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China’s New Climate Pledge Changes Little, in Bad Omen for COP26

China formalized the pledges its leader announced last year, but the country went no further, in an official update of its targets to fight climate change, which were submitted on Thursday with the United Nations climate change agency.

It foreshadows a grim start to the international climate talks in Glasgow next week, considering that China’s emissions account for the largest share in the world right now. It reflects the political and economic challenges within China in pivoting away from fossil fuels. China burns more coal than every other country combined in order to power its factories and produce the massive amounts of steel and cement used in its construction projects.

And so what China does, from now to 2030, is crucial to global efforts to slow down catastrophic climate change.

The updated Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC, as it is called, commits to four main things that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, outlined nearly a year ago: China would peak its emissions of carbon dioxide, a key planet-warming greenhouse gas produced by the combustion of oil, gas and coal, before 2030; it would also lower the carbon emissions intensity of its economy by 65 percent compared with 2005 levels; it would ensure that renewable energy sources make up a fourth of its energy mix; and it would increase its forest cover.

None of these are new. They were all announced by Mr. Xi in December 2020, and they fall far short of what many climate advocates inside and outside China had hoped for.

John Kerry, the United States climate envoy, said on Thursday morning, “It doesn’t advance the ball sufficiently.”

The latest scientific research says global greenhouse gas emissions must be nearly halved by 2030 to avert the worst consequences of climate change, or keep global average temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, compared with the beginning of the industrial era. The world has already seen its average temperature rise by 1 degree Celsius.

The United States has produced the largest share of global emissions cumulatively, since the start of the industrial age. China produces the largest share of global emissions currently.

Li Shuo, the policy adviser for Greenpeace China, said Beijing had “missed an opportunity to demonstrate ambition.”

“China’s decision casts a shadow on the global climate effort,” Mr. Li said. “The planet can’t afford this being the last word. Beijing needs to come up with stronger implementation plans to ensure an emission peak before 2025.”

Bernice Lee, a China expert at the think tank Chatham House in London, called China’s plans part of “a wide malaise” among big economies that were failing to make emissions cuts immediately, as the scientific consensus demands. “We can’t sugarcoat it: Beijing’s new climate plan is disappointing,” she said in a statement. “China has lowballed its target and missed a chance to be recognized as a global leader.”

China has taken many steps in the past five years to slow its growth in emissions of greenhouse gases. But the country’s efforts have run into trouble this autumn.

Electricity demand has continued to increase strongly as China captures a larger share of the global market for manufactured goods. Widespread electricity shortages and even blackouts that began last month spurred an expansion of coal use. This month, the government said it would expand production capacity by 220 million metric tons of coal per year, for an increase in output of nearly 6 percent.

“With the continuation of industrialization and urbanization,” China’s submission to the United Nations climate agency reads, “energy demand will keep rising while it is unlikely to fundamentally change the coal-dominated energy mix in the short term.”

Mr. Xi faces political and economic constraints even after consolidating enormous personal power. The entire Chinese economy is slowing under the weight of debt that has rapidly been accumulating since the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. Manufacturing, particularly for export markets, has been the strongest area left of the Chinese economy. But factories also consume 70 percent of China’s electricity, making them the obvious targets for rationing and higher prices during the recent electricity shortages.

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting.

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