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Putin to stay home during COP26 climate summit in Glasgow

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States via a video conference, at his residence outside Moscow on Oct. 15. (Sputnik/Reuters)

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the month in which Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Biden met in Geneva. The meeting took place in June, not July. This article been corrected.

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin won't attend the upcoming United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, in person, the Kremlin said Wednesday, though he's expected to still participate over video conference.

Russia’s delegation is also expected to be large even without Putin there, potentially numbering 300 people.

But the absence of key leaders, while perhaps understandable in the midst of a pandemic, has deepened the uncertainty over whether the climate talks can achieve the lofty goals that organizers had hoped for only months ago.

Putin’s travel outside of Russia has been limited during the coronavirus pandemic — his meeting with President Biden in Geneva in June marked the first time he traveled internationally. Putin similarly won’t be at the Group of 20 summit in Rome this month, joining only via video link.

Though the Kremlin has said Putin is skipping the G-20 over coronavirus concerns, spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn’t give a reason for why Putin won’t be attending the COP26 climate conference. He added that climate change is “one of our foreign policy’s most important priorities.”

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A host of other world leaders do not plan to attend the Glasgow summit or have not formally committed to joining the talks in person.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has not left his country since January 2020, raising questions about whether he will attend. When asked on Tuesday whether Xi might go to Glasgow or participate virtually, China’s special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, said an announcement would be forthcoming. Xie said he would be attending, according to Chinese state media.

Other leaders not expected in Glasgow include Pope Francis and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has not yet announced his plans, according to the Reuters news agency.

Many world leaders, including Biden, have insisted that the gathering must mark a key moment, in which the world collectively commits to keeping alive the most ambitious goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement — limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels.

But the world already has warmed more than 1 degree Celsius, and major nations still have either not logged new climate pledges, or have outlined plans that are nowhere near as aggressive as scientists say is necessary.

An analysis last month by the United Nations found that based on the most recent action plans submitted by countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the planet is on pace to warm by more than 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.85 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

That figure might change slightly in the days leading up to the summit in Glasgow as more nations cement their plans, but the trajectory is all but certain to remain far off track from what world leaders have said is the acceptable limit of global warming.

“Mr. Putin’s decision not to travel to Glasgow does not indicate anything definitive about Russia’s intended policies,” Jonathan Elkind, a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, who worked on international climate issues at the Energy Department during the Obama administration, said in an email Wednesday. “But it certainly does signal that Mr. Putin does not intend to invest himself personally in the success of an event focused on what is perhaps the greatest challenge of our day — even though the impacts of a changing climate are already bringing significant harm to Russian industry, cities, infrastructure, forests, and other natural ecosystems.”

Despite Putin’s absence, Elkind said the fact that the Russian leader and other top officials have recently expressed more concern about climate change than in the past is a positive development.

“What remains uncertain is whether Russia intends to implement real policies that drive real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “Declarations only take you so far — whether in the Russian Federation, the United States, or anywhere else.”

For years, Putin rejected the scientific consensus that humans are fueling the warming of the planet. But addressing the devastating wildfires that engulfed large swaths of Siberia this summer, Putin said, “many believe, with good reason, that this is connected primarily to human activity, to emissions of pollutants into the atmosphere.”

Russia, one of the world’s biggest producers of oil and gas, has long faced criticism for setting weak climate targets and not doing more to curb the carbon footprint of its massive fossil fuel industry. Experts at the Climate Action Tracker, which monitors countries’ climate promises, rate Russia’s current 2030 target under the Paris climate agreement as “highly insufficient.”

Ahead of the climate conference in Glasgow, Putin announced last week that Russia “will strive” for carbon neutrality by 2060 — the most ambitious climate goal the country has set yet. He added that “the role of coal and oil will decrease.”

Both COP26 and the G-20 had been seen as opportunities for Putin and Biden to have another sit-down. Putin is still expected to attend the Valdai Discussion Club forum in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi on Thursday.

Dennis reported from Washington. Lily Kuo contributed to this report.

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