Sep 22, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The road to COP26 gets slightly easier

Illustration of an arrow pointing forward patterned with the Earth's surface

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The bad diplomatic vibes heading into the critical United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, might be improving slightly.

Catch up fast: Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday pledged to end overseas finance for building new coal-fired power plants and boost support for clean energy in developing nations.

  • His move at the UN General Assembly came hours after President Biden proposed to double U.S. climate financial help for developing nations to over $11 billion annually by 2024.

Why it matters: Both moves, while facing uncertainties, could create a dose of momentum heading into the summit that UN Secretary-General António Guterres this week warned is at high risk of failing.

  • China is the largest public financier of overseas coal plant construction. Chinese officials have faced pressure from the U.S. and other nations to end the practice.
  • Meanwhile, developed nations' failure to mobilize a long-promised $100 billion annually by 2020 to help poorer countries fight climate change has created friction in pre-summit talks.

What they're saying: Guterres, whose deep concerns about the Glasgow summit in six weeks have been palpable of late, said he was encouraged by the twin moves from the world's two largest economies.

  • Guterres, in a statement, noted that phasing out coal was the single most important thing for keeping the Paris Agreement's temperature-limiting target viable.

Reality check: There are outstanding questions about Biden's pledge and China's move.

  • The U.S. funding increases need approval in the narrowly divided Congress to materialize. Xi Jinping's video remarks to the UN provided no details about his plan.
  • Columbia University energy expert David Sandalow tells the Wall Street Journal of China's pledge: “Details matter. In particular, what happens to projects already in the pipeline? But this is a significant and very positive announcement.”
  • Thom Woodroofe, a former climate negotiator now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said in a brief note that a key thing to watch is how much weight the announcement holds. "Will Beijing be able to rein in finance provided by all Chinese banks," he asked.

What we're watching: That's whether the U.S. and Chinese steps will create new diplomatic openings or spur stronger emissions efforts from other nations.

  • Guterres, in a statement about the U.S. and Chinese moves, said "we need decisive action by all countries, especially the G20." Under current emissions pledges, a "catastrophic" amount of warming would still occur, he said.

Yes, but: Europe's energy crunch may be creating fresh headwinds for new emissions policies there.

  • "Surging gas and electricity prices in Europe have intensified the political backlash against Brussels’ plans to extend carbon taxes on petrol and heating bills, threatening a central policy of the EU’s drive to hit net zero emissions by 2050," the Financial Times reports.
  • And Xi, president of the world's largest carbon emitter by far, did not offer new domestic emissions commitments.
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