Among the 120 or so world leaders gathered in Glasgow for the Cop26 climate crisis talks, there has been one very conspicuous absence: Xi Jinping, president of by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, responsible for more than a quarter of all emissions. Mr Xi’s decision to stay away is unsurprising; previously a frequent traveller, he has not left his country for 21 months, since the pandemic took hold. But the reduction of the Chinese leader’s contribution to a written statement, making no new commitments, has highlighted concern about Beijing’s recent decisions.
The first is its announcement that it will build new coal-fired power plants, a response to extensive power cuts. Though experienced observers hope the medium-term impact will be less serious than it appears, it could imperil China’s pledge to peak carbon emissions in 2030. The second is its national plan on greenhouse gas emissions, revealed last Thursday. While better than the 2015 plan, it offers little progress on its already declared ambitions and falls well short of the action needed to ensure global heating does not exceed 1.5C. And in Glasgow, China has (like India and Russia) declined to sign up to the new 80-country pact to cut methane emissions, although it has joined the agreement to halt deforestation over the next decade.
Its failings are, of course, far from unique. China’s carbon emissions per capita are still around half those of the US, and its historical emissions are far lower (though it is catching up fast). Even now, its emissions reflect its role as the world’s factory. Unlike some wealthy countries, it has taken consistent climate action. The US has seesawed, with Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris accord, but even with Joe Biden’s renewed commitment to the issue it has a very long way to go.