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What President Xi Jinping's absence from COP26 indicates for China's climate pledges

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At this U.N. climate summit, when you're standing in line for coffee or waiting for a security screening, one of the most common questions you hear is, where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm originally from Cameroon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am from Morocco.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm from Ghana.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I'm from Madagascar.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And I'm from Indonesia.

SHAPIRO: But there are some countries that are most notable here for their leaders' absence. Here's how former President Barack Obama put it when he addressed COP26 yesterday.

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BARACK OBAMA: The leaders of two of the world's largest emitters, China and Russia, declined to even attend the proceedings. And their national plans so far reflect what appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency.

SHAPIRO: They aren't the only ones. Leaders from Brazil, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also among those who sat out this summit. That's a stark contrast with the Paris climate summit in 2015, when nearly 200 countries, almost every nation in the world, agreed on an ambitious plan to cut carbon. But today, one country accounts for more than a quarter of the carbon entering the Earth's atmosphere each year. So how big a deal is it that President Xi Jinping stayed home? Well, we're going to hear a range of opinions from three experts - one in Washington, one in Beijing and one here at COP26.

TODD STERN: The biggest holdout, if you will, really the country that could have made this COP a big, big success and is not going to do that is China.

SHAPIRO: Todd Stern was the top U.S. negotiator at the Paris climate summit six years ago. And I spoke to him from D.C.

STERN: Many countries have come forward and put forward these big, ambitious, new targets, new pledges for 2030, which are quite in line with that effort to hold to 1.5. And China hasn't done that. China has basically, in essence, repeated what it said in 2015.

SHAPIRO: So how is that affecting the summit as a whole? Well, Bernice Lee is an analyst with the London-based think tank Chatham House, and she is here in the part of the summit called the Action Zone. We're sitting under an enormous globe that is slowly spinning over our heads. It's good to meet you here. Welcome.

BERNICE LEE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: How much of a difference do you think it actually makes that some world leaders, like China's President Xi, have decided not to attend?

LEE: Well, it is probably challenging for China in some sense politically because it enabled others to point fingers at China. At the same time, there is a huge delegation, and they are working hard, as far as I understand.

SHAPIRO: Chinese officials say that this is entirely about the pandemic and the safety of travel with the coronavirus and not at all about the climate summit itself and the substance of the negotiations. If a huge delegation is here, does it matter that the leader is not, in terms of substance, in terms of negotiation, apart from appearances and politics?

LEE: I think the question is whether or not it is fanciful in any event that having a leader here would make all the difference. I think it would have made some difference. But the question is whether or not it is an all-or-nothing situation. And I think probably we can all agree as adults that probably it is not an all-or-nothing situation.

SHAPIRO: American leaders obviously have a political interest in portraying China as absent from global leadership or choosing not to participate in this process.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The fact that China trying to assert, understandably, a new role in the world as a world leader, not showing up - come on.

SHAPIRO: To what extent do you think that narrative is accurate or a distortion of reality?

LEE: I think that it is probably a little bit unfair. But nonetheless, it was being called out and that the political symbolism is important, as well.

SHAPIRO: President Biden has not missed any opportunity to call it out. He repeatedly mentioned China at his press conference here in Glasgow last week.

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BIDEN: I think it's been a big mistake, quite frankly, for China, with respect to China not showing up. The rest of the world will look to China and say, what value added are they providing?

SHAPIRO: But some Chinese environmentalists say the U.S. should not be so quick to judge.

MA JUN: There are those in China who also pointed out that President Biden also has its own challenges back home.

SHAPIRO: Ma Jun directs a nonprofit organization in Beijing called the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

MA: We need to recognize there has been some precedence for before, you know, with the Trump administration to simply withdraw from the whole Paris Agreement in such a irresponsible way. And I think all the countries are facing its own challenges. And...

SHAPIRO: You're saying before the U.S. accuses other countries of falling short on the world stage, the U.S. should look at its own record.

MA: It's very hard to deny that. There is the possibility, you know, in four years of time, what going to happen if there will be another president who happen to not believe in this climate change?

SHAPIRO: It's an interesting point you make that the U.S. might make very ambitious promises and then fail to keep them if a new party takes over the White House. In China, whether the promises are more or less ambitious, at least the world can count on their being kept.

MA: China as a country usually like to overdeliver instead of overpromise So I think there's still great opportunity for us to try to hasten the process and to achieve the peaking and neutrality ahead of the schedule.

SHAPIRO: In order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, overdelivering is something almost every country needs to do, not just China. Later this week, we'll take a closer look at how the U.S. is perceived here at the climate summit in Scotland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.