In early November, about 40,000 delegates gathered in Scotland for the 26th annual United Nations Conference on Climate Change, known as COP26. The two-week event marked a pivotal moment in humanity’s effort to rescue our planet from climate disaster. The key question: can the world figure out a way to collaborate to limit global warming to 1.5°C? That’s the baseline goal we must meet if we want to stave off worldwide environmental destruction.
The conference was the first major opportunity for nations to address climate change since the 2015 Paris Agreement, and it came in the wake of a global pandemic and a year of unprecedented natural disasters. So the world was keen to assess whether the event would lead to tangible outcomes or simply contain more political posturing—the “blah, blah, blah,” that climate activist Greta Thunberg recently called out.
Adding to the pressure: just a few weeks before COP26, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the world’s most comprehensive account of climate science. The IPCC report confirmed that human activity is “unequivocally” responsible for rising sea levels, melting polar ice, and increasing rates of heatwaves, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters.
This ‘code red’ warning from the IPCC highlighted the dire nature of the planet’s warming and the vital importance of a productive COP26. Understandably, commentators (including President Biden) were disappointed that China’s top leader would not attend COP26 in-person.
Pundits are right to push China to commit to more ambitious climate goals. But it would be a mistake to conclude that President Xi’s decision indicates that China is not dedicated to fighting climate change. First, China’s special climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, was present. It’s not unusual for Xie to attend events on behalf of President Xi.
Additionally, such a view fails to understand the backdrop of Xi’s absence. Xi has not left China for more than two years, due to both the COVID-19 pandemic and re-election concerns. Next year, President Xi will aim for an unprecedented third term, spurred by the constitutional amendments he authored. His success will require the endorsement of the Central Committee and some 2,000 party officials.
Interpreting Xi’s absence as symbolic of a cavalier attitude misunderstands China’s motivations and obfuscates important steps that China has taken. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is aware of the threat that rising temperatures pose to the planet and (their primary concern) to the CCP’s continued reign and ability to deliver on the stability and prosperity that citizens expect.
Still, there is absolutely room to push China on climate issues. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its current climate goals, announced in the last year, involve a new target of peaking emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2060. Experts say these goals are too little, too late. To have any chance of meeting the 1.5°C goal, nations like China and the U.S. must immediately begin reducing emissions. There’s no time to wait or pursue more GDP growth.
In China’s case, one of the key challenges is its reliance on coal. Without coal, China would never have been able to develop so rapidly and raise 800 million people out of poverty. The nation currently derives some 57% of its total energy consumption from coal, accounting for over half of global coal consumption. The concerns are not just economic, but people-driven: in China, there are entire cities whose future currently depends on coal production.
In order to meet its goals by 2050, China will need to grow its solar capacity by ten times and wind and nuclear power capacity by seven times. But some pundits are hopeful, given China’s progress in decreasing its coal reliance in the last decade, its relatively stable government with a track record of delivering on climate promises, and the unique ability of the CCP’s leadership style to effectively implement large top-down changes.
China’s increased efforts towards meeting global renewable energy and emissions goals are not limited to the domestic sphere. In recent years, renewable energy has constituted an increasingly large share of China’s foreign energy investments through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In 2019, 38% of China’s energy investments in BRI partner countries was renewable. Just one year later, that percentage jumped to 57%. In September, this momentum peaked when President Xi announced that China would stop funding coal plants overseas, a major development (although details of the plan are still unclear).
Notably, these changes are accompanied by an effort to formalize sustainable development as intrinsic to the BRI. In December of 2020, the Chinese government issued a guidance document that, for the first time, directs Chinese investors backing overseas projects to conduct environmental impact assessments and assess environmental risks.
People have different perspectives on how to contextualize China’s role in the climate crisis, and how to move forward. Some stress that international cooperation is essential, while others propose a system of carbon taxation with large buy-in that would theoretically induce global competition to reduce emissions. Many are quick to point out that the system of evaluating emissions capacities hides the fact that per capita emissions in China are still much lower than in countries like the U.S., or that historical responsibility for emissions differs from each country’s present-day share. Some have (and often rightly so) denounced media portrayals of China’s role as rooted in racism and Sinophobia.
Dialogue about responsibility, bias, and justice in climate policy is incredibly important. But at some point, debates over which nation bears responsibility and which world leader is duty-shirking become irrelevant: no one is doing enough, and future generations are doomed if we can’t progress past the usual platitudes and mudslinging.
The fact is that without China taking decisive action against climate change, the world just will not be able to keep global temperatures below 1.5 or 2 degrees. Also relevant: None of the major global players (including the U.S., the European Union, and Japan) are currently on track to hit that target, according to the Climate Action Tracker. China is not the only—or even the biggest—obstacle to ensuring our planet’s future. Solving the climate crisis calls for all hands on deck.
We should be talking about the fact that just 100 companies (mostly fossil fuel producers and their investors) are responsible for more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Or the fact that the fossil fuel industry had the single largest delegation at COP26, more than any nation. We should discuss how important it is that people—especially those living in developed countries—collectively act to put pressure on leaders while also making significant lifestyle changes. And we should certainly analyze how China can feasibly achieve its goals and raise its ambitions.
The future inhabitability of our planet and the lives of a billion people depend on our continued engagement with these topics. In light of these priorities, President Xi’s absence at COP26 should not be headline news.