China’s top leader Xi Jinping stated Monday the world must “accelerate the green transformation” and “developed countries must not only do more themselves, but also support developing countries to do better.” Xi’s written statement to the World Leaders Summit of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow came in place of an in-person speech. Xi did not attend, in keeping with his decision to avoid international travel since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All parties should keep their promises, formulate realistic goals and visions, and do their best to promote the implementation of climate change measures in accordance with national conditions,” according to Xi’s statement.
In a video appearance at the G-20 Summit on Sunday, the Chinese leader also emphasized international equity, citing the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” among developed and developing nations.
U.S. President Joe Biden criticized the nonattendance of the Chinese and Russian leaders at COP26, drawing Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin to counter, “What we need to deal with climate change is concrete action, not empty words. China’s actions in response to climate change are real.”
The U.S. cause was not helped by the large and ostensibly gas-guzzling motorcade Biden brought to Rome, which emerged as a popular topic on the Chinese internet this week.
China’s chief climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, who is leading the Chinese delegation at the summit, reiterated the view expressed by Xi that rich countries must do more. Xie told reporters Tuesday that developed nations have “failed to deliver” on the promise of $100 billion annually in financing to developing nations to build green capacity.
“I recently spoke with the COP26 president Alok Sharma, and with [U.S. climate envoy] John Kerry and ministers for many other countries,” said Xie. “They told me that we need to wait until 2022 or even 2023 to achieve the target of 100 billion US dollars, a target which was set for before 2020.”
In the G-20 speech, Xi touted China’s “1+N” policy framework, the technical blueprint for China to reach peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. Xi announced these targets in September last year at the U.N. General Assembly.
According to climate scientist Alden Meyer of think-tank E3G, these targets fall short of what the world needs: “If China does not do more within the next ten years, it will be impossible to contain average temperature rises to 1.5 degrees.”
But given China’s domestic energy crisis, the prospects of a further expedited green transition seem dim.
Since September, high coal prices have led to blackouts and pressure on food supply chains. China is now altering pricing mechanisms, but also scrambling to procure coal to avoid additional blackouts in the winter, leading some analysts to question the viability of emissions reduction pledges.
“In the short term, the state felt it had little choice but to increase coal supply,” Professor Judith Shapiro, a specialist in China and the environment at American University, told The Diplomat.
“If one is optimistic, these increases will be temporary, to allow the country more time to implement a range of other measures to reduce carbon. These will include construction of multiple hydropower dams and nuclear power plants (both of which are of course problematic for multiple reasons), better connection of wind and solar to the power grid, widespread installation of electric vehicle charging stations and battery swaps and phasing out of gasoline vehicles, and a functioning nationwide carbon trading market,” Shapiro continued.
“Also, technological innovations like mining Helium 3 from the far side of the moon are touted as possible long term, game-changing solutions. The Chinese argument is that they simply need a bit more time.”
The energy shortages have contributed to price rises in common food staples, including vegetables.
China is facing a combination of economic stagnation and rising prices, or “stagflation,” according to Wen Zhao, a Toronto-based independent journalist. “Some grocery items have gone up two or threefold. This is directly related to the lack of electricity, and the cost pressure on the northern greenhouses which require electricity,” said Wen.
Although the transition away from coal at home remains fitful, China’s September commitment not to approve construction of any new coal-fired power stations abroad was one point of optimism for environmentalists in the lead up to COP26.
Coal power along the Belt and Road had for years been criticized by activists and NGOs, with a 2019 Greenpeace study indicating that coal-fired power along the BRI far outstripped wind and solar, with 67.9 GW of coal to just 12.6 GW of wind and solar. That ratio may now even up.
“Following this announcement, coal-fired power projects abroad that are already under construction will continue, but in the future … coal mines and coal-based power generation projects will no longer be built,” said Fudan University Professor Huang Renwei.
“The announcement shows that China is at least somewhat receptive to constructive international opinion, especially when it is articulated through global bodies like U.N. agencies and consultative bodies of chosen international advisers,” said Judith Shapiro of American University.
On Thursday, COP26 in Glasgow will focus on the theme of “clean energy,” and this will be followed by the topics “youth and public empowerment,” “nature,” “adaptation, loss and damage,” “gender,” and “cities, regions and the built environment” in the remaining days of the conference, which will conclude on November 12.