China’s President Xi Jinping has apparently not yet decided whether to travel to Glasgow next month for the big climate conference known as COP26. That is no doubt partly because he’s heard about the weather in Glasgow in November, and partly because he knows the whole thing will be a waste of his time. After all, the fact that it is the 26th such meeting and none of the previous 25 solved the problem they set out to solve suggests the odds are that the event will be the flop on the Clyde.
But another reason he is hesitating was stated pretty explicitly by his Foreign Minister, Wang Yi: ‘Climate cooperation cannot be separated from the general environment of China-US relations.’ Roughly translated, this reads: we will go along with your climate posturing if you stop talking about the possibility that Covid-19 started in a Wuhan laboratory, about our lack of cooperation investigating that origin, or about what we are doing to Hong Kong or the Uighur people.
The Chinese Communist Party is using the COP as a bargaining chip. To keep us keen, Xi announced last month that China would stop funding coal-fired power stations abroad. ‘I welcome President Xi’s commitment to stop building new coal projects abroad — a key topic of my discussions during my visit to China,’ enthused Alok Sharma, the president of COP26. ‘A great contribution,’ said John Kerry, the United States climate envoy.
In truth, Xi is throwing us a pretty flimsy bone. He did not say when he would stop funding overseas coal or whether projects in the pipeline would be affected, so the impact on the world’s coal consumption will be minimal. And the gigantic expansion of coal burning in China itself continues. It already has more than 1,000 gigawatts of coal power, and has another 105 gigawatts in the pipeline. (Britain’s entire electricity generational capacity is about 75 gigawatts.)
China now burns half the world’s coal. According to the US Energy Information Administration, China is tripling its capacity to make fuel out of coal, about the most carbon-intensive process anybody can imagine. For reasons that are not clear, many western environmentalists are mad keen on China, despite its gargantuan appetite for coal, and won’t hear a word against the regime.
So it is only fair to ask just what concessions Britain and America have made to try to entice China into being helpful in Glasgow — and whether they are worth it. Was it a coincidence that a few weeks before Xi’s announcement, the Biden administration put out a report from its intelligence community that concluded it could not be sure either way whether the virus came out of the laboratory? The report had all the hallmarks of having been watered down for political reasons. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and John Kerry have carefully avoided mentioning China in recent speeches about human rights.
Likewise, was it a coincidence that there has been barely a peep recently out of the British government as the last vestiges of liberty are extinguished in Hong Kong? Even after China’s government slapped sanctions on British parliamentarians, sanctions against Chinese Communist party officials or the Hong Kong government are conspicuous by their absence. That the COP was delayed for a year doubled its value to China as a bargaining chip.
I am not suggesting there is an explicit policy of appeasement, but that politicians would not be human if they did not hesitate when deciding whether to be even mildly critical on these issues at a time when they badly want helpful Chinese announcements on climate policy to avert a flop. And China’s politicians would not be human if they did not exploit this. So it is worth asking whether the game is worth the candle.
After all, the history of these conferences is that they cost a fortune and attract tens of thousands of well-paid activists who talk all night and then announce something so meaningless they might as well not have bothered. There was the Kyoto Protocol (1997), which everybody signed and everybody ignored; the Bali Action Plan (2007), which merely recognised that ‘deep cuts in global emissions will be required’; the Copenhagen Accord (2009), which was just a bit of paper; the Cancun Agreements (2010), which agreed to set up — but not to fund — a fund. And these were the ones that claimed to achieve something.
For a moment, the Durban conference of 2011 looked different in that it agreed there would be enforceable emissions commitments from all parties by 2015. Nothing less than legally binding promises would do at Paris in 2015, we were told. As Paris approached, it became clear that America, China and India would sign no such binding commitments, so some genius came up with plan B: everybody would make a legally binding commitment to come up with non-legally-binding commitments to cut emissions. This was presented to a gullible media as a triumph. When I pointed out this sleight of hand in parliament, a government minister compared me to the North Korean regime, a low point in my respect for my party.
China’s leaders have long ago decided that the climate issue is simply something they can use as leverage with the West. A few minor announcements about more spending on solar power or less money for coal in Africa are a small price to pay for the West’s relative silence on human rights in Hong Kong, the release of the Huawei finance director in Canada and some easing of tariffs and sanctions. It’s a double whammy win for China: it cannot believe its luck as it watches us closing down our reliable and affordable power sources to buy from them wind turbines, solar panels and ingredients for batteries for electric cars.
Currently, the Chinese strategy is to divide and rule: they are all charm with Brits and all snarl with Americans and Australians. The Aussies got slapped with trade sanctions just for asking for an inquiry into how the pandemic started. The Chinese Communist party newspaper the Global Times last month let it be known that it finds Britain more amenable than ‘erratic’ America: ‘Comparing with Kerry, Sharma showed a more readily cooperative attitude,’ it wrote, schoolmaster-style, and quoted the Foreign Minister as saying that Britain ‘won’t be as domineering as the US in talks with China over climate change cooperation, which will be used as a way to improve its deteriorating relations with China and secure the Chinese market after Brexit’.
In a forthcoming paper for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Professor Jun Arima of Tokyo University, who was one of Japan’s chief climate negotiators, warns that: ‘The divided and acrimonious world that is being created by net zero policies will permit China to further enhance its global economic presence and influence while the developed, democratic world becomes economically, politically, and militarily weaker.’