As Biden’s virtual summit concludes this week, it has reinforced the sense that the US and China, despite fierce and nationalist rivalry, will seek common ground on the existential issue of climate change. But it’s not clear how much more ground Xi is willing to give up – and under what circumstances.
Although the United States, Japan and Canada on Thursday unveiled new stricter targets for greenhouse gas emissions for 2030, Xi – as well as another key figure, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – abstained from new commitments. After Xi’s speech, Chinese officials tasked with informing Chinese state media and reporters repeated long-standing lines that developed countries need to do more to reduce their emissions while developing economies should be allowed more. flexibility margin.
Environmental groups say they were disappointed that Xi has set significant long-term goals for achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, but has not presented clarity on how to get there.
Xi’s reticence at the summit could be driven by internal considerations, said Li Shuo, senior adviser at Greenpeace East Asia.
“It needs to balance divergent interests between national industrial groups and international expectations, the need to show China’s green image and also not to be seen as a subsidence to US diplomatic pressure,” Li said. “It is precisely because this is an event organized by the United States that China could have been more reluctant to put more offers on the table.”
Li said the next venue for a potential Chinese announcement could be the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, a multilateral rather than Biden-led forum, to be held in Glasgow in November.
“There is clearly a need for China to come up with more plans to accelerate its short-term ambitions, and they should be presented before November,” Li added.
Hours after Xi’s speech, Chinese officials in Beijing said their government has maintained “the utmost determination in tackling climate change” and defended China which was already making huge contributions. Xie Zhenhua, a veteran Chinese negotiator, spoke positively of his “frank, friendly, thorough and constructive” talks with John F. Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, “to promote the success of COP26.”
Lauri Myllyvirta, a researcher at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said Xi’s speech “did not move the needle in terms of overall ambitions” but that it was encouraging that Xi highlighted a long-standing issue of concern. date for observers: China’s dependence on coal.
Although researchers broadly agree that China needs to limit its use of coal as soon as possible to meet its emissions targets, Thursday was the first time the Communist Party leader explicitly stated that coal consumption it would “gradually decline” after 2025.
Coal and other heavy industries are politically influential in China and can often break high-level edicts. For example, while Chinese provinces tried to stimulate their post-pandemic economies by building energy infrastructure last year, China turned on 38 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants, more than triple the rest of the world, according to Global Energy Keep under. control.
Xi’s acknowledgment of the coal issue, while lacking specific details, was at least “a mandate for officials to curb new coal-fired energy projects,” Myllyvirta said. He added that the announcement of further emissions cuts at the Biden summit may be “illogical” from Beijing’s point of view but necessary.
“There appears to be a gap between China’s carbon neutral ambition by 2060 and the level of ambition that Xi has announced for this decade,” Myllyvirta said.
Away from the spotlight of US-China relations, Chinese officials say they have made substantial moves on their own initiative.
The share of China’s energy consumption from renewable sources slowly increased from 19% in 2016 to 24% last year. China’s central bank chief Yi Gang said this month that Beijing plans to spend about $ 340 billion annually until 2030 to cut emissions; Xi acknowledged in a March meeting with a Communist Party finance committee that China needed “far-reaching and far-reaching systemic reform” to meet the 2030 and 2060 climate goals it had set.
“I think there are deliberations right now about what China can promise,” said Zhang Shuwei, chief economist at the Draworld Energy Research Center think tank. After a flurry of statements last year, China may be reluctant to offer further concessions in the coming months, he said.
Dimitri de Boer, principal representative of the Beijing office of the non-profit organization ClientEarth, noted that Xi spoke with European leaders before attending the Biden summit, as if to support China’s engagement on the issue regardless of pressure from the United States.
De Boer said he did not feel the “leadership competition” at the top. “The fact that President Xi attended the summit is very significant,” de Boer said. “We will see more details in the future.”
Li, the Greenpeace adviser, said both powers appear to be committed to the issue but that the policy will be sensitive.
“When the bilateral relationship is complicated and turbulent, climate progress isn’t that easy or straightforward,” he said. “These are rather complicated waters that we have to navigate. But the bottom line is: both countries need to work harder. “
Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.