Good COP, bad COP: the geopolitical tensions of the Glasgow summit

Our Assistant Editor sets out the diplomatic backdrop to COP26: will international relations be the big stumbling block for global climate policy?
Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden host a State Luncheon in honor of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on September 25, 2015. Source: U.S. Department of State
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It’s still all eyes on Glasgow for COP26, dubbed by John Kerry as “our last best chance to save the world”. The latest IPCC report warns that without immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in GHG emissions, 1.5 or even 2 degrees of warming from pre-industrial levels will be inevitable – and the UNEP suggests that current pledges would set us on a path to 2.7 degrees warming. That would be a huge failure of diplomacy, and everyone knows it. Yes, there have been wins this week on deforestation and cutting methane emissions. But the Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs) from crucial emitters like India and China are under scrutiny for not going far enough. With the political leaders gone (for now), it’s time for their negotiators to produce a legally binding international text that finally completes the ‘Paris rulebook’.

The summit has four official goals:

  1. Secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
  2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
  3. Mobilise finance
  4. Work together to deliver

But “working together” will be no mean feat. While most major global powers technically agree that climate change needs immediate action, such action can’t  clash with states’ economic interests. And for a successful COP, geopolitical tensions will need to be set aside. Such tensions include: ill-feeling left by “vaccine nationalism”, the Northern Ireland Protocol, Scottish independence, US-China stand-offs in the South China sea, EU sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjian province, to name a few. Here, ELCI have compiled the major players’ positions on climate change, and the international relations which diplomacy will have to take into account this week.

Let’s delve into a few.


China’s ecological civilisations: economy vs. climate

China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouses gases (GHGs). Many UK news outlets have seen Xi declining his invite to Glasgow as proof of inadequate commitment to climate action. On the 23rd of October, The Times ran the headline “Can COP26 succeed if Xi Jinping stays at home?”. A week before, The Observer ran a piece titled “China, coal and COP 26: can the world’s biggest emitter give up its dirty habit?3”.

President Xi’s commitment to climate action has not been straightforward, nor has the role of China in climate negotiations. China is still classed as a developing country despite being the second largest global economy. Researchers at Freiberg University found that China’s climate policy pivots between assuming power in global climate governance and accepting climate finance on the basis of its developing status. “[Sometimes], China presents itself as a rising and strong power, pursuing its aim to become a regional hegemon with a global claim to leadership. At other times, it considers itself a developing country, which was harmed by imperialists and claims a right to development and economic growth.” In 2020, China added 38.4 gigawatts of coal-fired power to its generating capacity – more than three times the total amount built that year in the rest of the world.

“Ecological Civilisations” are a tenet of Xi’s vision for the age of Common Prosperity. But the phrase captures a key dichotomy: environmental action must not compromise economic growth. He often cites the Chinese proverb “clear waters and lush hills are worth a mountain of gold and a mountain of silver”. Sinicising environmentalism contends the possibility of climate cooperation being a diplomatically friendly space for Xi’s government. Sino-centrism proved trying to the international community at the COP15 in Kunming, where 40 countries rejected the inclusion of the two mountains slogan in the draft of the declaration.

Nis Grunberg emphasises that Xi’s policy is always “primarily geared towards domestic development, political stability; his own, or the party’s position at the top of socio-economic development and growth.”

And so the race is on for countries to position themselves within emerging green energy markets. “Countries which have significantly growing economies want to continue to grow their economies. They face the challenge of how to do that while reducing emissions.” Chatham House research fellow Antony Froggatt said. “It is fortunate that we are seeing the consequence of technological development which means that this is no longer the challenge it once was.”

Chinese investment in renewables has soared. Shares in wind, solar and hydropower made up 57% of China’s total investment in energy infrastructure in 2020, up from 38 per cent in 2019, according to research from the University of Finance and Economics in Beijing.

But the recent energy crisis has sent China back down the mine. Coal production has almost doubled in more than 70 mines in Inner Mongolia. On 29 September, Shanxi province pledged to supply coal to 14 other regions across China this winter. For sure, China has committed to limiting external financing of coal abroad, but this is small potatoes when you consider that the biggest GHG emitter is China’s domestic coal fleet.

