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china briefing
11 November 2021 15:26

China Briefing, 11 November 2021: US-China Glasgow declaration; Calls for ‘concrete actions’; Xi’s absence at COP26

Carbon Brief Staff

11.11.2021 | 3:26pm
China PolicyChina Briefing, 11 November 2021: US-China Glasgow declaration; Calls for ‘concrete actions’; Xi’s absence at COP26

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s China weekly digest. 
We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

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China and the US yesterday released a joint declaration on climate action at COP26. The statement said the two nations “further recognise the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis” and “are committed to tackling it through their respective accelerated actions in the critical decade of the 2020s, as well as through cooperation in multilateral processes”.


Meanwhile, Beijing’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua has called on nations to “take concrete actions” to address climate change in Glasgow. Xie urged developed countries to “take the lead in slashing emissions significantly” at the summit, which will – in theory – wrap up tomorrow. But he admitted China’s emissions “are indeed relatively high” in its “current stage of development”.

Moreover, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s absence at COP26 has drawn criticism from US president Joe Biden and former US president Barack Obama as they addressed the climate conference in person. Chinese envoy Xie said that Xi – who has not left China since January 2020 – could not travel to Glasgow due to “domestic work arrangements”. 

Key developments

China and the US publish joint climate declaration

WHAT: China and the US published the “US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s” on Wednesday at COP26. (Read it in Chinese here or in English here.) The document – which builds on the two countries’ joint statement in April (here or here) and their climate talks in Tianjin in September – says China and the US will “work together and with other parties to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement”. It highlights several areas of joint efforts, including reducing methane, promoting decarbonisation and protecting forests. Yesterday evening, China’s climate envoy Xie and his US counterpart, John Kerry, held consecutive press conferences to announce the deal. 

CHINA: Xie told the press conference that the Sino-US joint declaration “further raises detailed measures for China and the US on carrying out domestic action, promoting bilateral cooperation and advancing the multilateral process”. Xie said that both sides had recognised that there was “a gap” between various parties’ efforts and the goals under the Paris Agreement. He noted that China and the US “would jointly strengthen climate action and cooperation with respect to different national circumstances”, adding there was “more agreement than divergence” between them. He added that the two nations planned to establish a “working group” dedicated to enhancing climate action in the 2020s. 

US: Kerry told reporters that the two countries’ leaders hoped that – despite “areas of real difference” – China and the US “could cooperate on the climate crisis”. He noted that with this joint declaration, the two sides have “arrived at a new stop, a roadmap for our present and future collaboration” against global warming. He said that “we will work together to limit methane – a greenhouse gas up to 80 times more destructive, more potent than CO2”. Kerry added: “As I’ve said many times, the US and China have no shortage of differences, but on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done…We need to raise ambition and we need to take action in this decisive decade.”

MEDIA REACTION: The “surprise” statement “injects new momentum into the last days of global climate negotiations”, Bloomberg reported. Sky News said “in an unexpected update from Glasgow, the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases have pledged to work together on climate change”. Matt McGrath, the environment correspondent of BBC News, noted that “the joint steps agreed – on methane, forests and technology transfer – are important symbolically and also potentially in emissions terms”. JW View – which is affiliated with Chinese state-run news wire China News Service – stressed that, according to the statement, China would “phase down coal consumption during the 15th five-year plan period (2026-2030) and make best efforts to accelerate this work.” Various other outlets – including the Guardian, New York Times, Reuters and China’s state news agency Xinhua – also covered the story.

QUOTES: António Guterres, secretary-general of the UN, said he welcomed the agreement. He wrote on Twitter: “Tackling the climate crisis requires international collaboration and solidarity, and this is an important step in the right direction.” Frans Timmermans, the EU’s executive vice president and climate commissioner, said it was “good news that the US and China have found common ground on climate”, calling the agreement “a challenge which transcends politics”. Thom Woodroofe, a former climate diplomat, said: “While this is not a game changer in the way the 2014 US-China climate deal was, in many ways it’s just as much of a step forward given the geopolitical state of the relationship.” Brandon Wu, ActionAid USA’s director of policy and campaigns, regarded the statement as a “positive sign”. But he added: “There is very little new agreed to in the framework, so as with all of the major announcements at COP, the key will be following up with real action on the ground.”

