World Xi's not there? COP26 hopes dim on Chinese leader's likely absence
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Given the severity of the climate crisis, one might assume that agreement on key issues would be simple. But politics and science have a complicated relationship and, in 2021, multilateralism relies as much on political self-interest as it does on facts.It's now less than two weeks until Boris Johnson welcomes the world to Glasgow, Scotland, where he will host the COP26 international climate talks at a crucial moment in our planet's history.
By David Stanway
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - The leaders of most of the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters gather in Glasgow from Sunday, aiming to thrash out plans and funds to tilt the planet towards clean energy. But the man running the biggest of them all likely won't be there.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's expected absence from the talks could indicate that the world's biggest CO2 producer has already decided that it has no more concessions to offer at the U.N. COP26 climate summit in Scotland after three major pledges since last year, climate watchers said.
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Just months ago, consensus was growing that COP26 would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hit the reset button on the climate crisis, bringing world leaders together to make new commitments to save the planet. © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images Steam rises from the Miller coal Power Plant in Adamsville, Alabama on April 11, 2021. While the summit in Glasgow, Scotland, is still of vital importance in the battle against climate change, there is now a question mark on whether it will adequately put flesh on the bones of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is its main purpose.
Instead, China will likely be represented by vice-environment minister Zhao Yingmin along with the veteran Xie Zhenhua, who was reappointed as the country's top climate envoy earlier this year following a three-year hiatus.
"One thing is clear," said Li Shuo, senior climate adviser with Greenpeace in Beijing. "COP26 needs high-level support from China as well as other emitters."
The head of the world's third-biggest source of climate-warming emissions, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has committed to attending the COP26 summit, which runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12. Like other leaders, he will come under pressure from summit organisers to commit to quicker emissions cuts and set a target date to reach carbon neutrality - a target set by Xi for 2060 in a surprise move last year.
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What do President Joe Biden, Queen Elizabeth II, teenage activist Greta Thunberg and even some Republican members of Congress have in common? In total, 120 heads of state will be appearing at the two-week conference. But even compared to other countries, Biden is bringing quite a crew, including former Sec. of State John Kerry, who currently serves as special presidential envoy on climate change, and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Administrator Gina McCarthy, who is the first White House national climate advisor. “Glasgow will be extremely important,” Kerry said in an interview last week with the BBC.
But China will be unwilling to be seen yielding to international pressure for more ambitious goals, according to one environmental consultant, especially as it grapples with a crippling energy supply crunch at home. Beijing is "already maxed out", said the consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the matter.
Though there has been no official announcement, analysts and diplomatic sources said few had been expecting Xi to attend COP26 in person. He has already missed several high-profile global summits since the COVID-19 outbreak began in late 2019, and didn't physically attend the Global Biodiversity Conference in China's Kunming earlier this month.
They also said Xi was unlikely to lend his physical presence - a virtual video appearance remains a possibility - to a meeting that had little prospect of any significant breakthrough, especially after China brushed off U.S. attempts to treat climate as a 'standalone' issue that could be separated from the broader diplomatic disputes between the two sides.
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Most countries will be represented at the U.N. talks in one way or another, with roughly 25,000 delegates thought to be in Glasgow, Scotland. There are expected to be several notable absentees, however. © Provided by CNBC EU Commission's President Ursula von der Leyen holds a press conference ahead the G20 and the COP26 (Glasgow Conference) in the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter on October 28, 2021 in Brussels, Belgium.
Rather than making more concessions, China and India's top priority is to secure a strong financing deal allowing richer countries to meet their Paris Agreement commitment to provide $100 billion per year to help pay for climate adaptation and transfer clean technology in the developing world. Xi did attend the Paris summit in person in 2015.
Although Xi has not travelled outside China since before the pandemic, he has made three major climate announcements on the international stage.
His unexpected net zero commitment came in a video address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2020. That announcement encouraged enterprises, industry sectors and even other countries to respond with their own net-zero action plans.
Xi also said in a message to the U.S.-led Leaders Summit on Climate in April that China would start cutting coal consumption by 2026. And he used this year's UNGA to announce an immediate end to overseas coal financing, a major bone of contention.
Like India, China has been under pressure to add more ambition to its updated "nationally determined contributions" (NDCs) on climate change, which are due to be announced before the Glasgow talks begin.
However, the revisions are expected to focus on implementing the targets that have already been announced, rather than making them more ambitious.
China has repeatedly stressed that its climate policies are designed to serve its own domestic priorities, and will not be pursued at the expense of national security and public welfare.
Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based non-government group that monitors corporate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, said China already had 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," he said.
"It's not enough to put these (commitments) on paper," he added. "We have to translate them into solid actions."
(Reporting by David Stanway; Additional reporting by Neha Arora in New Delhi; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)
What's different about this world climate change summit .
World leaders are gathered in Scotland at a massive and consequential United Nations climate change summit known as COP 26. © Evan Vucci/AP President Joe Biden speaks during the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool) Countries acknowledge the danger of climate change and say they're committed to doing something about it. But there is increasing alarm that countries won't do enough to hold world temperatures below the key threshold most scientists have set.