Ted Christie-Miller is a researcher at Onward. His report ‘Costing the Earth’, is here.

As Boris Johnson sets out his ambitious vision for international climate action at an event today, there will be a giant elephant in the room: China. This year, Glasgow’s landmark COP26 climate summit will stand or fall on whether the UK – and others – can bring the consummate tiger economy to heel on the environment.

As the Prime Minister notes, the UK has a world-beating record on environmentalism. Since 1990 we have had a 44 per cent reduction in emissions while expanding our economy by 75 per cent. This disproves the fallacy that climate action will impede growth: if executed properly, we can continue to reduce our carbon footprint whilst increasing our wealth.

But it will all be nothing if the UK does not convince China – a very different economy – of the same principle. In the last three decades, China has overseen a 321 per cent increase in emissions. Xi Xinping’s country is currently responsible for 26 per cent of global emissions, and rising. That’s 7.2 tonnes of carbon a year for every one of its 1.4 billion people, despite many living in largely agrarian and undeveloped areas. Greta may have focused her fury on the West at Davos, but it is in the Far East where action is missing. All eyes should be on China’s 14th five-year-plan.

Despite Beijing saying they have cut the proportion of coal from nearly 70 per cent to less than 60 per cent over the past decade, these statistics need to be taken with a big pinch of salt. An independent report by Global Energy Monitor found that China’s coal consumption was actually growing in absolute terms, seen by the fact that they currently have 121 gigawatts of new coal power under construction. This is equivalent to 80 per cent of the EU’s total current coal capacity. For every ten power stations European countries close, China will build eight more. If China reduced only its coal consumption by half, that would be the equivalent of the whole European Union, including the UK, going carbon neutral.

And things are getting worse. Whilst coal-fired generation has fallen by 91 per cent since 1990 in the UK; in China the use of coal actually rose in 2018, as they relentlessly try to drive economic growth rates. Admittedly, we have different economies with different needs and priorities. But even a ten per cent shift from coal power to liquid natural gas in China would be equivalent to the UK going net-zero.

So, fellow eco-warrior, next time you think about picking up your old Extinction Rebellion vest and taking to the streets, think again. Firstly, let’s put aside the 2025 net zero target, as it’s impossible. Secondly, and more importantly, even if we did go on a kamikaze mission to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025, sacrificing our economy on the altar of unilateral climate change action, it would have almost no impact on keeping global warming below two degrees.

As Dieter Helm put it, China is “central” to the “bleak story” on coal. It is also, given the trade-offs involved in climate policy, in the convenient position of not having to be democratically accountable. China was able to build a hospital in just six days after the Coronavirus outbreak last week. This is a parable illustrating that in China, when things need to happen, they happen with clarity of vision, efficiency, and swiftness that is almost unimaginable in the Western.

President Xi has repeatedly said that they will “do more” to tackle climate change, nodding to their vast investment of over $83.4 billion in the renewables sector. But we are yet to see an ambitious and comprehensive plan for decarbonisation. If China doubles down on its nuclear energy technology investment, which increasingly underpins Western nuclear, and pivots towards renewables and liquid natural gas for energy generation instead of coal, this would mark a dramatic shift in our hopes of keeping warming well below two degrees. 

The UK also needs to recognise its role in precipitating the continued increase of Chinese coal consumption. In part we have achieved this by driving down the price of coal due to our own Climate Change Levy. But mostly, we have assisted in this by continuing to ‘import’ our emissions from places like India and China. ‘Imported emissions’ are the overseas emissions created by products and services for UK consumers and businesses, and their import to the UK. Domestic UK carbon emissions peaked in 1972, but if imported emissions are factored in then the peak happened 35 years later, in 2007. A recent report from the Office for National Statistics actually found that the UK was the biggest net importer of CO2 emissions per capita in the G7. 

This disparity has come about in part due to the UK’s de-industrialisation and our reliance on services industries. Meanwhile, we have been offsetting our need for high-emitting products to China, in turn keeping our domestic emissions statistics low, but allowing theirs to soar. As Lord Deben, Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, remarked, it is now important for the UK to “walk the talk”. Hopefully the Prime Minister will do exactly this in his speech today, by setting out an overarching strategy to minimise ‘imported emissions’, putting us well placed to have an un-hypocritical and unapologetic leading role at COP26.

Today’s climate speech – and COP later this year – marks an important moment where a clear and ambitious strategy, executed with strong leadership, could drive a new international consensus. The recent media has focussed too much on personalities involved, not the international outcomes they are seeking to achieve. This is the gap the Prime Minister must fill. 

We have to use our position in the world to win, change, and influence hearts and minds across the globe in pursuit of this common goal. This must start now, with the Prime Minister’s vision for international climate action, and he must reiterate the importance of binding our Chinese friends to a commitment and plan to reduce emissions, starting with coal.

The UK’s position as hosts for the COP 26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow is the ideal opportunity for this new Government, with a mandate and platform to boot, to step up and lead the charge on a phase-out of coal in China and across the World. Forget net-zero – if China doesn’t step up, it’s all for nothing.