Beijing calls for ‘concrete actions’ against climate change

WHAT: During a low-key press conference in the first week of COP26, Chinese envoy Xie urged that countries must take “concrete actions” to address climate change. “Shouting slogans and setting goals alone won’t work. [Countries] must have clear roadmaps, innovate and cooperate to truly solve the problems,” Xie said on 2 November at the closed-door event. Below are some key messages from Xie, according to a recording of the press conference obtained by Carbon Brief.

$100BN: Xie highlighted that developed countries had not met their pledge of providing $100bn in financial support every year to developing countries by 2020. He said: “When I held talks with COP26 president Alok Sharma and US envoy Kerry recently, they told me that the $100bn financial support would be met by 2022 or 2023…For developing countries, [this] has caused some problems in political mutual trust.” (Carbon Brief’s analysis has explained why climate-finance “flows” are falling short of the $100bn pledge.)

STATS: Developing renewable energy is a “very important measure” to help China cut emissions, according to Xie. He said: “The total installed capacity of China’s renewable energy has reached 890 gigawatts, which accounts for 32% of the world’s total and 53% of the newly installed capacity globally…Compared with 2005, China’s energy consumption per unit of GDP has dropped by 42.4%, equal to saving 2.2bn tonnes of standard coal equivalent (tce). Our carbon intensity has decreased by 48.4%, meaning we have reduced our CO2 emissions by 5.7bn tonnes.” (Read China’s new nationally determined contribution here.)

1.5C VS 2C: When asked if China will try its best to achieve the 1.5C goal under the Paris Agreement, Xie said that the accord has not one, but two targets: to limit global warming “well below” 2C and “pursuing efforts” for 1.5C. He said: “The Paris Agreement’s goals are science-based, rule-based, inclusive and achievable. Such floating targets are relatively practical. Actually, the 1.5C goal is included in the Paris Agreement and it is not too different from the saying ‘to keep 1.5C within reach’. This means we have a consensus. If you try to destroy the consensus and say the goal is just 1.5C, some countries may demand that the Paris Agreement be renegotiated. Then, we will run out of time.” He clarified: “We are not opposing the 1.5C goal as it’s already in the Paris Agreement…The key is how to achieve it.” 

ACTION: Xie underscored the importance of taking concrete actions. He said: “Whether or not we can achieve goals of [keeping the warming] well below 2C and preferably 1.5C does not depend on countries’ slogans, but their actions. Countries must carry out transition in their economy and society. If we continue with our traditional development methods, lifestyles and consuming modes, the Paris Agreement goals will not be achieved.” (Read Carbon Brief’s analysis on when the world might exceed 1.5C and 2C of global warming.)

EMISSIONS: Xie admitted that China’s emissions “are indeed relatively high in our current development stage”. He said: “According to the Kuznets curve, countries’ emissions will indeed increase in the process of developing. But China is already trying to significantly reduce the peak level of the emissions. We would not only lower the peak level but also shorten the time [to peak emissions], and this is the effort from China for the global response to climate change.” (Carbon Brief has explained the significance of the Kuznets curve to the country’s climate governance in this analysis by China contributing editor Jianqiang Liu.)

TRUMP: Xie said that the US had caused a long delay to the multilateral cooperation against climate change because of the Trump administration. He said: “The joint efforts of China and the US had originally contributed to the conclusion and signing of the Paris Agreement, but, in the end, president Trump announced to withdraw from it. President Xi said that, as the Paris Agreement had not come easy and reflected the direction of global development, [we] cannot give up lightly. But the US gave up and caused a five-year delay to the entire multilateral process of climate change. [The US] should catch up. We can work together.”

Biden and Obama criticise Xi’s no-show at COP26

WHAT: The current and former US presidents Biden and Obama criticised Xi for failing to travel to Glasgow. According to the Guardian, Biden “launched a stinging attack” on China over Xi’s non-attendance at a COP26 address, calling it a “big mistake”. Biden – who also rebuked Russian president Vladimir Putin for missing COP26 – was quoted saying: “It is a gigantic issue and they just walked away.” Obama called out Xi and Putin for not coming in a speech on Monday, reported Al Jazeera. He described the absences as “particularly discouraging” and said the two nations’ climate plans reflected “​​a dangerous lack of urgency”, the outlet said.  

