COP26: Why an appetite for emissions data shows China is taking climate change seriously

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The world was hoping for a lot from China at COP26. Or, at least, something.

But there were no major new pledges from the world's biggest polluter.

That shouldn't be a surprise: you only have to listen to the man who wasn't there - President Xi Jinping.

Earlier this week he told a meeting of regional leaders: "Since I announced the goals of carbon peak and carbon neutrality last year China has formulated an action plan for carbon dioxide peaking before 2030."

The meaning was clear: He is the one who sets the targets and he will not move those targets, whatever the international pressure.

That's disappointing, especially on coal, the most polluting fossil fuel.

China has made some important progress here, over the years. The share of coal in its primary energy mix has gone from 68% in 2010 to 56.8% this year.

Analysis: Why China, India and Australia are reluctant to ditch coal

But because China has grown so rapidly over that time, it is now pumping out record amounts of coal emissions. And along with India, it secured a weakening of last-minute language on coal which means it can keep increasing its coal energy capacity until 2025 as planned.

After that it has pledged to reduce it only "gradually".

Others want it to go faster but China says the economic costs of doing that - and the potential instability it could bring - are too great to bear.

Another reason that's frustrating is because of the huge advances - and unfulfilled promise - of renewable energy here.

It has invested more than any other country but its total renewable capacity, the International Renewable Energy Agency says, is only about double that of the UK, even though its economy is five times bigger.

But we are where we are. And if China won't shift its targets, the question becomes how do we make sure it's sticking to them.

Especially because Xi Jinping has made a point of drawing a contrast between the lofty words at COP and concrete actions.

There may be better news there.

Biqing Zhu is a researcher at Tsinghua university in Beijing and also at Carbon Monitor, which aims to create a near real-time dashboard of global emissions.

"For China, if you're able to see what you did last month, rather than two years ago, you can adjust your policies from national regulations to local regulations, much more up to date, focusing on the current issue, not the issue you had two years ago," she explains.

"So I think it's definitely helping with countries - not just China but all countries."

And on China specifically, she says there is a much bigger appetite for emissions data.

"Now in China I see a lot more - not just national policies, but also responses from local levels. Local governments are really trying to get an accurate accounting for their carbon, trying to figure out where they can cut emissions hopefully without damaging the economy and other factors," she adds.

The proof will be in the data - published on Carbon Monitor's dashboard.

With countries now required to return in 2022 to give updates on their progress, up to date emissions figures will be very important.

If COP26 was about words, now it's about the numbers.

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