How serious is Xi about climate change?

As the leaders of the world’s biggest carbon emitters meet in Glasgow in the coming days, it remains unclear whether the most influential person in the group will show up. Despite calls from his counterparts to attend in person, it currently appears that Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to attend the COP26 summit virtually from Beijing.

While it’s unclear what Xi stands to gain by denying his physical presence, or what might be a more urgent internal matter, the current limbo of will or will is a fairly apt representation of the deep. and a deep confusing ambivalence in the face of the climate issue, and its role in a future low carbon potential.

One might apologize for wondering why China has not been a strong advocate for global action to tackle climate change. Of the world’s major economic and military powers, China could have the most to lose from a possible climate catastrophe. It could also have the most to gain from a future low-carbon global economy.

Leaders obsessed with Party order are well aware of the impact of their country’s climate on the grip of a ruling regime. China’s history is replete with examples of the flooding of its major rivers, causing a series of events such as famine, rebellion and, in some cases, the downfall of entire dynasties. As we begin to see the first effects of climate change, there are early indications that even China’s impressive infrastructure may struggle to cope with what’s to come.

Despite all the prospects and promises of China’s green dream, China is currently a carbon nightmare.

In 2020, heavy rains caused massive flooding along the Yangze River, forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes and pushing the massive Three Gorges Dam to its capacity, raising fears that it might be ruptured or overflowed, an scenario that would have had catastrophic consequences.

In the longer term, rising sea levels threaten to submerge much of Shanghai and the Pearl River Delta, China’s two largest economic and trading centers. The Tibetan Plateau glaciers, which feed China’s major rivers, are also melting at a rapid rate, raising fears of long-term water shortages.

Besides the common human challenge of avoiding climate disaster, Chinese companies are uniquely positioned to thrive in a low-carbon global economy. While needing to rely heavily on imports to satisfy its huge appetite for oil, China dominates at almost every stage of the lithium-ion battery value chain, the key technology used for electric vehicles, electronic devices and to store the energy generated by many of the most popular forms of renewable energy.

Having failed to compete with their European, Japanese and American rivals in the internal combustion engine market, Chinese automakers are now the world leaders in electric vehicles, filling two of the world’s top five places for all-vehicle sales. electricity in 2020. China’s rail network is hailed by climate activists and city planners, and as countries around the world seek to build less carbon-emitting transport infrastructure, Chinese rolling stock manufacturers are securing plenty of new business . China is also dominant in the manufacture of solar panels and other components of the solar energy value chain, so dominant that some in Washington are said to have claimed to ignore accusations of forced labor in order to import solar panels from China.

A coal transporter in Jiujiang, Jiangxi province on October 24 (STR / AFP via Getty Images)

For Xi, his statements of cooperation on climate issues have been one of the few bright spots for him internationally, as China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy has hurt his international standing. After the United States and China failed to reach an agreement at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, the success of the 2015 Paris Agreement was partly attributed to will Xi to come to an agreement, as well as his more centralized degree of decision-making control, in contrast to the consensus model of his predecessors in Beijing.

Whether purely for the show or with genuine intentions, Xi has spoken seriously about the climate on the world stage. Its pledge for China to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 at the United Nations General Assembly in 2020 received high praise, as did its pledge this year to end coal-fired power plant projects under the framework. of the vast Belt and Road initiative. Although climate issues have historically been avoided in Chinese national media, Xi appears to be slowly changing messaging there too.

Yet despite all the prospects and promises of China’s green dream, China is currently a carbon nightmare. Its emissions have exceeded those of all members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development put together and continue to grow. Much of the country’s economic activity revolves around its horribly wasteful construction and heavy industry sectors, which have behaved like a runaway freight train for much of the past decade, over-indebted and falling. launching into increasingly unproductive projects spurred by the government’s lofty growth goals.

While Xi has pledged to stop building new coal-fired power plants abroad, China is in the throes of a domestic coal frenzy. Almost 60 percent of its national electricity is produced by coal, and it continues to increase its capacity. The lofty ambitions for cleaner energy are being undermined by the incentives of the system that drove the country’s rise, a system that is deeply addicted to cheap coal power. Detoxification, if possible, will require tackling some of China’s most powerful and deeply rooted political and economic institutions.

There is reason to believe that Xi is sincere about China’s climate commitments. Yet keeping such commitments while remaining in power and keeping the country’s economy afloat is an act of juggling at the top of a common thread. The world may have no choice but to hope that it succeeds.