China-US relations and the risk of 'desertification'

Almost the first thing Biden did as president was to re-join the Paris Agreement, immediately enacting distance between himself and his predecessor in the White House. But Biden has also been emphatic in denouncing China’s human rights records. He used his first call with President Xi to underscore “his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdowns in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive action in the region, including toward Taiwan.” In the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency, the US also held a series of talks with China. The first meeting in Alaska in March was a fiasco, as China senior foreign-affairs official, Yang Jiechi, reportedly launched a tirade against Antony Blinken after the US Secretary of State attacked China’s human rights record.

Biden’s plan for a Clean Energy Revolution shows a keenness to bring global leaders to heel on meeting their climate targets, which could also be seen as an aggressive move towards China. He has called for a series of audits of climate action around the world, emphasising that those who undermine the Paris Agreement will receive retribution. But Biden risks seeming a hypocrite, when America has also failed to contribute enough to the necessary $100 billion of climate finance worldwide.

John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, has made his presence known globally, and Biden has pledged $11 billion to climate action. Congressional wrangling over budgets for climate action and federal regulation on vehicle emissions, oil wells and power plants now threatens to compromise the US’ ability to achieve their NDC target. Not to mention that memories of Trump’s climate denial still tarnish the US’ claim to climate leadership. Biden’s assurances that America are “not only back at the table, but hopefully leading by the power of our example” may aggravate those who have more consistent climate records.

John Kerry, Biden’s climate crusader in chief, met with Wang Yi in Tianjin. The meeting was described as “constructive and detailed.”  In April, the US and China released a joint statement addressing the climate crisis, stating their commitment to cooperating with each other and with other countries. Since then, relations have somewhat soured. The US insists that they can keep their foreign policy disputes off the table when cooperating on climate change. In September, John Kerry told Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that “climate is not ideological, not partisan and not a geostrategic weapon.” But this has proved too utopian for the Chinese. Wang Yi warned that, though the US side wants climate change cooperation to be an “oasis” of China-US relations, that oasis will soon be “desertified” by retaliatory sanctions and naval stand-offs.

It doesn’t bode well for China-US relations that much of the Biden administration’s diplomatic activity has focused on forming alliances that exclude China: QUAD, AUKUS and FIVE EYES all contend China’s claims in the South China Sea, threats on democracy in Taiwan, and China’s monopoly on technological development.


Can the EU still lead on investment & CBAM?

Until now, the EU has taken the lead on green standard setting. This means that cooperation with the EU on taxonomies of green investment will be essential for China’s economic advancement in green sectors. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Luyen has outlined three benchmarks for credible Chinese action: commitment to carbon neutrality, upholding the Paris Agreement, and placing decarbonisation at the centre of economic growth. So far, China has honoured a commitment to carbon neutrality with a pledged deadline of 2060. But their recent coal-binge undermines the prospect of decarbonisation and their recently submitted Nationally Determined Commitment to the Paris Agreement was – if anything – even more of a disappointment.

A further issue which could mar China’s relations with the EU is the planned introduction of the European Commission’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). These levies would surely greatly impact Chinese trade, placing environmental policy at odds with economic growth. Further, there is a degree of mistrust of China in the European Union after China took the lead on solar, a sector developed initially by the EU and which has suffered from well-publicised trade wars ever since.

It is also worth noting the differences between EU and US policy on climate change. Although the EU and the US released a statement that they were both committed to “renewing [their] strong alliance in the effort to deal with the climate crisis”, when Kerry visited Brussels in March, it became clearer that they come at the issue from different angles. Biden favours a market-driven approach and private sector innovation, whilst the EU prefers a regulation heavy approach on issues like emissions trading. Kerry also seems hesitant on approving CBAM. In a July interview, he said: “It’s premature to be discussing whether or not you ought to unilaterally go and do CBAM. Right now, we’re pursuing multilateral efforts… We’re trying to bring people together; we don’t want to do something that pushes people away.”


