China’s Pledge to Be Carbon Impartial by 2060: What it Means

Environmentalists have welcomed China’s leader Xi Jinping’s pledge to accelerate emissions reductions in the world’s most polluting nation and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

The ambitious goal, which surprised many experts, could help slow global warming significantly. However, they warned that Mr. Xi provided almost no details, which cast doubt on the feasibility of goals that remain for years to come.

Here’s what you should know about the Promise:

China has long argued that as a developing economy it doesn’t have to shoulder the same burden of emissions reduction as developed countries, whose pollution has remained uncontrolled for decades. China is now promising to lead by example and set goals that are in line with a country that wants to be a superpower.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, China pledged its emissions would peak around 2030. Mr. Xi promised to postpone that schedule on Tuesday, but did not provide any details. The bigger surprise, according to analysts, was Mr. Xi’s promise to be “carbon neutral” by 2060 – meaning China’s net carbon emissions will hit zero.

More than 60 other countries have committed to CO2 neutrality by 2050. This is a consensus deadline that scientists believe must be met in order to have a reasonable chance of averting the worst climate catastrophe. These countries are small compared to China, which now causes 28 percent of global emissions. Even though its target is a decade later, China is now in record shape for the first time and is setting the target.

“I think it’s potentially huge – both words are emphasized,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst at the Center for Energy and Air Research, in a telephone interview from Helsinki, Finland.

There are many reasons to be careful. In recent years, analysts have warned of worrying trends in the country’s commitment to tackling global warming amid the economic slowdown.

Coal consumption, which had declined from 2013 to 2017, partly due to improvements in notorious air quality in China, has risen again in recent years as the economy faced economic headwinds and the government tried to stimulate industrial growth.

The surge was interrupted by the Covid-19 shutdown, but China’s economy is recovering faster than others. Research by Mr. Myllyvirta showed that carbon dioxide emissions from power generation, cement manufacturing and other industrial applications were 4 percent higher by May than last year. China issued more coal-fired power plant building permits in the first half of 2020 than in any year in 2018 and 2019.

When Mr. Xi presented his country’s plans in a speech to the United Nations, he did not elaborate on how China would achieve the goals. Li Shuo, a policy advisor for Greenpeace China, said the lack of specificity was likely intended to give the Communist Party’s leadership flexibility in the short term to pursue economic recovery after the pandemic.

The government’s next five-year plan, which will be released shortly, will be a key document outlining the necessary economic, industrial and environmental changes that will be required.

“You really need to roll up your sleeves as of today to capture the ambition we heard in our daily exercises last night,” said Mr. Li in a telephone interview from Beijing, referring to Mr. Xi’s UN speech.

Mr. Li said the promise of carbon neutrality requires a complete transformation of the Chinese economy.

“Think about it: the way we eat, how we use energy, how we produce our food, how we commute to work needs to be completely reorganized,” he said.

While China holds onto industries that consume coal, it has also emerged as a leader in clean energy technologies like solar panels and wind turbines. It is the world’s largest manufacturer of electric cars and buses. With that, the government could be well positioned to move away from fossil fuels, provided the political commitment is there.

China could also step up its ambitions to build nuclear power plants to replace coal-fired power plants, although doing so would raise other environmental and safety issues.

Wang Wenbin, a foreign ministry spokesman, pointed to the growth of renewable energy and said China’s capacity now accounts for 30 percent of the world’s total capacity. Achieving the new goals “reflects China’s willingness to work with other countries to build a vibrant, clean and beautiful world and its responsibility to build a community with a common future for humanity,” he said on Wednesday.

Mr. Xi previously pledged to increase government support for new technologies while doing more to combat pollution, protect natural resources and expand the country’s national park networks.

Maintaining the Communist Party’s power remains its top priority, but pollution and other environmental threats are increasingly seen as threats to the party’s reputation. This was evident in the devastating floods of the Yangtze and its tributaries in central China this summer.

“Mankind can no longer afford to ignore nature’s repeated warnings,” said Mr. Xi on Tuesday, addressing the general assembly via video.

Mr. Xi’s China is generally immune to criticism of its domestic policies, but his government has come under pressure to do more about the warming climate. China’s commitments were increased last week when he met with European Union leaders who threatened carbon tariffs if China did not cut its emissions.

Europeans pushed China to reach peak emissions by 2025, as most European nations have promised. While Mr. Xi stopped short of it, his promise to postpone the target before 2030 and to set CO2 neutrality as the target for the first time stood in stark contrast to President Trump’s climate skepticism, which was interrupted by the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

The promise to do more for the climate could at least offset China’s growing anger in Europe and beyond over its oppression in Xinjiang and Tibet, its territorial conflicts in the Himalayas and the South China Sea, military threats to Taiwan, and far-reaching crackdown on the Hong Kong autonomy.

“Europeans will be watching closely how serious Xi is, but it was a very smart and well-timed move,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Claire Fu contributed to the research.

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