Climate change: Is COP26 doomed to fail without China's Xi Jinping?

President Xi Jinping will not be attending COP26 Credit: AP

If the ambition of COP26 is to consign coal to history then it stands to reason that China, the world’s biggest emitter of coal-power pollution, is crucial to making that happen.

But President Xi Jinping will not be there in Glasgow. He won’t even be given the opportunity to deliver a video address. A statement from him will merely be uploaded to the COP website.

It is true that Xi has not left China since the beginning of the pandemic. To travel to the UK would be to potentially expose him to Covid-19, and it seems it would be a worse prospect for the President to get the virus, than for him to be painted as the pariah of COP26.

There will be a Chinese delegation in Glasgow, and lead negotiator Xie Zhenhua was brought out of retirement to lead the charge on climate change.

What is China's position on COP26?

He is viewed as an able and experienced negotiator.

But he will not have the power to act without the President's say so.

He and his team will have been given a strict brief and that will likely include an order not to deviate from the country’s NDC pledges. They will have pre-determined points of discussion and will be largely there to listen and make sure China's view is heard.

 The Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) the Chinese Government submitted ahead of the meeting have disappointed many for not going any further than previously determined targets.

China is the world's largest emitter of coal pollution Credit: AP

The country doubled down on renewables targets and its commitments to reach peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

It is clear from the President’s decision not to go to Glasgow, from those NDCs and from what we are being told here in Beijing that China considers its current targets ambitious enough.

There is unlikely to be any shift on that 2030 target, despite the country being on track to meet it ahead of schedule.

The COP26 climate conference - what you need to know

What is COP26? When and where will it be?

Each year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets at what is called the Conference of the Parties (abbreviated as COP) to discuss the world's progress on climate change and how to tackle it.

COP26 is the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties summit which will be held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November.

Who is going?

Leaders of the 197 countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994 - are invited to the summit.

These are some of the world leaders that will be attending COP26:

  • US President Joe Biden, climate envoy John Kerry, climate adviser and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, and 10 other US cabinet officials.

  • Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the days leading up to COP26, Mr Morrison committed Australia to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Prince Charles, Prince William, the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge are also attending. The Queen has withdrawn from visiting after being advised by her doctors to rest - she will address the conference virtually instead.

China's President Xi Jinping, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are among the leaders that have decided not to travel to Glasgow.

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What is it hoping to achieve?

1. Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - Countries are being encouraged to set ambitious 2030 emissions targets. They are also encouraged to accelerate the phase-out of coal, clamp down on deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles and encourage investment in renewables.

2. Protect natural habitats and communities from climate change disasters

3. Finances for a greener future - In 2009, developed countries were asked to keep to their promises to contribute at least $100 billion (£72.5 billion) per year by 2020 to protect the planet. In 2015, it was agreed that the goal would be extended to 2025.

However, new analysis shows the goal is unlikely to have been met last year and is on track to fall short in 2021 and 2022.

4. Getting all countries and organisations to work together to tackle the climate crisis

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Nor does there appear any willingness to entertain a pact on curbing rising temperatures. A subject the Chinese have been particularly cautious on.

China has a zero or hero record when it comes to COP meetings. Its delegation was accused of derailing the climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, but in 2015 President Xi took a lead role in the breakthrough Paris Climate Agreement, committing his country to the emission targets.

In 2021, when even Her Majesty the Queen is fed up of leaders saying not doing, there will be many in Glasgow questioning why Xi didn’t deem it important to even turn up. Perhaps he wanted to spare the planet the carbon footprint of his journey.