Will China’s Xi Jinping attend Cop26?

Superpower’s leader has kept Glasgow summit guessing and hinted he could send a deputy in his stead

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 29 October 2021 08:35
Climate Change: COP26 might change our world

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (Cop26) will finally commence in Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of October, a year after it was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hosted by the UK under the presidency of former business secretary Alok Sharma and in partnership with Italy, the summit at the city’s SEC Centre will bring together the biggest gathering of world leaders ever assembled on British soil over the course of its 12-day run from Sunday 31 October to Friday 12 November.

While the importance of the summit has been heavily hyped and expectation is high that a generation-defining agreement will be signed to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and put the brake on the pace of global heating in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris accord, there has been a good deal of uncertainty surrounding precisely who will be attending.

Without the enthusiastic cooperation of the influential leaders of some of the planet’s biggest polluting nations, anything agreed at Cop26 will ring decidedly hollow.

The belated news that Chinese premier Xi Jinping will not fly into Glasgow is certainly a setback, but Mr Xi will address the summit via video link, still preferring to avoid foreign travel as he has since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prior to the announcement, his country, one of the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitters, formally submitted its climate goals, pledging to reach peak emissions of CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieve “carbon neutrality” by 2060.

Without Mr Xi there in person, the superpower is expected to be represented by veteran climate envoy Xie Zhenhua, who has already held preliminary talks with Mr Sharma and US president Joe Biden’s special envoy John Kerry, a gesture widely interpreted as a positive indication of Beijing’s commitment to the mission.

Another blow to Boris Johnson’s ambitions for the gathering was the Kremlin’s earlier announcement that Russian president Vladimir Putin would not be attending.

“Unfortunately, Putin will not fly to Glasgow,” a spokesperson told reporters, insisting that climate change was “one of our foreign policy’s most important priorities”.

The premier is likeswise expected to send a replacement in his stead.

Responding to the disappointment, a Downing Street official representing Mr Johnson commented: “The prime minister is looking forward to meeting all leaders who have confirmed their attendance, which I believe is over 120 so far. And we obviously expect all countries to be represented at a senior level, given that we’re asking for meaningful pledges towards tackling this issue.”

Vladimir Putin with Xi Jinping

Her Majesty the Queen will also not be there, having been advised to stay away on medical grounds after missing out on a ceremonial trip to Northern Ireland with the same complaint.

The 95-year-old is said to be making the move “reluctantly” but will deliver a video message to the conference as she is known to feel as passionately about the environment as her son Prince Charles and grandson Prince William, reportedly recently bemoaning the empty rhetoric and inaction of heads of state.

Another high-profile figure who may be absent is Pope Francis, who has called on Catholics to “care for our common home” but whose Vatican delegation is currently being led by secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin instead.

No such doubts hang over Mr Biden, French president Emmanuel Macron or Brazi’s Jair Bolsonaro, who will all be representing their nations while Ursula von der Leyen and Frans Timmermans will appear for the EU and Antonio Guterres and Patricia Espinosa for the UN.

The prime ministers of India and Australia, Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison, had both hinted they might not attend in person but now appear to be back on board.

The world’s two most famous environmental activists, Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, will also be there, despite the latter criticising the event and expressing pessimism about its chances of achieving meaningful change, as will thousands of activists keen to make their voices heard.

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