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China and India cast pall over climate ambitions ahead of COP26

China and India cast a pall over the opening of the COP26 summit in Glasgow when they rejected calls to set tough new climate targets, calling into question whether the world’s biggest polluters will start cutting emissions this decade.

Major economies including the US and UK have pressed China to tighten its climate goals but in a formal submission to the UN on Thursday Beijing left its targets unchanged. It said it would reach peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. It also stuck to its position of increasing domestic coal production until 2025.

With just three days until the COP26 summit begins, India, the world’s third-largest emitter, said it might not submit any new target at all, despite previously indicating that it would.

As the UK, the host of COP26, and its allies lobby for stronger pledges to help limit global warming to well below 2C, as agreed under the 2015 Paris accord, their calls have been met with resistance.

India is in no hurry to make new international climate commitments ahead of COP26. It has asked for more support from affluent countries and wants them to provide greater climate finance for the developing world.

India’s environment secretary, Rameshwar P Gupta, expressed scepticism about the international drive towards net zero emissions, which he described as an exercise in “goalpost shifting”.

He said India’s coal consumption would increase in absolute terms, while decreasing as a share of total energy. “We depend on coal and we would like to continue,” he said.

By contrast to India, China does have a carbon-neutrality goal. But the climate target published was weaker than climate advisers had hoped, and it struck a cautious tone, partly due to the energy crisis disrupting the Chinese electricity market.

Beijing labelled climate change a “grim challenge facing all mankind” in a document submitted to the UN containing its “nationally determined contributions”, a set of climate pledges that countries are mandated under the Paris agreement to publish every five years.

While domestic coal production continues, President Xi Jinping pledged in September to stop financing new coal plants overseas. He will not attend the COP26 summit in Glasgow.

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China, the world’s biggest polluter, did not make any new commitments in its formal climate plan submission to the UN that would accelerate its decarbonisation efforts.

“It is disappointing,” said Bernice Lee, climate expert at Chatham House, the London-based think-tank. “But it says ‘before’ 2030, [so there is] hopefully room for future overachievement.”

At the heart of Beijing’s decarbonisation challenge is how to reduce its reliance on coal, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of its electricity production and is responsible for more than 70 per cent of the country’s emissions.

Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, gave China credit for the formal submission of its climate target, saying it sent a “clear message” about the importance of the process.

Although the world’s emissions trajectory was “very far away from where we should be,” the Glasgow summit provided an opportunity for change as “the most important conference since the Paris Agreement”, she added.

US climate envoy John Kerry, who has made several trips to China this year to lobby Beijing, also said he was “happy” Beijing had sent a formal updated target.

He was “hopeful” about the outcome of the Glasgow summit, even though there was still “a gap” between national climate pledges and the level needed to meet the goal of the 2015 Paris climate accord.

“Nations represent representing nearly 65 per cent of global GDP will arrive in Glasgow, committed to the 1.5C limit,” he said. “But we’re still in a significant gap on that other 35 per cent.”

Additional reporting by Edward White in Seoul, Camilla Hodgson in London

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