Xi to join Biden’s climate summit despite tensions

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Xi Jinping will attend a US-led climate summit this week, bolstering hopes of co-operation between the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters despite tensions between Beijing and Washington.

The two-day meeting, which will begin on Thursday, marks the first time the two leaders will participate at the same event since Joe Biden became US president. It will also take place amid growing concerns among the US and its allies about rising Chinese aggression and alleged human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The announcement was made a day after Xi launched a veiled attack on the US-led global order in a speech that attacked economic decoupling and unilateralism at the Boao Forum for Asia, China’s equivalent of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The countries’ top foreign policy officials traded barbs at the first high-level face-to-face talks between the Biden administration and Beijing in Alaska last month. The meeting ended with no sign of improved relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

China’s foreign ministry said Xi would give a speech virtually on the opening day of Biden’s summit. The decision followed a visit to Shanghai last week by John Kerry, the US climate envoy, during which Beijing and Washington agreed to co-operate to combat climate change.

The prospect of the countries collaborating on the Paris climate accord goal of limiting global temperature rise to within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels marked a rare bright spot in a bilateral relationship that has reached its lowest point since formal ties were established in 1979.

“Evidently China is willing to show up at Biden’s party,” despite tense bilateral ties, said Dimitri de Boer, China head for ClientEarth, an environmental non-profit. He added that the decision sent a “very strong signal”. 

Xi has moved to position Beijing as a global leader in the fight against climate change, announcing in September that China’s carbon dioxide emissions would peak by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2060.

Beijing is also keen to demonstrate that it can play an important role in advancing negotiations ahead of the next round of climate talks, which will take place in November in Glasgow.

During Kerry’s visit, China unilaterally upgraded a routine call with Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, into a “climate summit”. During the conversation, Xi announced a commitment to curb the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a refrigerant and potent greenhouse gas.

But China’s reliance on coal-fired power plants and polluting industrial manufacturing has threatened to undermine the country’s bid to be a global climate leader.

Environmentalists were also largely underwhelmed by emissions reduction goals in China’s five-year economic blueprint, which was released last month. Beijing has resisted setting strict limits on coal use or announcing a moratorium on building more coal-fired power plants.

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