China’s refusal to accept requests for deeper carbon emissions cuts during recent visits from the top climate envoys of the United States and Britain may undermine progress at the upcoming global climate summit in Glasgow in November, experts say.
China rebuffed U.S. envoy John Kerry’s appeal to strengthen its emissions goals ahead of the COP26 summit by saying climate could not be separated from the wider breakdown in the countries’ relationship.
This shift in China’s tone on climate relations between the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters has sapped momentum for the Glasgow talks and contrasts with the cooperation between the two countries in 2015 that paved the way for the landmark Paris climate agreement.
China no longer feels obliged to consider requests for deeper carbon cuts after former President Donald Trump rejected U.S. climate change commitments, most notably by withdrawing from the Paris accord, especially after relations between the two countries deteriorated during Trump’s term over trade, human rights, and geopolitical issues, experts say.
China and the U.S. still have an understanding of climate issues but “the bigger problem now is the difference in the political positions of the two sides,” said Zou Ji, the president of Energy Foundation China who was part of China’s delegation at the 2015 Paris talks.
“The balance of power and influence of the two sides has changed.”
The United States says China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has not done enough despite pledging to bring emissions to “net zero” by 2060. They want China to pledge to reach peak emissions earlier and do more to cut coal consumption, a key source of greenhouse gases.
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However, China argues its current commitments are strong.
President Xi Jinping has repeatedly promised to “increase the strength” of its nationally determined contributions (NDC), the emissions goals that each country must submit under the Paris accords, to reflect China’s commitment to reach the 2060 “net zero” target.
China’s top climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said in August that China had already strengthened other pledges, including a new renewable energy target and a commitment to bring emissions to a peak “before” 2030 instead of “around” 2030.
China has also said it will cut coal consumption starting in 2026 and produce 25% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.
The Chinese government is unwilling to be seen buckling to overseas pressure on the coal consumption cuts, U.S. diplomatic sources said. China is the world’s biggest coal user and the industry employs many workers.
“Amid all the uncertainties, one thing has become clear – Beijing will not give in to foreign powers,” said Li Shuo, a climate expert with Greenpeace. “The best way to propel Chinese climate action is to align it with China’s self-interest.”
China must submit updated NDCs before the COP26 begins. But, rather than introduce new pledges, analysts expect them to provide more details about how existing long-term targets, described by Premier Li Keqiang as extremely arduous, can be achieved.
Environmental think-tanks, such as the Innovative Green Development Program (IGDP) base in Beijing, said the government may update China’s NDCs to include a 2025 energy consumption cap, more action on greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, as well as a “roadmap” to achieve existing targets.
Last week, the China Center for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, a government advisory body, also recommended China set a 2025 total emissions cap.
However, it is uncertain if the government will make bigger changes in the NDCs and China’s comments following the meetings with Kerry are not a cause for optimism.
Woes of climate cooperation and diplomatic rifts
The U.S. had hoped to keep climate discussions as “standalone” issues from other items such as its support for Taiwan and allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
But senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi told Kerry during their meeting that the “oasis” of climate cooperation could not be separated from the diplomatic “desert” between them.
For its part, China could seek exemptions from a new European carbon border tax and push richer countries to fulfill financing pledges to developed nations, analysts said.
Beijing will also seek reassurances that Washington can meet its own pledges, said Zou at the Energy Foundation China.
“If Trump or someone with the same views returns, then it is a matter of concern to everyone whether U.S. climate policy will experience another twist,” he said.
Alex Wang, an expert in environmental law at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the best way the United States could influence China’s climate actions was by example.
“The U.S. critiques are not surprising and point to real areas where China needs to do better,” he said. “But the United States has also not done nearly enough. One of the best ways the United States could exert pressure now is by taking decisive and durable climate action at home.”