CHINA HAS EMERGED from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow relatively unscathed, given that it is the world’s top emitter of CO2.
As one of the world’s top two oil producers and exporters, Saudi Arabia took the early heat in Glasgow from activists pushing for an end to the use of fossil fuels. As attention swung to coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels and on which China remains heavily dependent for power generation, India, not China, was most prominent in watering down COP26’s final agreement.
At the last minute, the wording was changed from ‘phasing out’ the use of coal to ‘phasing down’, the same formulation that had appeared in the China-US climate dialogue agreement that the head of the Chinese delegation Xie Zhenhua and his US counterpart John Kerry had forged three days earlier.
Although Delhi put forward the revised wording to the final agreement, Beijing had been instrumental behind the scenes in getting the language changed, reportedly threatening to torpedo the final agreement if it was not. Washington lent its support by not offering any opposition.
Alok Sharma, the Conservative UK politician chairing COP26, offered an emotional apology subsequently, saying he was ashamed by the last-minute change and that China and India would have to justify themselves to the countries most vulnerable to climate change.
The glass-half-full view is that this is the first of the 26 rounds of COP meetings to make any formal commitment on coal. The half-empty view is that the compromise over phasing out its use belies the scale and urgency of the task.
Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, says that to reach the goal of limiting global heating to 1.5C, more than 40% of the world’s existing 8,500 coal plants would have to close by 2030 and no new ones built.
Last year, China commissioned more coal capacity than the rest of the world retired, according to a study by Global Energy Monitor. This US-based pro-green energy group that tracks fossil fuels says China commissioned 38.4 gigawatts (GW) of new coal plants in 2020, accounting for 76% of the global 50.3 GW new coal capacity and offsetting the 37.8 GW of coal capacity retired last year.
Facing disruptive energy shortages, China hit a new record for daily coal production during COP26. With the sixth plenum coinciding with the second week of COP26, it was inevitable that domestic concerns would be foremost for China’s delegation in Glasgow.