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China can make or break a global climate deal. What will it be willing to give?

Villagers work to clear floodwaters on Oct. 10 after heavy rainfall in Jiexiu city, in China’s Shanxi province. As the world’s top polluter, China could make or break the global climate summit. (Reuters)

When world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss how to stave off a catastrophic climate crisis, all eyes will be on China and what the planet’s largest polluter is prepared to offer.

Without President Xi Jinping in the room — he hasn’t left his country since January 2020, and Beijing said Friday that he would speak by video link to the gathering — China’s part in the talks will fall to a special climate envoy. The absence of Xi is one of many signs that those waiting for more-substantial promises from China should manage their expectations. On Thursday, Beijing submitted an emissions-cutting plan to the United Nations that offered little new.

“You’re not going to see any meaningful further commitments from China,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, a researcher at the Helsinki-based Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Expectations have dimmed ahead of the conference, where China is critical to any deal on steeper emissions cuts.

Beijing has positioned itself as a leader on fighting climate change: In 2019, Xi pledged that his country would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, after reaching peak emissions by 2030. But for years, China had argued that it didn’t bear the same responsibility as developed countries, and it was accused of derailing U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

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Now, facing energy shortages, concerns about growth and employment, and a fractious relationship with the world’s other key polluter, the United States, China is likely to be constrained in negotiations at the Conference of Parties, known as COP26, which starts Sunday.

“Ultimately, climate action in China is driven by domestic ­self-interest, by national self-
interest,” said Sam Geall, CEO of China Dialogue and an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank. “I don’t think [Chinese leaders] feel under that much pressure, and they are in a relatively good position internationally because other countries aren’t in a position to lecture them.”

Climate advocates and world leaders will be pushing China to commit to more-ambitious and more-concrete goals, such as reaching an emissions peak sooner than 2030 and pledging to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The United States has been urging China to provide more details on a recent promise by Xi to stop financing overseas coal projects.

So far, Chinese leaders have ignored those calls, setting targets that give the country room to expand coal consumption and energy-intensive industries in the next decade. In its updated Nationally Determined Contributions, or climate commitments, published Thursday on the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change website, China enshrined Xi’s earlier pledges to reach peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. China also said it would raise the share of non-fossil-fuel energy consumption to 25 percent by 2030. The nonbinding plan, part of the Paris climate agreement, has disappointed climate activists.

“Emissions need to peak before 2025. That will not only give the world a fighting chance to keep 1.5 degrees [Celsius] in sight, but make achieving Beijing’s own carbon-neutrality pledge feasible,” said Li Shuo, a senior policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia.

China’s overseas coal ban raises pressure on developing countries to go green

In guidelines released by China’s State Council on Sunday, the government pledged to cut reliance on fossil fuels to less than 20 percent by 2060, reiterating a promise to limit the increase in coal use over the next five years and gradually reduce coal starting in 2026. The plan also called for raising installed capacity of solar and wind power to 1,200 gigawatts by 2030, and building more nuclear and hydropower plants.

Researchers say any unwillingness by Beijing to promise more-ambitious or more-specific targets is not a sign of waning commitment to dealing with climate change, but rather a reflection of the competing priorities that China must balance, as well as its tendency to make modest promises and then overdeliver.

“Everyone is paying attention to the peaking target before 2030, but in my view it may not be possible to give a clear number now, because there is still a certain amount of uncertainty about China’s economic growth in the future,” said Zhang Da, an associate professor at the Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy at Tsinghua University, which advised the government on parts of its plan. “We don’t know exactly how much the economy will grow and how much energy is needed to support the growth.”

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Zhao Xiaolu, China director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s global climate change initiative, said more direction is needed for key industries. “In addition to setting up an earlier peaking date, we think that China needs to focus on how to achieve peaking at high speed and how to [maintain] high-quality economic development, while establishing the low-carbon energy structure.”

Widespread flooding and concerns about food security over the past two years have highlighted China’s vulnerability to climate change. Pushing low-carbon energy solutions also serves a goal for China, already a major exporter of wind and solar, to become a leader in clean technology.

Yet power rationing across more than half the country has underlined its reliance on coal as a stable source of electricity. Premier Li Keqiang said this month that the government would support coal production to safeguard power supplies and “give priority to people’s livelihoods.”

While contentious issues such as carbon border taxes and funding for developing countries will be on the table at COP26, climate analysts say the real measure of success will be whether a sense of solidarity is established. U.S.-
China frictions could derail that effort if the two rivals use the summit as a platform for grandstanding. Mistrust between developed and developing countries could be exacerbated by that rivalry, with China positioning itself as the leader of the developing world.

“Trust needs to be built and rebuilt, and we’re not really in the geopolitical environment for a huge amount of trust,” said Michal Meidan, director of the China Energy Program at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

While Beijing is keen to avoid a repeat of Copenhagen, without strong U.S. climate legislation, it may feel under less obligation to make major concessions.

China is key to saving the planet from climate change. But it can’t quit coal.

“China will not want to emerge from Glasgow as a global climate pariah,” said Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister who was part of the negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. Beijing, he added, “will not want to be seen as taking all the action themselves if not matched by the world’s largest power.”

One point of optimism, environmentalists and former officials say, is that Xie Zhenhua, China’s top negotiator at climate talks in Copenhagen and Paris, will be attending the meeting in Glasgow.

Xie, who was brought out of retirement to handle the negotiations, is to meet his U.S. counterpart, John F. Kerry, in London before the conference begins on Sunday. Having worked with Kerry and other climate envoys, Xie is seen as an able negotiator committed to confronting climate change.

In an article for the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, he wrote that China would “take an active part in international negotiations” and “work for positive change” at the conference.

Yet even someone as senior as Xie is unlikely to have full remit to negotiate on his country’s behalf. In addition to Xi, other Chinese leaders are likely to be absent because of a meeting of Communist Party top brass in early November.

“Xi not attending the COP26 does raise some obstacles to the negotiations,” said Belinda Schäpe, a researcher focusing on Europe-China climate diplomacy at E3G, a think tank in London. “The Chinese delegation would need to seek a mandate from Beijing or Xi before decisions can be made on the most contentious issues.”

Christian Shepherd and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

China is key to saving the planet from climate change. But it can’t quit coal.

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China’s power outages shut down factories, fuel climate goal pushback