The UN climate summit had been presented as the most decisive for the future of the planet, but there is little hope of success due to the absence of Xi Jinping
In her almost seven decades of reign, Elizabeth II has demonstrated absolute mastery of staging. But sometimes, the microphones reveal – intentionally or not – opinions that would never have a place in official speeches.
It happened this Thursday when the 95-year-old monarch showed her anger at inaction for the preparations for the United Nations climate summit (COP26).
“I’ve been hearing all about Cop… still don’t know who is coming… no idea,” she revealed to her daughter-in-law Camilla during the opening of the Welsh Parliament.
“We only know about people who are not coming… It’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do,” she added.
For Boris Johnson’s government, which is hosting a conference that few of its international partners seem to believe in and that takes place in the midst of a global crisis over energy deficits, the pessimism shown by the sovereign is probably the last thing they wanted to hear. And the comments could not be more timely, because this Friday the newspaper ‘The Times’ revealed that the president of China, Xi Jinping, will not be in Glasgow.
Is His Majesty’s angry at leaders who will not attend the summit? Or Xi Jinping – the person responsible for the country behind 27% of the emissions will not be present?
There are interpretations for all tastes.
COP26 – which will take place in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12 – had been presented as the most decisive summit for the future of the planet, the most important since the 2015 Paris Agreement, when 189 countries from around the world committed to reducing their emissions and working together to adapt to the effects of climate change.
However, today, the expectations of success are not very high. The United States’ own climate envoy, John Kerry, acknowledged this week in an interview with the AP that the meeting could end with nations far from the goal of carbon and oil emissions reductions needed to avoid increasingly devastating levels of global warming.
Kerry and other leading figures had initially called COP26 “the last and best opportunity” to push for emissions cuts, investment in renewable energy and aid to less wealthy countries to limit the rise in global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Scientists warn that the damage is irreversible and it is heading for catastrophic levels if large cuts in emissions are not imposed.
Although Joe Biden and more than a hundred other world leaders will be present in Scotland, the absence of Xi Jinping plays a leading role. This same Monday, the president of the Asian giant announced that, before establishing an emissions reduction calendar, he had to evaluate the current energy crisis. Can anything be done about the climate without China’s commitment?
Xi Jinping’s failure to attend the summit has created two schools of thought. The first, like Elizabeth II, is pessimistic. Organizers of COP26 fear that their decision to stay away may herald China – which is building new coal-fired power plants – refusing to publish the new climate change targets that all nations are expected to announce before the summit.
So far, only half the members of the G20, which accounts for about 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, have done so. And if Beijing remains silent, then the chances of a deal, and with it, a diplomatic triumph for Boris Johnson, seem less and less likely.
Still, there is a second school of thought that is more optimistic. Although Xi Jinping did attend the Paris summit in 2015, according to a source in Whitehall (where all the ministries of the British Government are located), he has not left China for years, so his absence would not be so relevant either.
“Xi hasn’t travelled anywhere for years. He didn’t go to the UN general assembly [last month] and he isn’t going to the G20. Let’s see what China does rather than obsessing about who turns up,” said the source to The Times.
According to the Climate Transparency Report 2021 – the world’s most comprehensive annual collection of information on climate action by G20 countries – leaders have increased their ambition for climate change targets, but are not yet in a position to meet the goal of limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century. The nationally defined contributions (NDC) of these countries allow us to predict that the increase in temperature will be 2.4 degrees by the end of the century if there is no greater commitment on the part of that group of countries, warns the report made by experts from 16 organizations.
In September, 13 NDCs had been presented by the G20 and six of them – Argentina, Canada, the EU (France, Germany and Italy), South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States – provided more ambitious plans than they had previously presented. Three others – China, Japan and South Korea – have also proposed more optimistic targets, but have yet to present their national plans.
If China, which is responsible for 27% of global CO2 emissions, does not publish its NDC or establish one that does not further reduce dependence on fossil fuels, it could thwart attempts to strike a deal that shows that the world is in way of maintaining the goal of limiting global warming. Companies with ties to Beijing have been told not to expect new commitments in Glasgow after the Asian giant missed the deadline.
These fears have been compounded by Beijing’s announcement that it intended to accelerate the construction of coal-fired power plants. Last year at the UN general assembly, Xi pledged for China to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060 and emissions to peak by 2030, but this has not become a national plan. In addition, it would not be enough to maintain the goal of 1.5 degrees. At this year’s UN summit, China pledged to halt investment in new overseas coal projects, but has not made any additional domestic commitments.
In any case, Downing Street is confident that Xie Zhenhua, the Chinese climate envoy expected to be in Glasgow, can make more commitments. The ‘premier’ Boris Johnson, who acts as host, has a lot to play at this summit. He promises that his government will be “the greenest” in UK history, one of the great achievements of the post-Brexit era. Therefore, if COP26 ends without a firm commitment, it would be a great diplomatic failure.
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