China is a country of epic contrasts.
It’s home to the world’s largest solar farm, a rolling ocean of 4 million panels high on the Tibetan Plateau that’s big enough to cover Manhattan. 600 miles to the east, in Inner Mongolia, are the burping chimneys of the Tokito Power Plant, the world’s largest coal-fired power plant and one of the largest polluters ever created.
On Sunday, at the start of COP26, the world may get an idea of which side of China will dominate the coming decades — and potentially shape the world’s future.
Over the next two weeks, the United Nations Climate Change Conference will be hosted in Glasgow, Scotland. Most eyes will be on the team sent from Beijing.
China is the world’s largest polluter, pumping out more greenhouse gases than any other industrialized country combined.
Many countries, including the United States, are still not doing enough to avoid harmful temperatures this century, most experts say, something UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday was a “loud wake-up call” ahead of COP26.
But China is under increasing pressure, not only because it is responsible for more than a quarter of global emissions, but because its promises to curb them have so far been less ambitious than those made by the United States, Europe and others.
“My appeal to China is very simple, as it will reach net zero before 2060 and peak before 2030,” Guterres said at a press conference.
Some experts also worry that the current global energy crisis – which has left millions in China vulnerable to blackouts and rationing that could last for months – could mean Beijing backtracks further from its plans to wean itself off fossil fuels.
The risks couldn’t be higher. No matter what the United States and Europe do, the world cannot avoid a devastating rise in temperatures “without China achieving its climate goals,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We cannot afford to fail China.”
Even amid Covid-19, COP26 will be vast: 25,000 delegates, dozens of world leaders, and appearances from Pope Francis and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. For many, it is the best shot at mitigating an environmental disaster that has already begun.
The goal is to clarify the legally binding targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, keeping global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius this century, preferably 1.5 degrees.
But China’s plans so far have been “too inadequate” to achieve those goals, According to the Climate Action TrackerGermany’s leading non-profit database.
Instead, she says, Beijing’s policies are aligned with a 3-degree world, which means sea level rise, harsher weather and potential mass starvation as swathes of the planet become unsuitable for crops and even human life itself.
On Thursday, Beijing submitted its updated climate targets, known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or Nationally Determined Contributions, before COP26. But there was nothing new that had not been announced before, namely China’s pledge to start cutting carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, which President Xi Jinping announced last year.
The possible absence of the Chinese president, who has not left the country since the beginning of the epidemic, is also seen as ominous for hopes of any kind of major breakthrough.
download NBC News app For breaking news and politics
China’s Ministry of Environment and Environment did not respond to requests for comment on the assessment that its policies are consistent with 3 degrees of warming.
Beijing says it is “fully in line” with the Paris Agreement, but still describes itself as a “developing country” still in the process of urbanization and industrialization, an official from China’s National Development and Reform Commission told state media this week. “So the energy consumption will continue to grow.”
It is fitting for this neighborhood that China has accomplished a tremendous amount on climate change while at the same time not promising enough for the future. Gone are the days of China rejecting international calls to curb rising emissions, with its delegates destroying past climate summits by insisting that rich nations take responsibility.
Now he wants to be seen as the central player.
On top of Xi’s 2030-2060 pledgeAnd It was announced last month that the country would stop financing coal projects abroad. Previously, Beijing financed more than 70 percent of coal plants being built or planned globally, according to the Beijing-based International Institute of Green Finance.
In terms of renewable energy, China under Xi added more wind power last year than any other country combined. Its solar, hydro and electric sectors outperform any other, and 4.5 million electric vehicles make up nearly half of the global total.
But quitting coal would be brutal for a country subsidized by 60 percent black matter. One estimate from Tsinghua University in Beijing said its net zero target would cost an unexplained $46 trillion.
Over the past 40 years, coal has accelerated China’s urbanization, keeping the lights on for 1.4 billion people, and supporting the cement and steel industries that make up its infrastructure-based economy.
Without coal, China would not have lifted 800 million people out of poverty. And her attempts to kick the habit are already causing complaints that will be familiar to any country that has tried to phase out seemingly basic dirty industries.
“All mines are closed in my area — there are no more,” Zhou Dufu said, saying he used to operate mines employing 500 people in Hunan Province. “My area was very prosperous,” he added, but government policy meant, “We have to quit smoking.”
China is not taking action on climate change to please the West. Judith Shapiro, a Chinese climate expert who teaches at American University in Washington, said the Communist Party sees climate change as an existential threat — to both the state and party control.
The United Nations said this week that it has suffered deadly floods in Henan province this year, and 2020 was the hottest year on record in Asia. Sea-level rise threatens low-lying megacities like Shanghai, which has a population of 25 million.
Shapiro said the Communist Party is “full of scientists and engineers, and they are fully aware” that this is a “long-term national security risk.” Now the party must “consider whether this presents a new threat to its legitimacy,” she said.
In the short term, China may face another problem.
It has been hurt more than anyone by the global energy crisis, bogged down by coal shortages and increased manufacturing demand. Over the course of weeks, millions of homes and businesses suffered power outages in 20 counties.
The fallout from the crisis is a major concern ahead of COP26. Experts fear that the realpolitik of keeping the lights on means there is less chance than ever that Beijing will leave coal in time. In fact, Beijing has ordered all coal mines to operate at full capacity before winter
“This year we should have started to see significant reductions in fossil fuel emissions,” according to Ma Jun, director of the China Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, who says every country will face these pressures. “But unfortunately we are likely to see a rebound.”
Beijing’s defenders say that while the United States may boast more ambitious climate promises, its governments are focused more on the short term and less likely to succeed than the dynastic vision set forth by China’s technocratic one-party state.
And although China is the number one source of carbon dioxide in the world, it is not in the top 40 emitters when these emissions are broken down per person. The worst big countries in terms of per capita pollution are Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada and the United States
Many international experts say there is also an inherent unfairness in global emissions calculations, which are based on what countries produce rather than what they consume. Simply put, the US and other countries are outsourcing a lot of cheap and dirty manufacturing to China, allowing Americans to buy iPhones and Nike sports without taking responsibility for the carbon emissions they produce.
“China essentially became a reservoir of global pollution when it rose economically,” said Shapiro of the American University. “A lot of pollution in the developed world has been transferred to China.”
Nor is China alone in needing to do more.
The United States, the European Union, and Japan have slightly more ambitious policies than Beijing’s, According to the Climate Action Tracker, but it is still “not enough” to reach the 1.5-degree target. Nigeria and the United Kingdom are among the countries rated as ‘almost adequate’. The Gambia is the only “sufficient” country.
On this scale, China stands a de facto naughty move alongside Russia, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Canada — even as it adjusts for its “fair share,” based on historical emissions and discretion.
John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special climate envoy, put pressure on Beijing for being one of the few powers not to have embraced the COP26 net-zero target for 2050. “We can’t get to where we need to go if China isn’t ‘joining in the effort’,” He told “Morning Joe” on MSNBC last month.
But forget about 2050, the only way to avoid a crisis is for China to start acting almost immediately, reducing emissions by 2025 instead of 2030, according to Xu Li, senior global policy advisor for Greenpeace East Asia based in Beijing. .
“It will create a lot of global momentum and gain China the global respect it wants,” he said. “We need to embrace hard work now.”