What did China say and do at COP26?

Negotiating a climate emergency.
Negotiating a climate emergency.
Image: Reuters/Yves Herman
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China had a relatively subdued presence at this year’s COP, but in the final days threw its considerable weight around as the final agreement was hammered out. It stood up on the side of developing countries who are seeking financing to adapt to the damaging impacts of the historical emissions produced by the US and Europe, though China itself doesn’t need such funding. Together with India, China also argued for weakening the language on coal—in 2020, China consumed more than 50% of the world’s coal.

While China’s share of coal in its energy mix has decreased somewhat in recent years, its continued dependence on the fossil fuel was highlighted by an energy crunch severe enough to cause power cuts across most of the country in the weeks preceding the summit.

As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, China’s promises and actions are closely watched. The country is balancing its responsibility for climate action against domestic concerns—from keeping its factories running and homes warm during the winter, to growing its renewables sector, and the goal of increasing prosperity for its middle class. Some of these align with reducing emissions, others are in conflict.

Below is a timeline of what China did and didn’t do during COP26.

Oct. 26: China releases its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). It was met with disappointment. Each country is required to submit an NDC (pdf)—their plan to reduce emissions. Analysts hoped for strong commitments from China that would influence global climate ambitions, but the 2021 plan appeared to largely reiterate pledges made in 2015.

In a small press briefing during the summit, China’s lead climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, said that China’s goals are “already ambitious.” As it stands now, China’s NDC, which includes peaking its emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality in 2060, is not aligned with keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C.

Oct. 31: COP26 begins, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is not in attendance. COP26 was seen as the most important climate meeting since 2015’s COP21, which led to the landmark Paris Agreement. Since January 2020, Xi has not left China, which is following an ultra-strict Covid-zero policy, and Xie later said that the leader was unable to attend due to “domestic work arrangements.” This was perhaps in reference to the Communist Party’s sixth plenum which coincided with the second week of COP26 (and resulted in a historic consolidation of power for Xi).

Regardless of the reason, the outcome was noticeable. China sent a smaller than usual delegation to the COP, and was quiet during the high-level first week of the summit.

Nov. 2: Xie Zhenhua holds a low-key, closed door briefing. In a video reviewed by Carbon Brief, Xie emphasized action over “shouting slogans and setting goals.” He listed some of China’s renewables credentials, and blamed former US president Donald Trump for setting the world back on making progress on climate during his term.

“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,” Xie said, according to a Carbon Brief newsletter.

Nov. 2: China joins more than 130 countries in a global deforestation pledge to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030. The last time a similar deal was on the table in 2014, China did not take part.

Nov. 2: China does not sign onto the Global Methane Pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2) in warming the planet. Unlike CO2, which hangs in the atmosphere for centuries, methane dissipates in about 12 years and cutting methane emissions would begin to cool the planet sooner. More than 100 countries signed onto the pledge. Xie said China would develop its own plan to cut methane, and included methane cuts in a bilateral deal with the US the following week.

Oct. 31-Nov. 13: China chides developed nations for falling short on climate finance for developing countries. Developed countries caused most of the climate impacts—stronger storms, desertification, deadly heat waves, rising seas—that developing countries are suffering today. Financing for those impacts was the most contentious issue during COP26. China is not one of the developing countries that needs money from the UN, but it has repeatedly used its position as a global power to pressure the US and Europe to fund climate adaptation for poorer countries, and called developed countries’ refusal to do this the biggest barrier to climate action.

Nov. 4: China, along with India, does not sign the global coal pledge to phase out coal-fired power and refrain from building new coal plants. Emissions from burning coal are the single biggest contributor to climate change, and China consumes more coal than any other nation. In October, China announced that it would stop paying for new coal plants overseas; in 2020, it built about one new coal plant a week at home.

Nov. 8: Former US president Barack Obama criticizes China for its minimal presence at COP26. He described Xi Jinping’s absence as “particularly discouraging,” building on comments made by president Joe Biden the previous week that had provoked defensive responses from China, including an opinion piece in the People’s Daily online that suggested Biden’s comments were an effort to shift blame on climate change from the US and other Western nations onto China.

Nov. 10: The United States and China announce a bilateral “Glasgow Declaration. The announcement, which promised to “enhance ambition,” was unexpected. The declaration evoked the US-China pact in 2014 that gave way to the Paris agreement, but did not represent major shifts in either country’s goals. Reactions were tepidly positive.

Nov. 13: In support of coal use, China pushes back on the final text of the Glasgow Pact (pdf). China ended its quiet run at COP26 by fighting to weaken a line about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies, as did India.

Despite contentious discussions over the phrasing, for the first time fossil fuels are mentioned in the COP agreement, though using the weaker language of “phase down” rather than “phase out.” In addition, the final agreement refers to “unabated coal,” which excludes coal burning from which emissions are captured, technologies China has been touting.

An analysis by Carbon Brief estimates that the new announcements made in the run-up to and during COP26 might shave 0.1°C of warming from the global trajectory expected from commitments through 2030.