Chinese, Russian leaders snub COP26, U.N.'s climate summit in Scotland

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The president of China, by far the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, isn’t going. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose economy would collapse if the world stops buying and burning Russia’s fossil fuels, also won’t be there.

Their absence, coupled with weak or vague climate action plans put forward by other major polluters such as India, Brazil and Mexico, is already hanging like smog over COP26, the United Nations-led climate summit that begins Nov. 1 in Glasgow, Scotland.

President Biden says he’ll be in attendance “with bells on.” But while his administration is pledging unprecedented emission cuts and has vowed to double U.S. funding to help poorer nations fight climate change, reality finds momentum for COP26 lagging amid an ongoing global energy crisis and continued COVID-19 fallout around the world.

Despite Mr. Biden’s expanding effort to reposition Washington as the leader of global climate initiatives, the U.S. itself remains the world’s No. 1 producer of fossil fuels, the burning of which produces carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming that results in climate change.

America also faced sharp criticism from the international community over former President Trump’s 2017 withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, a collection of nonbinding emission reduction pledges signed by more than 190 countries after the last major U.N. climate summit in 2015.

Mr. Trump claimed the agreement had placed crippling limitations on U.S. companies but gave a pass to countries like China, allowing Beijing to keep pumping out carbon dioxide at levels afforded only to “developing” nations despite China’s emergence as a global economic power.

As COP26 has approached, China has not been alone in dragging its feet on greenhouse gas commitments. Six years on since the Paris deal, nearly every nation on earth is coming up short in its efforts to fight climate change, according to a recent scientific report cited by The Associated Press.

Only one nation — tiny The Gambia in West Africa — is on track to cut emissions and undertake its share of actions to keep the world from exceeding the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the September report by the Climate Action Tracker.

Chinese coal

The tracker, a joint initiative of the German-based nonprofits Climate Analytics and the New Climate Institute, examined promises to cut carbon pollution by governments around the world, as well as commitments by rich nations to help pay for clean energy for poor nations.

It called recent pledges and financial commitments by the U.S., the European Union, Germany and Japan “insufficient” and more in line with what could be a 3-degree Celsius (5.4-degree Fahrenheit) increase in global temperatures since the late 19th century.

The report characterized China, the highest greenhouse gas emitter by volume, and third-highest carbon dioxide polluter India as being “highly insufficient” in their efforts — or more in line with a 4-degree Celsius (7.2-degree Fahrenheit) increase in temperature since pre-industrial times.

Following the release of the report in mid-September, Chinese President Xi Jinping made global headlines by saying during an address to the U.N. General Assembly that China will no longer build coal-fired power plants abroad.

The announcement was hailed as a victory by the Biden administration, which claimed to have spent months coaxing Beijing to stop funding such plants through Chinese government Belt and Road infrastructure loans.

But questions have since swirled around what Mr. Xi meant.

Beijing has spent recent years pouring billions into financially lucrative coal power plant construction projects in developing nations, from Africa to the Philippines and Vietnam.

The British-based monitor Carbon Brief has reported that China actually opened three-quarters of the world’s newly funded coal plants in 2020 and accounted for more than 80% of newly announced coal power projects that year, according to Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Xi’s announcement on Sept. 21 did not specify whether China will proceed with those previously announced projects or halt all funding immediately, even for projects already in the midst of construction.

China has separately come under scrutiny over its own coal-burning power plants, which contribute heavily to the country’s status as the world leader in carbon dioxide emissions.

According to the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, China is producing about 28% of the world total, compared to the 15% produced by the U.S., 7% by India and roughly 5% by Russia.

While China is the total volume leader, some analysts note the country’s population of roughly 1.4 billion people means its per capita emissions are half those of U.S. per capita emissions.

However, where the Biden administration has pledged to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and reach “net zero emissions” no later than 2050, Beijing has indicated that it will actually continue increasing its emissions for the immediate future.

Chinese officials have said they’ll strive to start cutting greenhouse gases by 2030 and achieve so-called carbon neutrality by 2060 — vows that Mr. Xi himself reiterated in his remarks to the U.N. last month.

Global politics

India also has resisted pressure to match the Biden administration’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is slated to attend COP26 next week, may make a dramatic pledge on emissions during the summit.

With that as a backdrop, an analysis published this week by the Australia-based Lowy Institute predicted that China “is expected to come under intense scrutiny” at the summit for a variety of reasons.

“China’s 2030 peak-year pledge is widely regarded as a target that could be brought forward; [Chinese] domestic coal plants are still being built; and a global warming limit of 1.5°C is still not in reach,” the analysis published by the think tank said.

It went on to emphasize that “the world needs both the United States and China to succeed simultaneously in addressing climate change,” but asserted that “rising geopolitical tensions” between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters have only raised the stakes around the summit.

“The relationship was once a linchpin of climate cooperation, and a rare area of productive engagement between the carbon superpowers,” the think tank said. “But global politics have changed markedly since the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed.”

Others say China’s predicament has only been made worse by a global energy crisis stemming from resurgent demand as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, which came as Beijing was already struggling to meet China’s surging domestic demand for electricity.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based nongovernmental group that monitors corporate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, told Reuters that China already has enough climate challenges to deal with and has little leeway to go further in Glasgow.

“With all the headwinds and all the pledges that have been made, it is important to take stock and consolidate,” Mr. Ma said, according to the news agency.

Russia, meanwhile, has recently embraced similar emission reduction goals to those announced by China, citing 2060 as Moscow’s goal for achieving carbon neutrality.

But Russia is under a different kind of pressure when it comes to fossil fuel production and exploitation.

While the Kremlin consistently says that tackling climate change is one of the Putin administration’s “most important priorities,” the Russian president will not be attending COP26, and analysts say he’s less focussed on cutting emissions than he is on trying to shore up Russia’s struggling economy by increasing fossil fuel exports over the coming years

A June 2020 analysis published by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development maintained that as recently as 2016 “oil and gas revenues contributed to 36% of [Russia’s] federal budget.”

A report published this week by Time cited Candace Rondeaux, director of the Future Frontlines program at the New America Foundation think tank in Washington, as saying that a global transition away from fossil fuels would be “an existential threat” for Russia.

“The entire evolution of Russia’s foreign policy over the last 20 years has been predicated on leveraging Russia’s pole position as the leading fossil fuel producer in the world, right up there with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia,” Ms. Rondeaux told the magazine.

“Price stability in the fossil fuel sector ensures sovereign wealth and pays for pensions,” she said. “It’s the backbone of the military industrial complex. And it is really one of the only means by which Russia can get a consistent stream of hard revenue streaming into the country.”

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