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China unveils new climate plan as UN chief warns on targets

China has outlined a plan to hit peak greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade, releasing a long-awaited blueprint just days ahead of the UN’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

The world’s biggest energy consumer was the latest country to launch new climate policies ahead of COP26. Australia also set net zero emissions goals on Tuesday, following another laggard, Saudi Arabia, at the weekend. Those plans rely on the continued production of fossil fuels.

They joined the dozens of other countries that have formed new climate pledges in the summit run-up, in the effort to limit global warming to below 2C since pre-industrial times, or ideally 1.5c.

However, it was announced that Queen Elizabeth will not attend the summit. Buckingham Palace said that the 95-year-old monarch, who last week spent a night in hospital, “regretfully” would no longer visit Glasgow for a reception on Monday evening.

“Her Majesty is disappointed not to attend the reception but will deliver an address to the assembled delegates via a recorded video message,” the palace said.

The preparations for the summit came as the UN secretary-general warned that, even with the new pledges, countries were still “utterly failing” to keep the goals of the Paris climate accord within reach.

“We are still on track for climate catastrophe,” António Guterres said as he criticised the lack of detail in many climate plans, without singling out any specific country.

“These announcements are for 2050 [or 2060], so it is not clear how they will materialise,” he said, adding: “Obviously an announcement for 2060, without a programme for how to get there, well, it has the value that it has.”

Existing climate plans put the world on track for 2.7C of warming by 2100, far beyond the goals of the Paris climate pact, according to the latest report from the UN Environment Programme released this week.

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If the world’s main emitters such as the US and China succeed in achieving their net zero greenhouse gas emissions targets by mid-century, the warming would be brought down to about 2.2C, the report concluded.

China’s new road map, which had been keenly anticipated after Beijing last year set a target of net zero emissions by 2060, includes steps to expand hydropower and energy storage.

The State Council, China’s cabinet, published the policy document as it outlined how the country planned to peak carbon emissions before 2030.

From 2025, all new buildings would be built according to green standards. By 2030, 40 per cent of new vehicles, including ships and cars, would be powered by clean energy, according to the document.

However, it stopped short of any firm commitments to reduce reliance on coal, except for a previously announced target of capping coal use during the years 2025-2030. China has not yet updated its formal climate targets submitted to the UN.

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said China’s plan “gives the government a lot of flexibility” but it failed to set out a detailed timeline on how much emissions would increase before 2030 and how fast they will decline after.

“The plan is not sufficient,” he said. “It’s urgent that global emissions peak and that is hard to accomplish if China’s emissions continue to increase.”

Video: The make-or-break issues facing the COP26 climate summit

With COP26 set to begin in five days, the faultlines among the world’s biggest economies around issues such as coal are becoming increasingly clear. UK prime minister Boris Johnson said this week that it was “touch and go” whether COP26 would be a success.

Most countries with net zero targets do not yet have the policies to back up their goals, according to Thomas Hale, associate professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford university and one of the UNEP report authors.

“The next step is they need to put the policies in place,” said Hale, pointing out that while 18 of the G20 countries now had net zero targets, the details were still quite vague for some of them.

A shortfall in climate finance to developing countries was also revealed this week, as wealthier nations admitted they would not reach a promised target of $100bn in 2020.

Additional reporting by Robert Wright

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