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  1. Environment
15 October 2021

Why Xi Jinping’s absence from Cop26 would be dangerous for Boris Johnson

If the Chinese president avoids the climate summit, Johnson’s internal opponents will become louder and more confident in arguing against the UK’s net-zero target.

By Stephen Bush

Will Cop26 be a failure before it starts? The Times reports that Xi Jinping will not be attending – raising fears that the summit will fail to achieve a sufficiently far-reaching set of agreements to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

The reality is that Cop26 was never going to be a moment where Xi, Joe Biden, the EU and the rest of the OECD sat down, put every nation on a path to 1.5°C and got on their planes home. It was always going to take a bigger and longer diplomatic effort than that.

Has the UK done enough on that score? Well, the £4.4bn cut to foreign aid doesn’t help, and nor does the row over the Northern Ireland protocol, but it should also be noted that the UK’s climate diplomacy has helped to secure important commitments to carbon neutrality: that’s short of where the world needs to be, but it is also progress. 

But a new domestic problem may be brewing for Boris Johnson. Internal critics of the UK’s climate target have found a language and a register they feel comfortable arguing against the government’s net-zero target with: the first is the upfront cost, the second is the supposed impossibility of getting China to commit to a sufficiently radical target. 

Neither is really sensible: the upfront cost of meeting net zero is a lot less than the cost of doing nothing, and there is no universe in which any developed nation secures meaningful climate action from another without doing something meaningful itself first. 

But if Xi doesn’t turn up, you can expect Johnson’s internal opponents to become louder and more confident in arguing against the net-zero target.

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