Chinese President Xi Jinping (Image: AP/Andy Wong)

Even in normal times, power outages and natural disasters in China alarm people as temperatures plummet. But this year has not been normal. A sudden energy crunch shuttered factories in northeast China and cut power to residential compounds. Pregnant women and older adults found themselves trudging up long flights of stairs in darkened hallways. Earlier weather “anomalies” reduced wind- and solar-powered generation capacity.

Then China’s coal belt suffered heavy flooding. When freezing temperatures arrived three weeks earlier than usual, anxious officials urgently demanded an “all-out” boost in coal production. Some coal mines, mothballed in a bid to curb emissions, abruptly roared back to life, churning out the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

All of this made for terrible optics when global leaders gathered this month for the UN climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26. But Chinese President Xi Jinping was a no-show. US President Joe Biden criticised the absence of China’s leadership — “a gigantic issue, and they walked away” — and sniped at China’s unwillingness to sign onto his big pledge to reduce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.