WHY: China has not given a clear reason for Xi’s absence. The Chinese climate envoy Xie – whose official title at COP26 is “President Xi Jinping’s special representative” – said: “Due to domestic work arrangements, President Xi cannot come to attend COP26.” However, Wang Yi, a senior adviser to the Chinese delegation, told the Guardian that Xi’s non-appearance was due to the country’s Covid-19 regulations.

WHAT: Xi’s no-show has also attracted attention from UK media outlets, with the Times, Independent and MailOnline calling it a “snub”. The fact that Xi addressed the world leaders summit by a written statement sparked further reaction. An editorial from the Guardian wrote: “[The] reduction of the Chinese leader’s contribution to a written statement, making no new commitments, has highlighted concern about Beijing’s recent decisions.” An opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard said: “China has become Glasgow’s awkward customer.” But there were also articles – in the New York Times and South China Morning Post, for example – that argued China was still dedicated to climate action. 

WHY: Asked why Xi had sent in a written statement, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a press briefing: “As I understand, the host of the conference did not provide the option to participate by videoconference.” A COP26 spokesperson told Carbon Brief: “As hosts of COP26, we encouraged leaders to physically attend this critical event for the future of our planet. All speeches at the World Leaders Summit were given in person.”

CHINA RESPONSE: China has strongly rejected the criticism levelled at Xi by Biden. Foreign spokesman Wang said that the US “should face up to its historical responsibilities”. China’s state media has run multiple articles condemning the US. An opinion piece in Global Times – a state-run tabloid – said that “Washington has tried to take compensatory actions for the damage it caused to global climate governance” at COP26. Another comment piece in People’s Daily – the mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party – said that “the US and west have once again shifted the blame to China, with the aim at climate change issues this time.” Xinhua ran an interview with “British author and political commentator” ​​Carlos Martinez, who “criticised some western countries’ performance on climate change, such as the US”.


CHINA BRIEFING ASKS: What does Xi’s absence mean for COP26?

BERNICE LEEresearch director for futures, Chatham House – said: “First, China is here at COP26. But Xi’s absence did not send a helpful signal. What else is there to say when the leader of a major economy and the world’s largest emitter does not show up to a world leaders summit after the long hiatus due to Covid. It’s even more significant because COP26 is meant to be the COP that kickstarts the next cycle of ambition and ratcheting that will get the world closer to 1.5C.”

KELLY SIMS GALLAGHERacademic dean and professor of energy and environmental policy at the Fletcher School, Tufts University – said: “President Xi Jinping’s absence has certainly been noticed by many other countries at COP26 and it has largely been interpreted, correctly or incorrectly, as China stepping back from the climate negotiations. The problem is that the reason for President Xi’s absence has not been clearly explained.”

WU CHANGHUA – chief executive officer of Beijing Future Innovation Centre – said: “The absence of President Xi at COP26 proves a missed opportunity for Chinese political leaders to have face-to-face dialogues, discussions, communication and engagement with peers and also the broader global community. China’s steadfast endeavour to advance policy and actions fighting climate change proves evident. And yet, the increasing urgency and complexity of climate challenges require unprecedented scope and depth of engagement of China with all countries and stakeholders to [pursue] collective scale action, solution, innovation and partnership to achieve the shared global 1.5C goal.” 

LI SHUOsenior global policy advisor, Greenpeace East Asia – said: “People are reading too much into Xi’s absence. Chinese leaders have not travelled abroad since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic. This has nothing to do with climate change. In the meanwhile, virtual participation was not a possible option. So what else is left there other than submitting a written statement? In addition to who was there, I am more interested in what was delivered. COP26 demonstrates a collective lack of energy among the major emitters in the world. We have much work to do in 2022, to build better political conditions, and ensure both ambition and implementation in global climate action.”

Extra reading

New science

Anthropogenic emissions and urbanisation increase risk of compound hot extremes in cities
Nature Climate Change

A new study has found that day-night “compound” hot extremes are “more dangerous” than solely daytime or nighttime heat, especially to female and older urban residents. Dr Wang Jun from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Dr Chen Yang from the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences – the first and the corresponding author of the paper, respectively – told Carbon Brief: “These health-damaging compound hot extremes have increased significantly in urban eastern China, with both greenhouse gas emissions and urbanisation being to blame, but to different extents.” They said that the findings called for “tailored adaptation against previously overlooked yet severer and rapidly growing compound heat threats in cities”.

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