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Biden’s climate summit shows rivalry with U.S. complicates China’s green push

A coal-fired power plant in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China, in 2019. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
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In September, Chinese leader Xi Jinping won plaudits when he pledged to the United Nations that China would reach carbon neutrality before 2060. Earlier this month, Chinese and U.S. climate envoys issued a full-throated statement that climate campaigners applauded as another meaningful step.

But given top billing at President Biden’s climate summit on Thursday, Xi did not offer a fresh jolt of momentum. He rehashed some old promises.

As Biden’s virtual summit wraps up this week, it has reinforced the sense that the United States and China, despite fierce and nationalistic rivalry, will seek common ground on the existential issue of climate change. But it’s uncertain how much more ground Xi is willing to cede — and under what circumstances.

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Although the United States, Japan and Canada on Thursday unveiled tighter new greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2030, Xi — as well as another key figure, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — refrained from new commitments. After Xi’s speech, Chinese officials tasked with briefing reporters and Chinese state media repeated long-standing lines that developed countries must do more to cut their emissions while developing economies should be allowed more slack.

Environmental groups say they were disappointed because Xi has staked out significant long-term goals to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 but has not presented clarity about how to get there.

Xi’s reticence at the summit could be driven by domestic considerations, said Li Shuo, senior adviser at Greenpeace East Asia.

“He needs to balance divergent interests between domestic industrial groups and international expectations, the need to show China’s green image and also not be seen as caving to U.S. diplomatic pressure,” Li said. “It’s precisely because it’s a U.S.-organized event that China might have been more hesitant to put more offers on the table.”

Li said the next venue for a potential Chinese announcement could be the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26 — a multilateral, rather than Biden-led, forum to take place in Glasgow in November.

“There’s clearly a need for China to provide more plans to accelerate its near-term ambitions, and they should be presented before November,” Li added.

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Hours after Xi’s speech, Chinese officials in Beijing said their government maintained “utmost determination to tackle climate change” and defended China as already making outsize contributions. Xie Zhenhua, a veteran Chinese negotiator, spoke positively about his “frank, friendly, in-depth and constructive” talks with John F. Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, “to promote the success of COP26.”

Lauri Myllyvirta, a researcher at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said that Xi’s speech “didn’t move the needle in terms of overall ambitions” but that it was heartening that Xi highlighted one issue of long-standing concern for observers: China’s dependence on coal.

Although researchers broadly agree that China needs to cap coal use as soon as possible to reach its emissions targets, Thursday was the first time the Communist Party leader explicitly articulated that coal consumption would “phase down” after 2025.

Coal and other heavy industries are politically influential in China and often can flout high-level edicts. For instance, as Chinese provinces tried to stimulate their post-pandemic economies by building energy infrastructure last year, China turned on 38 gigawatts’ worth of new coal-fired power plants, more than three times the rest of the world, according to Global Energy Monitor.

Xi’s acknowledgment of the coal issue, while lacking specifics, was at least “a mandate for officials to put the brakes on new coal power projects,” Myllyvirta said. He added that announcing more emissions cuts at Biden’s summit may be “illogical” from Beijing’s perspective but necessary.

“There does seem to be a gap between China’s ambition of carbon neutrality by 2060 and the level of ambition that Xi has announced for this decade,” Myllyvirta said.

Away from the spotlight of U.S.-China relations, Chinese officials say they have made substantial moves of their own accord.

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The percentage of China’s energy consumption from renewable sources has edged up slowly from 19 percent in 2016 to 24 percent last year. Chinese central bank chief Yi Gang said this month that Beijing planned to spend about $340 billion a year until 2030 to reduce emissions; Xi acknowledged in a March meeting with a Communist Party committee on finance that China needed “extensive and profound systemic reform” to reach the 2030 and 2060 climate targets he had set.

“I do think right now there are deliberations on what China can promise,” said Zhang Shuwei, chief economist at the Draworld Energy Research Center think tank. After a flurry of statements last year, China may be hesitant to offer more concessions in the coming months, he said.

Dimitri de Boer, chief representative of the ClientEarth nonprofit’s Beijing office, noted that Xi spoke to European leaders before participating in Biden’s summit, as if to stake out China’s commitment to the issue independent of U.S. pressure.

De Boer said he did not sense “competition in leadership” at the summit. “The fact that President Xi participated in the summit is very significant,” de Boer said. “We’re going to see more details in the future.”

Li, the Greenpeace adviser, said that both powers appeared committed to the issue but that the politics will be delicate.

“When the bilateral relationship is complicated and turbulent, making climate progress is not as easy or straightforward,” he said. “It’s pretty complicated waters that we need to navigate. But the bottom line is: Both countries need to work harder.”

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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