It is looking as though Xi Jinping of China will not be attending the COP-26 conference, due to be held in Glasgow from the 31st October – it is assumed representatives will be sent in his place. China is a part of the Paris Climate agreement as well as the plan to reach peak emissions by 2030 and Carbon neutrality by 2060 – all with the goal of lowering global greenhouse emissions. What should we think of Xi’s absence from Glasgow next week?
It is important to remember that any lack of enthusiasm from the Chinese could have dire consequences, for they are the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Research from the Rhodium group showed that in 2019, China was responsible for 27% of GHG (Greenhouse gas) emissions, far ahead of the USA in second place. We ought to remember China’s large population, their economic development and their role in exports to meet the demand of other nations, yet if we are to get serious about lowering emissions then China (along with the USA) are naturally a cornerstone to the effort. China’s economic growth and high emissions mean that climate responsibility is not an issue that can merely be pushed onto the west, as was the rhetoric particularly in the closing decades of the 20th century. Historic emissions do not exempt China anymore; according to Carbon Brief, China has the second-highest historic accumulation of Carbon Dioxide emissions, with its 11% over half now of the United States’ 20%.
By ignoring the role of the Chinese in global emissions – as was often done when non-Western states’ emissions were not so high – European and American nations will make excuses if they feel they are being expected to solve the problem all by themselves regardless of their historical responsibility for the climate crisis. The US’ disillusionment with the Kyoto Protocol, for example (which they never ratified), stemmed partly from the idea of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities, where countries like China, Brazil and India were not required to try to reduce their emissions based on their argued limited contribution to historic emissions. The years following the Kyoto Protocol, therefore, saw Chinese and American emissions soar demonstrating its ineffectiveness. China showing its commitment is important so that the West, and particularly Americans, cannot just respond with ‘what about China?’ to questions of their own emissions.
But this is not just about China. India must also play a key role in solving the Climate Crisis given their significant (and rising) emissions – they ranked 3rd in emissions for the year 2018. In this sense, Prime Minister Modi’s attendance at COP-26 is encouraging. Putin’s absence is not ideal given that Russian emissions sit in 4th place. It is essential that everyone now comes together to build on the climate commitments made in the Paris Agreement, commitments that must be built upon in order to reach the global temperature target of below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is a responsibility for every country that has played, and continues to play, a role in contributing to the Greenhouse Gases into our atmosphere.
We should not be taking a pro or anti-Chinese stance. We should expect, from our own governments, a commitment to tackling GHG emissions. We must expect this from not only China, but also so as to prevent the West’s excuses for not living up to their own significant responsibility – responsibilities agreed upon by this world coalition; these powerhouses hold the key to the puzzle and our discussions about emissions reductions ought to start with them – both in their ability to shape global trends and their ability to lower their own emissions. China may have had reason in recent decades to emit more greenhouse gases than other countries, yet now they, as much as any of us, have a responsibility to mitigate and to co-operate in solving this global crisis.