Trouble at home for the UK

The pressure’s on for Boris Johnson and the UK team to deliver a successful COP. But the wind baron in waiting showed an ebb in his usual bombast, saying he was “very worried”, and that chances of COP26 success would be “touch and go”. Certainly, the absence of Putin and President Xi weakens the starting lineup. There were concerns earlier this year that the summit would become a stage for disputes over Scottish independence. So much so that leaked Whatsapp messages show Johnson planning to keep Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon away from the summit.

The G7 summit at Carbis Bay earlier this year reiterated the UK Government’s consistent message that a key climate goal would be to “consign coal to history”. Although it’s hard to see what’s historic about £160 million new mine in Cumbria.

Negotiations at Carbis Bay showed that the UK and the EU were unable to put Brexit aside to tackle the climate crisis. Johnson reportedly queried how the French president would react if Toulouse sausages could not be sold in Paris markets. Macron was said to respond by saying that Northern Ireland was not part of the United Kingdom.


Climate justice - still no $100 billion for poorer states

Global climate talks are always a contentious issue for Less Developed Countries (LDCs). It’s difficult to measure exactly how emissions from major global economies have affected development by influencing major weather events in those areas, but we know that these consequences have been catastrophic. This COP threatened yet another injustice as 20 out of the 46 LDCs were on the UK’s red list until a change immediately before the conference – this would have required delegates to quarantine for five days. The Guardian reported that the Fijian representative estimated that the cost of his trip to Glasgow would have been about FJD20,000 (£7,000), in a country where the starting salary for a government employee is about FJD12,000 (£4,200) a year. While now resolved, it launched the conference on bad terms.

In Late September, at a meeting at the UN, leaders from small island states called out China, India, Russia and the US for their climate credibility. A salient detail is that the meeting was only heard by lower-level envoys because leaders didn’t bother to turn up. Brazil had no presence at the meeting whatsoever. The Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley said it was “inexplicable the world isn’t taking action and it suggests we in small islands are to remain dispensable and remain invisible”.

The $100bn climate finance commitments from developed countries have not yet been met. Further, discrepancies in taxonomies of climate finance may mean that the overall climate finance budget is even lower than the recorded figure of $80 billion. A study by Indian scientists has shown that developed countries have totalled climate finance at three times higher than poorer countries. It will surely come as a blow to LDCs that the UK, the host country has slashed its foreign aid budget by 31%.

The LDC group are working to make sure that at least 70% of climate finance received is delivered to financing projects at a local level. Binyam Gebreyes, a researcher at The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) said: “Adaptation and resilience cannot be developed through a top-down system”. Making sure that climate finance reaches the areas which need it most is a challenge; transaction costs whittle away at starting sums before they reach the regions which have been worst affected


Fossil fuel producers unite!

Documents leaked last week showed that governments from several of the largest emitters lobbying to water down anti-fossil fuel messaging in the latest IPCC report. China, Saudi Arabia, Australia and India are among those seeking to protect the use of fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia took issue with phrases included in the latest IPCC document such as “the need for urgent and accelerated mitigation action at all scales”. Quotes from the Australian government show resistance to the necessity to close down all coal-fired plants, despite the phasing out of coal being one of the primary objectives of COP 26.

The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) told World Oil that “There are still considerable doubts as to whether all these ambitious climate-mitigation commitments will be met in the proposed timeframe.” 2035 is also the year which has been projected as the “year of no return”.

All in, the political challenges are great. COP26 comes at a time in which relations between the major power players at global level are enter a new, frostier era. While the US looks to contain the rise of China to global superpower and President Xi snubs the conference, the UK and France remain locked in an unsavoury fracas over fish and the Germans are without a government. Add to that the fact that the Covid pandemic has left treasures around the world more indebted than normal and you understand the huge tasks facing the negotiators at technical level – and their political masters.

The Paris Agreement was reached by means of cooperation between Presidents Obama, Xi, Modi, and representatives from LDCs; the French presidency’s efforts to platform voices from as many countries as possible, and Chancellor Merkel persuading Vladimir Putin not to  block a deal. The question is whether geopolitical questions can again be put aside in the cause of climate action. The heat is on.

Lauren is an Assistant Editor at LCR. Her work has focused on geopolitics & climate policy, emissions solutions in the buildings sector, and reviews of new environment titles. Find her LinkedIn here, or email her at

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