20 February 2019
Xi Jinping could have used the UN climate summit to outline China's efforts to cut emissions. Photos: Bloomberg
Xi Jinping could have used the UN climate summit to outline China's efforts to cut emissions. Photos: Bloomberg

Xi wastes an opportunity by skipping UN climate summit

More than 120 world leaders, including US President Obama, will attend a one-day climate summit on Tuesday in New York, and Xi Jinping won’t be there.

Which is too bad because everybody who’s anybody is set to pressure China to rein in emissions.

China emits 28 percent of global CO2 emissions, and now holds the dubious distinction of emitting more greenhouse gases than the United States and the European Union combined.

Speaking at the Major Economies Forum on Sunday, US Secretary of State John F. Kerry likened the climate to the immediate threats of Ebola in West Africa and Islamic State in the Middle East, saying its implications stretch far into the future, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We can already see climate refugees, and in some places fighting over water,” Kerry said. “This has an immediacy people need to understand.”

Xi’s absence is unfortunate, as climate experts say there’s little time to waste.

A surge in carbon dioxide last year pushed greenhouse gas levels to an all-time high, said an NPR report.

On his part, Xi could have taken the United Nations climate summit opportunity to take credit for helping global emissions grow a little more slowly. Last year, total emissions grew 2.3 percent to 39 billion tons, lower than the average yearly growth for the past decade of 2.5 percent, according to a report by the Global Carbon Project.

That slight drop is mostly because of China’s economic slowdown, but it’s the country’s newly pledged “war on pollution” that could actually make a difference, noted Quartz.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared “war on pollution” in March, promising to punish local and regional officials who didn’t get with the program.

At the time, 95 percent of Chinese cities failed to meet environmental state standards, a situation that vice minister of environmental protection Wu Xiaoqing said was a direct result of China’s rapid industrialization.

While the jury’s out on how much and how fast China’s environmental moves will make a more meaningful global impact, Xi could have at least used the summit to talk about what China is doing to put the lid on the three top contributors to pollution: cars, coal and industry.

Anthony Liu, visiting assistant professor of economics at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, recently said that the Chinese government has moved substantially in trying to cut in each of these areas.

Liu predicts, for example, that the car lottery will cut the number of automobiles by 10 percent on the road by 2020, and points to government mandates to remove as many as five million of the worst polluting vehicles from roadways—330,000 from Beijing alone.

Xi could have also talked about China’s promise to cap emissions of carbon dioxide by 2016, in response to President Obama’s proposal for a deep, 30 percent cut in power plant emissions in the US by 2030, a move which the EPA said would lead to US$90 billion in climate and health benefits.

A recent analysis by Greenpeace China suggested the measures announced to date could significantly cut China’s greenhouse gas emissions, “putting China close to a path consistent with limiting global climate change.”

Xi Jinping is not the only world leader staying at home. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also skipping the event, which prompted the Washington Post to wonder out load: “In empirical terms, it’s hard to think of two more important leaders in the world right now: Together they lead more than 2.5 billion people, more than a third of the world’s population.”

Both China and India will have representation at the summit: Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli will attend for China, and Prakash Javadekar, minister of environment and forests, will be representing India.

Officially, Xi and Modi are missing the event because of scheduling conflicts, WaPo notes. However, given the high status of some of the other guests in attendance, their absence has been interpreted as a snub.

Whatever the real reasons, for Xi, I think it’s an opportunity squandered, especially if China, as Xi Jinping said earlier this year, is ready to take on more international responsibilities. While issues like foreign aid, peacekeeping and nuclear non-proliferation are hot potatoes, tackling climate change is the single biggest environmental and humanitarian crisis of our time — and one that all countries should work together on.

Xi should have been there.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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