COP26: Why China is unwilling to budge on its coal commitments

Smoke and steam rise from a coal processing plant in Hejin in central China's Shanxi Province. Credit: AP

China had already pulled its rabbit out of the hat by making a joint declaration on climate change action with the United States.

It had nothing up its sleeve for the final COP26 Agreement and on the last day as we watched the Chinese and Indian negotiators refuse to budge on the language on coal commitments it was clear there was no more room for negotiation.

They are the two most populated nations in the world, and India is not far behind China as the biggest emitter. Together they showed how much power they can sway, getting the language changed from ‘phase out’ to ‘phase down’ on coal, allows them to maintain more control over how and when they harness their still burgeoning coal industries.

The Chinese Government, while appearing committed to its role in this global effort, wants to maintain as much autonomy as possible, in regards to the timetable and the specific actions it is required to take.

China's chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua gives a thumbs-up at the COP26 summit. Credit: AP

With repeated reminders that it is still classed as a developing nation.

The country was never going to support an agreement to ‘phase out’ coal, when it is currently in the grip of an energy crisis that has only proved how dependent it still is on the stuff.

One member of the negotiating team in Glasgow even said that instead of focusing only on the reduction of coal, there would be more effort spent on reducing its harmful emissions – introducing more capture and store technology.

There was also reluctance from China to sign up to the end of 2022 review of current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). This was viewed as too soon for a revision.

President Xi has stressed time again that China will undertake its climate obligations, it will remain at the table, but only if the rest of the world, the developing world (led by the US) stop casting the blame on others and do their bit too.

With one eye on a virtual summit taking place between President Xi and President Biden this week.

The biggest gain China will take away from the COP26 is the joint Sino-US statement. It showed that on climate change at least, the world’s two biggest economies and largest polluters are capable of agreement.