

China has also pledged to draw a quarter of its total energy consumption from renewables by 2030 while boosting forest coverage. In July, it launched a national emissions-trading scheme based on the cap-and-trade model.

However, critics point to the breakneck speed at which China is building thermal power projects. At 4 billion tonnes a year, China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. It generates 70% of its electricity in coal-fired plants, of which it has the largest number in the world.

As a result, an estimated one-third of urban China is heavily polluted and over half a million people die of air pollution every year. Besides, China has suffered extreme weather events, such as the devastating floods last month in Shanxi province, which is home to several coal mines. The floods aggravated China’s energy crisis. The Henan floods in July also took a heavy toll on lives and infrastructure due to torrential rains.

In the 2000s and earlier, China had aligned with the positions of the Global South on climate finance and climate justice to further its interests. Several G-77 countries, specifically coastal states, and others, who have become more vulnerable to rising sea levels due to rising emissions, including from China, have made these issues front-and-center at CoP26.

The BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) coalition that espoused “equal but differentiated responsibilities”, formed at the Copenhagen summit in 2009, have also drawn their position on similar lines at CoP26. Despite the recent differences between India and China on the territorial dispute in the Aksai Chin-Eastern Ladakh areas, the BASIC coalition has got together to suggest carbon market mechanisms, the role of the private sector, and other issues.

First Published in Deccan Herald At CoP26, China’s Cop-out on Xi’s ‘driver’s seat’ Ambition on November 7, 2021.  

About the Author

Srikanth Kondapalli

Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor, Center for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

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