Why climate-shaming China at COP26 likely won't work

U.S. leaders, including President Joe Biden and former president Barack Obama, have accused China of not pulling its weight at the UN climate summit. Long-time China watchers say such finger-pointing is counter-productive.

China’s refusal to sign onto key pledges at UN summit doesn't mean it's a climate laggard, say analysts

There has been much criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping's absence at COP26. Here, he is shown addressing world leaders at the G20 meeting in Rome via video link on Oct. 31, 2021. (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled Our Changing Planet to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

For a country that pollutes more than any other, China, with its 1.4 billion people, has an unusually small footprint at the COP26 climate summit underway in Glasgow, Scotland.

President Xi Jinping skipped the leaders' portion of the Glasgow event, and in COP26's grand conference room, there's no colourful Chinese pavilion the way there has been at every other UN climate summit.

China's delegation office is essentially a large office cubicle with a flag outside. It is overshadowed by the Pacific micro-state of Tuvalu just around the corner, which has an attention-getting display focused on the impact of rising ocean levels.

Chinese boots on the ground are also thin. Rather than sending the usual hundreds of delegates, China's government dispatched perhaps 50 at the most. 

Activists dressed as world leaders protest on Nov. 9 against the rising water levels during a demonstration on the Forth and Clyde Canal during COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

All of this is fuelling criticism — especially from U.S. President Joe Biden, former president Barack Obama and other top American leaders — that China has become a climate action laggard.

But analysts say this misreads China's broader progress on transitioning to a low-carbon world.

Big polluter

China is responsible for roughly 26 per cent of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions. 

Just days before COP26's opening, the country released a new plan to lower them, but critics said it contained little in the way of new "ambition." Rather, China restated a forecast that it will hit peak emissions by 2030 and reduce its "carbon intensity" after that.   

Coal, a mainstay of Chinese energy production, will remain dominant for decades to come, although the country will start phasing it out in 2025.

In a keynote speech on Monday, Obama chided China's leadership, suggesting it all adds up to a lack of commitment to making COP26 a success.

It reflects "a dangerous lack of urgency," said Obama, singling out not only China but Russia as well.

But analysts who've followed China's slow transition from a fossil fuel behemoth to an emerging clean energy giant say the reality of China's commitment to hitting the goals laid out in the 2015 Paris climate accord — and updated here in Glasgow — is more nuanced.

The office of the Chinese delegation at COP26 is modest compared to many other national pavillions. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

"Not having President Xi Jinping [at the summit] opened China up to this type of criticism that they're not committed to the climate change issue," said Angel Hsu, an assistant professor of public policy and the environment at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, speaking to CBC at the summit.

"But if we look at what's going on back home in China, they absolutely have been committed to the issue and putting the necessary steps in place, including recent policies as part of their enhanced ambition."

Policy of under-promising and over-achieving

Hsu, who has spent two decades studying China's climate policies, including six years while living in Beijing, says China has announced it will remove coal from their power system by 2050, replacing it with more nuclear power generation.

Prior to the summit, the country also announced it would stop building new coal-fired plants in other countries. 

As well, Chinese officials claim their country already accounts for 30 per cent of the world's total renewable energy capacity. 
A delegate at the COP26 climate summit watches a speach by former U.S. president Barack Obama. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

In December 2020, Xi told the United Nations General Assembly that China would get to carbon neutrality by 2060. That's a full decade later than the net-zero target set by many Western nations, but Hsu says it's quite possible China will reach the goal years before that. 

"What they like to do is they like to under-promise, but over-achieve," Hsu said.

She is adamant, however, that shaming from countries like the U.S. is counter-productive.

"That is completely unhelpful, and it's frankly not going to pressure or push China one way or the other."

Hsu's assessment of China's intentions and capabilities is shared by Alden Meyer, a senior associate at British climate consulting firm E3G.

Meyer, who has attended all of the UN climate summits, says geopolitics have shaped China's approach to the Glasgow event. And as the world's second-biggest economy, its leadership is loath to be seen as taking orders from the U.S.

Prof. Angel Hsu is a climate scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is attending the COP26 climate summit. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"I think China is reluctant to sign on to deals that are brokered by the U.S. and Europe. It's part of the geopolitical rivalry and tension between the major powers," Meyer said.

Managing the transition

The first week of the UN summit saw agreements signed by more than 100 nations on issues such as ending deforestation, limiting methane emissions, phasing out the domestic use of coal and tapping into the power of private equity to make green energy investments.

China didn't sign on to any of them.

Meyer suggested the Chinese government is proceeding cautiously because of the prospect of civil unrest if its transition away from fossil fuels is too rapid.

"China has 700,000 miners in the coal sector," said Meyer. "Compare that to the U.S., where I think we have 35,000 or 40,000 active [coal] miners now. [Chinese leaders] have to consider the social implications, the transition, the labour rates and all that stuff."

Still, Meyer said after the summit ends, many will be watching to see if China makes significant moves on the aforementioned initiatives on its own. 

Pollution in the skies over Bejing has improved in recent years. But in the winter, smog can still be a dangerous problem. (CBC)

"That is one of the big questions here: when will China signal its willingness to do what everyone knows they need to do if we're going to have a chance of staying under 1.5 C?"

Keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels is the target that was agreed to in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

With global emissions continuing to rise, the chance of hitting that is seen as increasingly remote. Instead, the new unofficial target is to "keep 1.5 alive" by holding warming as closely as possible to that level.

A national effort

While it is often seen as a climate villain abroad, China's environmental policies have been credited with making the skies clearer in its capital, Beijing, and improving living conditions for its 21 million residents.

China did this through a variety of measures outlined in its 2013 Air Pollution Action Plan, which included curtailing the amount of coal power in urban areas and limiting car traffic.

A coal-burning power plant is seen in the city of Baotou, in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. (David Gray/Reuters)

CBC spoke to people at a Beijing transit station and asked them how much importance they attach to policies aimed at fighting global warming.   

"I think the government has made a lot of effort," said one woman in her 20s, who said her name was Ms. Yiu. "It has restricted traffic [in Beijing], reduced exhaust emissions, refitted factories and required auto repair shops to meet environmental protection requirements, and required construction sites to stop work in special periods." 

Another woman, Ms. Yan, said she supported any policy that would make the city's air cleaner.

"In my life, we can't open windows at will, the purifier needs to run 24 hours per day," she said.

Angel Hsu, the climate scientist, says many Western policy-makers fail to understand that China's leadership has decided to make moves on global warming because it's popular at home and there's strong support from civil society groups for it.

"China is acting on climate change because they [see] it's in their own domestic interest to do so," said Hsu. "They recognize that it's an issue of domestic, national importance, and that's what's going to push the needle for China — not finger-pointing and blaming and shaming." 


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now