The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin and Xi look set to disengage as world leaders meet on climate

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Two of the most important events on the global diplomatic calendar take place at the end of this month. The Group of 20 summit, a meeting of the leaders of the world’s most advanced economies, will take place in Rome on the weekend of Oct. 30. On Oct. 31, COP26, a United Nations climate summit, will begin in Glasgow, Scotland.

In both events, the topic of discussion is a vital one: How governments can work together to change the disastrous course climate change has placed the planet on. But both will be missing an important element: the attendance of some of the world’s key politicians in the fight to reduce carbon emissions.

The Kremlin announced Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t attend the G-20 or COP26, instead hoping to appear via video. The Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan and Brady Dennis report it is considered unlikely that China’s leader Xi Jinping, who has not traveled internationally since January 2020, will attend either.

World leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 for the 26th annual United Nations conference on climate change. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

Many others, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, are not expected to attend. The leaders of other big nations, such as India’s Narendra Modi and Japan’s Fumio Kishida, have not given concrete plans or have suggested they will attend only one of the events. Only a few that have not returned their RSVP, such as Kishida, have given a clear excuse. (Japan holds elections on Oct. 31).

It is certainly understandable that in the midst of a pandemic, world leaders may not be able to travel as freely as before. COP26 organizers said last month that over 100 “political heads of government” have confirmed their attendance, and many big names are making the trip.

But the absence of so many world leaders, and particularly Xi and Putin, who are at odds with the United States and other Western powers on a wide variety of issues, further undermines the hopes of some, early on in the pandemic, that covid-19 would produce greater global unity.

Low turnout at COP26 would also place Britain under the pandemic spotlight again. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, though once a climate-change skeptic himself, has used Britain’s position as host of the event to bolster his view of his country as a reborn, global power in the wake of Brexit.

Britain’s covid-19 strategy is already hotly debated domestically. The highly vaccinated country, which lifted most pandemic restrictions in July, is facing an undeniable surge of cases. At a news conference Wednesday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid admitted that the country’s case count could rise to as high as 100,000 a day.

Many public health experts are calling on Johnson to reinstall some measures as a “Plan B,” and at least one has warned that it is “risky” to hold the upcoming summit in Scotland. Delegates at COP26 will be exempt from Scotland’s vaccine mandate for mass events, though they will have to test negative daily.

But concerns about covid-19 do not appear to be confined to Britain’s approach. The G-20 summit that Putin, Xi and Bolsonaro are expected to skip is being held in Italy, where case numbers are low and restrictions strictly enforced. Instead, the problem appears to be a broader disengagement amid the pandemic.

The Kremlin has suggested that Putin’s absence from the G-20 is due to the spread of the virus at home. (They did not give a reason for his planned absence from COP26.) The Russian president has traveled outside Russia only once during the pandemic, when he visited Geneva in June to meet President Biden.

Despite China’s relative success at containing the virus, Xi has stopped all personal travel throughout the pandemic. Bloomberg News reported last month that in conversations with G-20 nations, “Chinese envoys cited China’s Covid protocols, which can include quarantine mandates for returning travelers, as a reason Xi did not intend to go to Rome.”

Bolsonaro has traveled internationally, but he has not always received the best welcome. His attendance at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month was most notable for the fact the Brazilian leader appeared to flout a vaccine mandate for attendees, and four close aides later tested positive for the coronavirus.

The problem is that engagement with exactly these nations is needed to fight climate change. Russia is the second-largest natural gas producer, but its creaking pipeline infrastructure has been linked to massive leaks of greenhouse gas methane. Brazil is home to the Amazon rainforest, where deforestation has accelerated under Bolsonaro.

Then there’s China, which many Western leaders admit is key to reaching its goal of limiting future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels. It is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, in part due to an addiction to the coal-fired power plants that power its economy.

All three of these nations have pledged action on climate change, but experts say much more is needed. An investigation by The Post this week concluded that while Moscow has promised to limit methane gas, “so far, Russia’s numbers don’t add up.” Bolsonaro’s pledge this spring to end deforestation by 2030 is undermined by data that showed deforestation rose last month.

Xi appeared remotely at the U.N. General Assembly last month, where he said China would no longer finance coal projects in other countries, and would instead increase its support to green and low-carbon energy projects in developing countries. While the announcement was welcomed by experts, it still left domestic coal production on the table.

But so far, remarks from COP26 officials suggest that virtual attendance may not be possible. “It’s a physical meeting and the participants will be there physically,” one official told British lawmakers this week, according to the Independent newspaper. The G-20 is likely to allow remote guests, with climate change expected to be key on the group’s agenda.

The physical absence of world leaders from the G-20 and COP26 will likely increase pessimism about the event. But for the U.N. climate summit, there are some signs of progress: At the COP25 conference in Madrid in 2019, the list of non-attending world leaders included top officials from the United States, too.

Read more:

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An upcoming climate summit is supposed to save the planet. But pessimism is building.