Chinese, Russian leaders snub COP26, U.N.’s climate summit in Scotland

The president of China, by far the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, isn’t going. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose economy would collapse if the world stops buying and burning Russia’s fossil fuels, also won’t be there.

Their absence, coupled with weak or vague climate action plans put forward by other major polluters such as India, Brazil and Mexico, is already hanging like smog over COP26, the United Nations-led climate summit that begins Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland.

President Biden says he’ll be in attendance “with bells on.” Although his administration is pledging unprecedented greenhouse gas emission cuts and has vowed to double U.S. funding to help poorer nations fight climate change, reality finds momentum for COP26 lagging amid a global energy crisis and COVID-19 fallout.

Despite Mr. Biden’s expanding effort to reposition Washington as the leader of global climate initiatives, the U.S. remains the world’s No. 1 producer of fossil fuels. The burning of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, the main contributor to manmade global warming, which results in climate change.

The U.S. also faced sharp criticism from the international community over President Trump’s 2017 withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, a collection of nonbinding emission reduction pledges signed by more than 190 countries after the last major U.N. climate summit, in 2015.

Mr. Trump said the agreement placed crippling limitations on U.S. companies but gave a pass to countries such as China. Beijing was allowed to keep pumping out carbon dioxide at levels afforded only to “developing” nations despite China’s emergence as an economic power.

As COP26 approached, China was not alone in dragging its feet on its greenhouse gas commitments. Six years after the Paris deal, nearly every nation is falling short in its efforts to fight climate change, according to a scientific report cited by The Associated Press.

Only one nation, tiny Gambia in West Africa, is on track to cut emissions and undertake its share of actions to keep the world from exceeding the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the September report by the Climate Action Tracker.

Chinese coal

The tracker, a joint initiative of the German-based nonprofits Climate Analytics and the New Climate Institute, examined governments’ promises to cut carbon pollution and wealthy nations’ commitments to help pay for clean energy for developing nations.

It called recent pledges and financial commitments by the U.S., the European Union, Germany and Japan “insufficient” and more in line with what could be a 5.4-degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures since the late 19th century.

The report characterized China, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter by volume, and third-highest carbon dioxide polluter India as “highly insufficient” in their efforts — or more in line with a 7.2-degree increase in temperature since pre-industrial times.

After the release of the report in mid-September, Chinese President Xi Jinping made global headlines by saying during an address to the U.N. General Assembly that China will no longer build coal-fired power plants abroad.

The announcement was hailed as a victory by the Biden administration, which claimed to have spent months coaxing Beijing to stop funding such plants through its Belt and Road infrastructure loans.

But questions have swirled around what Mr. Xi meant.

Beijing has poured billions of dollars in recent years into financially lucrative coal power plant construction projects in developing nations, from African countries to the Philippines and Vietnam.

The British-based monitor Carbon Brief reported that China opened three-quarters of the world’s newly funded coal plants and accounted for more than 80% of newly announced coal power projects last year, according to Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Xi’s announcement on Sept. 21 did not specify whether China would proceed with those projects or halt all funding immediately, even for projects in the midst of construction.

China also has come under scrutiny for its own coal-burning power plants, which contribute heavily to the country’s status as the world leader in carbon dioxide emissions.

According to the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, China produces about 28% of the world’s total carbon emissions, compared with 15% produced by the U.S., 7% by India and roughly 5% by Russia.

Although China is the leader in total volume, some analysts note that the country’s population of roughly 1.4 billion people means its per capita emissions are half those of U.S. per capita emissions.

However, where the Biden administration has pledged to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030 and reach “net zero emissions” no later than 2050, Beijing has indicated it will continue increasing emissions for the immediate future.

Chinese officials have said they will strive to start cutting greenhouse gases by 2030 and achieve so-called carbon neutrality by 2060. Mr. Xi reiterated those pledges in remarks to the U.N. last month.

Global politics

India also has resisted pressure to match the Biden administration’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is slated to attend COP26 next week, may make a dramatic pledge on emissions during the summit.

An analysis published this week by the Australia-based Lowy Institute predicted that China “is expected to come under intense scrutiny” at the summit for a variety of reasons.

China’s 2030 peak-year pledge is widely regarded as a target that could be brought forward; [Chinese] domestic coal plants are still being built; and a global warming limit of 1.5°C is still not in reach,” the analysis published by the think tank said.

It emphasized that “the world needs both the United States and China to succeed simultaneously in addressing climate change” but said “rising geopolitical tensions” between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters have raised the stakes of the summit.

“The relationship was once a linchpin of climate cooperation, and a rare area of productive engagement between the carbon superpowers,” the think tank said. “But global politics have changed markedly since the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed.”

Others say China’s predicament has worsened because of a global energy crisis stemming from resurgent demand as the world starts to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. The global health crisis started as Beijing was struggling to meet the surging domestic demand for electricity.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based nongovernmental group that monitors corporate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, told Reuters that China already has enough climate challenges 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,” Mr. Ma said, according to the news agency.

Russia, meanwhile, has embraced emission reduction goals similar to those announced by China. Moscow cited 2060 as its goal for achieving carbon neutrality.

But Russia is under a different kind of pressure when it comes to fossil fuel production and exploitation.

Although the Kremlin consistently says tackling climate change is one of the Putin administration’s “most important priorities,” the Russian president will not be attending COP26. Analysts say he is less focused on cutting emissions than he is on trying to shore up his nation’s struggling economy by increasing fossil fuel exports over the coming years.

A June 2020 analysis published by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development maintained that “oil and gas revenues contributed to 36% of [Russia’s] federal budget” as recently as 2016.

A report published this week by Time cited Candace Rondeaux, director of the Future Frontlines program at the New America Foundation think tank in Washington, as saying that a global transition away from fossil fuels would be “an existential threat” for Russia.

“The entire evolution of Russia’s foreign policy over the last 20 years has been predicated on leveraging Russia’s pole position as the leading fossil fuel producer in the world, right up there with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia,” Ms. Rondeaux told the magazine.

“Price stability in the fossil fuel sector ensures sovereign wealth and pays for pensions,” she said. “It’s the backbone of the military industrial complex. And it is really one of the only means by which Russia can get a consistent stream of hard revenue streaming into the country.”

Correction: A previous version of this article had the wrong start date for the United Nations-led climate summit. It begins on Sunday. Due to an editing error, it also incorrectly reported the increase in global warming agreed to in the Paris Agreement. It is 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

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