Xi Jinping’s absence in Glasgow two weeks ago was an unpleasant but anticipated expectation for many – if not the vast majority – analysts and diplomatic sources. His no-show in Scotland was not the first of China’s big misses since the Covid-19 outbreak in late 2019. The Chinese president physically skipped major conferences during this time – even the Global Biodiversity Conference being held in China.
The possibility of the Chinese leader’s absence at COP26 had sparked pressing worries on the country’s possible reluctance to reduce emissions and make concessions, especially after suffering economical loss from the pandemic.
This anxiety was added to the Kremlin announcing that Vladimir Putin would not attend in person to the convention. The information generated reasonable fear that without the motivated cooperation of big polluters, any agreement made during COP26 would fall void and without action.
While few remained hopeful, the general consensus remained that he would not come. This is exactly what happened. The president himself only delivered a few written remarks – it was Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief climate negotiator, who represented the country at the convention, showing little regard to Greenpeace Beijing’s statement “COP26 needs high-level support from China as well as other emitters”. Which they do.
Since the early 2000s, China has become the world’s biggest polluter in the world, with over 10,000 million tons of carbon released in 2019, quickly followed by the US and India. China is now responsible for over a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions, partly justified by their main source of energy coming from coal-burning power plants.
This is not what Xi Jinping had promised in 2015. Indeed, China had signed – along with all the other countries, the famous commitment to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
In his speech “Work Together to Build a Win-Win, Equitable and Balances Governance Mechanism on Climate Change”, the Chinese President had assured to try and reduce emissions of CO2 per unit of GDP by 60% from 2005 levels by 2030, increase forest stock by over 4 billion m3, and increase renewable energies by 20%. The opening speech was a remarkably new stance for China.
But what were China’s actions since 2015?
In September 2016, China released its ‘Climate Change Policy’ where effort was made to mitigate global warming mainly through economic restructuring: the goal was to reduce the industrial sector to develop the services one.
The country had also promised to shut down some coal power plants and avoiding building new ones abroad through what Xi Jinping called a “phase down” by 2026. However, China seems to struggle to live up to its promises, as reports of 60 new stations being built across the country was recently reported.
Even though little evidence of change has been spotted in China, it is important to remember that their slower reactions to climate change is partly a result of their exponential economic growth having started less than half a century ago through their socialist market economy model introduced by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.
It is difficult to conceive asking China to behave like Western countries, which had their economic boom much earlier, during the industrial revolution, as China’s remaining goal is to complete their economic development and reach the same economic status as Northern and American countries.
Xi Jinping’s delegated requests in COP26 fell in this line of thought, even after the leader’s viral announce at the 2020 United Nations General Assembly to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Indeed, he urged developed countries to financially support developing nations in their shift to a greener future, in order to “tackle together the climate challenge”.
In return, his representatives assured feverous efforts to speed up the green and low-carbon energy transition, vigorously develop renewable energy, and plan and build large wind and photovoltaic power stations. Xi Jinping made no further pledges on what he would do in the foreseeable future. But this time around, China assured that it would “do as it says”.
This seems to show a change of approach dealing with climate change: a clear shift has formed between China’s pro-active behaviour and efforts in 2015 and its more demanding attitude and appearing distrust in COP26. The country has actually repeated that its climate change policies are put into place to serve national agendas.
It would nonetheless be incorrect to describe China as entirely reluctant to making climate change efforts. China is the biggest manufacturer of solar panels and large-scale batteries and is assured to be “already leading the global energy transition” by the Overseas Development Institute. Whether or not these technologies remain in the country or are exported, a general transition to greener energy is the road being taken by China.
The country is also investing hugely in electrical vehicles. Even though right now, 1 in 20 cars in China bought are electric vehicles, Chinese experts predict that a sharp increase of this ratio to the quasi-totality of new vehicles being 100% electric by 2035.
For example, in total, China has invested $60 billion in the industry, and is actively supporting companies like Xpeng Motors and Nio to open and launch factories. In addition, well established companies such as Volvo were reported to have opened a large electric car factory in eastern China.
While they were less present on the international stage as has shown the unfolding of COP26, these investments are a testament of China’s enthusiasm to make internal efforts to relieve global warming.
However, despite China’s domestic efforts to contribute to the fight of climate change, its absence at the conference, which was noted as a “big mistake” by Joe Biden, did significantly impact the effectiveness of COP26 and could cost China valuable relationships with other big powers on an international scale.