US-China rhetoric won’t solve our climate problems if Beijing remains addicted to coal – Community News
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US-China rhetoric won’t solve our climate problems if Beijing remains addicted to coal

Friday 12 November 2021 06:15 am

In a move reminiscent of the Obama era, the US and China announced a joint agreement on climate change, which surprised Cop26 participants. This commitment to collaboration is coupled with symbolism against a backdrop of wider, persistent tensions in the US-China relationship. But signs of concrete plans remain mysterious.

The joint statement by the US and China – both strategic rivals and the world’s biggest emitters – reaffirmed two main goals. The first is the importance of efforts to limit global temperature rise to 1.5. The second is the vague commitment to “enhanced climate action” cooperation throughout the 2020s.

However, the fact that there was an agreement at all is a clear shift from the confrontational tone that has characterized US-China relations over the past five years. In the context of Cop26, China’s willingness to play along is in itself a hopeful sign that a substantial climate commitment can be made in the future.

Without China, we won’t be moving the needle on global emissions. So while skepticism about China’s sincerity wouldn’t be misplaced, there is movement; it’s an open door to something that many, prior to the summit, thought would be kept tightly closed. When President Xi Jinping refused to attend Cop26, many saw it as a failure of the climate talks before they even started.

But while the high-quality optics are promising, the details offer little substance. The question still remains how far China is willing to go despite major obstacles. The agreement steers toward methane, but China refused to sign the US-led global pact to cut methane emissions by 2030. While the test indicates China agrees to “phase out” coal consumption, there are no real plans to phase out its domestic gear from coal plants.

John Kerry, the US climate leader, chose his words carefully, saying the two sides had agreed to “accelerate and phase out undiminished coal as quickly as feasible”. Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate official, avoided answering further questions about a coal phase-out.

And there are major gaps: China is putting forward its 2030 peak emissions pledge, an emissions or coal use cap, a global carbon market, or concrete details of green finance and capacity building in developing countries.

It’s telling that China’s biggest event this week isn’t in Glasgow, but 5,000 miles away in Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party has just concluded its Sixth Plenary, a key political rally that will lay the groundwork for the 20th Party Congress in 2022, where Xi will almost certainly seal an unprecedented third term.

The CCP issued its first “historic resolution” in 40 years, with a new version of history justifying Xi’s third term in office. This is a major power grab. Meanwhile, China was plagued by power shortages this fall, a useless sidebar of the narrative that Xi’s leadership “is the key to great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. As Beijing ramped up power supplies for the winter, China’s daily coal production reached a multi-year peak this week.

When the stability of the regime is threatened, it has become a tradition to switch to coal. This trajectory will hold its place at the largest emitter. Until China signals a plan to put its pledges into action, rhetoric will only falsely bolster the world’s hopes.