Chinese leader Xi Jinping must have guessed what was coming at last week’s United Nations summit.
Only a few minutes after US President Donald Trump had blasted the Chinese for “rampant pollution” – citing carbon emissions at “nearly twice” the levels of the United States – Xi grabbed back the headlines by announcing that China was committing to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
Few people expected the pledge, which was soon being described as a ploy to outflank the Trump administration on climate change (which gave notice that it would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord a year ago and will exit on November 5).
That’s true: the Chinese are trying to show solidarity with other nations that have promised carbon neutrality, as well as highlight how the Americans are now the outliers in the global warming debate.
China’s critics noted that Xi didn’t offer any details on how China would achieve the net-zero goal. They also query China’s green credentials in the here and now. Pollution has soared since the Covid-19 lockdown was lifted, with emissions from industrial sources soon surpassing pre-pandemic levels. Approvals for coal power plants have surged in the first half of this year as well – to the extent that China now has more coal-fired power in the pipeline than the total fleet of operating plants in the European Union.
There were, however, a few pointers for a carbon-neutral plan in a roadmap published a few days later by Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy, which works closely with the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in projecting long-term climate goals.
The outline is for a more gradual transition over the next 15 years, with a speeding-up after 2035, when emissions should have peaked. Another key component is a massive reduction in coal-fired power to the point at which coal is phased out completely by 2050, primarily in favour of wind and solar power.
That’s a gargantuan task: renewable energy capacity would have to increase by a factor of 15 to give the Chinese a chance of meeting their target. The contribution from nuclear power would have to quadruple as well and regulators will have to repurpose the electricity grid, which favours coal-fired power over renewable sources.
Millions of jobs will also be lost in closing down the worst-polluting industries. Even then, decarbonising the economy completely is impossible, so policymakers will need to promote new techniques for carbon capture and storage.
“We think China will actively increase the ‘removal of emissions’ through carbon sinks – either naturally (e.g. forestry and agricultural methods) or by man-made means (technologically). In this way the ‘net’ emissions account, that is ‘positive emissions’ less ‘removed emissions’, can be close to zero,” explains Chan Wai-Shin, head of HSBC’s Climate Change Centre.
In the short term, the first indications of how Beijing will cut back on carbon emissions should be laid out in the 14th Five-Year Plan, which will be published next March. Commentators are already predicting that there could be a cap on coal as no more than half of the primary energy mix by 2025.
Yet while we wait for more clarity on how the Chinese will deliver on the carbon-neutral goal it is surely significant that a country that generates 28% of the world’s carbon emissions is making a commitment like this. Joanna Lewis, associate professor of science, technology, and international affairs at Georgetown University, argues that Beijing achieves its environmental objectives as well, telling China Dialogue that “almost all of China’s climate and energy targets in recent years have been met or exceeded, so anything President Xi Jinping announces in such a public forum is not just symbolic.”
China’s pledge also puts the onus on other countries to do more to meet carbon-reduction goals themselves. Without a major effort from the Chinese, the world is unlikely to meet the Paris accord’s ambition of holding warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial levels. But if Beijing can make breakthroughs in bringing its own, gigantic carbon footprint under greater control, there are fewer excuses for others that they cannot do the same.
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