Xi Jinping has bailed on a crucial global climate summit. But it may not be why you think
The leader of the world’s biggest polluter will be a prominent no-show at global climate change talks in Glasgow this weekend.
China’s leader Xi Jinping presides over a nation pumping out more than double the volume of carbon dioxide emissions than the next closest country.
And ahead of the climate talks, he has ordered an increase to coal-fired electricity production, with approval for more than 100 coal mines to expand capacity.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t serious about his pledge for a green China by 2060.
Xi Jinping certainly has his work cut out for him.
All at once, he must fuel China’s economic growth, keep the lights on, and break the nation’s addiction to coal before it’s too late.
China is currently bingeing on coal
China’s coal surge comes in response to crippling electricity cuts across different parts of the country, as the thirst for power outstrips its capacity to supply enough coal.
As China’s economy continues to grow, the challenge of keeping on the lights will only become pressing.
The coal production boost for the coming northern hemisphere winter, along with growing fears about insufficient energy supply, means the nation is increasing its use of coal at a time when other nations are already reducing it.
More than 230 coal-fired power plants are also under construction or planned in the coming years, according to the Global Coal Plant tracker.
The new plants have a planned energy capacity greater than the rest of the world’s new coal-fired power plants combined.
Experts say some of the new plants will replace power stations that will be retired.
But at the same time, Beijing is trying to assure other countries that it’s on track to achieve several big pledges made over the past year.
China says it needs four more years of coal
The Chinese government hasn’t publicly given a reason why Xi Jinping won’t attend the Glasgow summit.
But few analysts think the decision should be seen as a snub.
“Those symbolic gestures, including leaders turning up do matter, but I don’t think anyone was seriously banking on a massive new surprise announcement at this point,” said Sam Geall, head of environmental research group China Dialogue.
“It’s much more about trying to get talks back on track, trying to restore trust and to get some sort of cooperation back on the table”.
Beijing has said that it plans to keep increasing coal production until 2025 and then slowly reduce it.
In the past few days, the government has released more detailed plans on how it will peak carbon dioxide emissions by the end of this decade.
It has also bolstered a pledge this week to go carbon neutral by 2060, releasing new guidelines that set a goal of reducing the use of fossil fuel energy sources to 20 per cent or less.
Li Shuo, a climate and energy specialist at Greenpeace East Asia, said one area where China could make an announcement was on that pledge.
“I think the international community is still waiting to see whether China can do more and, in our view, moving China’s peaking timeline to before 2025 as opposed to before 2030 will be a critical component,” he said.
Achieving the 2060 target would require a staggering upheaval to an economy still more than 58 per cent reliant on coal to fuel its growth.
While the release of the detailed guidelines will be welcomed by delegates in Glasgow, Beijing’s recent coal binge is making environmentalists nervous.
But assuring the world — and a domestic audience — that the globe’s biggest carbon emitter is serious about going green is one challenge.
In China’s heartland, where coal remains king, the long-term pledges to draw down the use of coal create a completely different challenge.
What does the nation do with the millions of coal miners?
China’s busy coal capital can’t imagine a green future
Shanxi province in central China has one of the richest deposits of coal in the world and the main city Datong is dubbed China’s “coal capital”.
The province pumped out more than 1 billion tonnes of coal last year and has been ordered to exceed that this year to offset China’s electricity crisis.
The record production means boom times for locals working in the mining industry.
“There are fewer labourers working in the mines now, but the skill and safety levels are higher, as are the wages,” said Li, a 55-year-old lifelong miner from Datong.
Li remembers a time in Datong when pollution was so bad, his clothes would turn black simply from walking around outside.
But he said the air quality and health of the residents was much better these days.
His 30-year-old son also works in the coal industry, but Li was not overly concerned about China’s long-term plans to dramatically reduce use of coal.
“Where would he go if he’s not here in Datong? He doesn’t have other skills, he can’t go anywhere else,” he told the ABC.
“If the company shuts down in future and there isn’t work, I believe the government will think of a solution. It’s not going to let workers go hungry.”
Another local coal veteran, Xue Guang, grew up near a mine and worked his whole life in the industry.
“They can’t close down the big mines, they can’t stop digging up coal. If that happens, we won’t be here,” he said.
For now, coal is coming out of the ground as fast as ever in China.
But Dr Geall believes it will be temporary.
“It’s difficult to turn the juggernaut around and there’s push and pull between different imperatives,” he told the ABC.
“Social stability, employment and keeping the lights on are challenges, and clearly at the moment in China there is still some support for domestic coal generation.”
Why Xi isn’t leaving China
President Xi is also skipping the G20 meeting in Rome this weekend, but is expected to join talks via video link.
Coronavirus appears to be a factor in Mr Xi’s decision to stay home from both G20 and the climate change conference, but his absence doesn’t necessarily rule out him personally playing a role at the meeting.
“It is likely the Chinese President will speak virtually at the beginning of the COP 26 meeting in Glasgow,” said Li Shuo from Greenpeace.
The Chinese leader hasn’t left China since the global pandemic began in Wuhan in late 2019.
With border closures and extremely strict quarantine measures, there’s an expectation he won’t leave the country anytime soon.
Politics is likely the other factor, with Mr Xi’s government in the midst of some big regulatory overhauls as he heads towards a major government reshuffle at a Communist Party Congress towards the end of next year.
He is expected to break recent norms and seek a third term as China’s paramount leader, so domestic political considerations are expected to take priority in the lead-up to the Congress over attending political summits abroad.