China’s zero carbon pledge: What does it mean for the global climate change fight?

President Xi’s promise could be a defining moment in the climate crisis

Louise Boyle
New York
Thursday 24 September 2020 16:19 BST
In this image made from UNTV video, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks in a pre-recorded message during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday
In this image made from UNTV video, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks in a pre-recorded message during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday

In front of a large painting of the Great Wall, one of China’s most impressive feats, President Xi Jinping took the United Nations General Assembly by surprise on Tuesday with an ambitious pledge.

“We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060,” he told leaders at the annual gathering, which is largely taking place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature,” Xi said.

His promise could come to be a defining moment in the global climate crisis: the first time that China, the world’s largest emitter, pledged to stop adding to the global warming that is pushing the planet towards irreversible catastrophe.

“It’s profoundly significant that the leader of the largest country in the world, and also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has set an end to the age of oil, coal and gas,” former California governor Jerry Brown, chair of the California-China Climate Institute, told The Independent.

"This is a marker for other nations to consider, and try to not only emulate but go beyond.”

Xi’s remarks seemed particularly well-calculated coming minutes after President Trump’s speech where he slammed China’s environmental record, and called for the UN "to hold them accountable" for the Covid-19 outbreak. 

Mr Trump also claimed that the US has reduced its carbon emissions by more than any other signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement. (Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis which tracks government efforts on the Paris deal, found that the US is “critically insufficient” when it comes to emissions reductions.)

The US, like other large polluters India, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Australia, has set no emissions goal. Mr Trump, who has called climate change “a hoax”, is set to withdraw from the Paris deal if he wins re-election this November.

With China, 30 countries now have varying carbon neutrality pledges – meaning the release of no additional carbon into the atmosphere. In total, it accounts for roughly 43 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Xi's carbon pledge also spun some positive publicity for China at a time of growing international outrage over the severe restriction of civil rights in Hong Kong, following Beijing’s sweeping national security law on the semi-autonomous city, and widespread accusations of mass detentions and cultural genocide of Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

In the past, China has argued that as a developing economy, it should not be beholden to the same reduction commitments as developed nations, like the US, UK and European states, whose decades of rampant polluting drove global warming in the 20th century.

Streets flooded in Chongqing along the banks of the Yangtze River

But international pressure has been building on China which pledged under the 2016 Paris agreement to have its emissions peak around 2030. Leaders from the EU, which is committing to carbon neutrality by 2050, urged China earlier this month to aim for 2060 or face punitive carbon tariffs.

The news that China’s emission levels could now slope downwards before the decade is out was cautiously welcomed by analysts. Xi offered no details on Tuesday as to how the targets would be met.

Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer with Greenpeace East Asia, described Xi’s announcement as injecting “much-needed momentum to global climate politics”.

But Mr Li added: “Xi’s pledge will need to be backed up with more details and concrete implementation. By how much earlier can China peak its emissions? How to reconcile carbon neutrality with China’s on-going coal expansion?

“These are hard questions that demand a better response from Beijing. But if anything, Xi’s new commitment will certainly help turn a challenging year for the environment around and mark as the beginning of a reinvigorated round of global climate efforts.”

How China ultimately decides to fight the climate crisis will have global impact.

The country released the equivalent of 10 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2018, according to the Global Carbon Project that tracks emissions worldwide. That was almost twice as much as the US and three times as much as the EU.

China burns about half the coal used globally each year. Between 2000 and 2018, its annual carbon emissions nearly tripled, and it accounts for roughly almost a third of the world’s total. 

Satellite images and media reports suggest new coal power plants are under construction, with total capacity of 148 gigawatts – nearly equal to the entire coal-power capacity of the EU, according to non-profit Global Energy Monitor.

The country has also faced an economic slowdown, missing a recent growth target earlier this year, Bloomberg noted, and putting energy conservation on the back burner. 

On the flipside, China is also the leading market for solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles, and it manufactures about two-thirds of solar cells installed around the world. It is the largest financier of energy infrastructure globally.

Richard Black, director of non-profit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, told The Independent that China could achieve Xi's pledges by simply accelerating a lot of what it’s already doing – ramping up production of electric vehicles (EVs), wind turbines, solar panels, and the build rate of nuclear reactors (the latter of which will likely spark an international debate around safety). He also projected rollouts of charging points for EVs and expansion of the train network countrywide.

“I think we also will see interesting investment in steel manufacture,” he added. "There is development on making steel using zero carbon methods in Europe but for China to do it would be an absolute game-changer. Not only for steel but aluminium, cement, all the heavy industries.”

Governor Brown said that to hit Xi’s stated goals, then “number one is to get off coal as soon as possible”.

He echoed the sentiment on increasing EV production, saying that if China did so, "Europe, Germany particularly, and the United States better wake up”.

“To do what the world needs, Xi will accelerate production of the electric and hydrogen car. And as soon as he does that, Europe and America must respond at an equal or greater level. At this moment that does not appear likely,” he added.

If China does fulfil the ambitious targets, it could prevent 0.4-0.7F (0.2 to 0.4C) further warming for the world, according to “very rough estimates” MIT management professor John Sterman, who models and tracks emission reductions and pledges with Climate Interactive, told The Associated Press

Professor Sterman said that he was particularly enthused by the effort to peak CO2 emissions before 2030 – instead of by 2030. The gas stays in the atmosphere for more than a century, so earlier emission cuts are more effective than promises in the future, he said.

“Emissions that don’t happen between now and 2030 are going to reduce warming a lot more than the same emission reductions after 2060,” the professor said.

While the pledges offer a glimmer of hope to the international climate community, China also serves to benefit at home by cutting emissions. China is in a constant battle with poor air quality in many large urban areas, while the country's densely populated and environmentally fragile coastal regions are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and temperatures.

Flooding this year in the Yangtze River has killed hundreds of people and displaced millions in central and southwestern China, and hampered efforts to kickstart economies following Covid-19 lockdowns.

There is hope that Xi’s speech will build momentum leading up to the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26, next year in the UK after it was delayed by the pandemic. It also follows a number of years of missed climate goals and increasingly devastating impacts from climate change including heightened wildfires, soaring heatwaves and more severe typhoons, monsoons, hurricanes and droughts.

“If China comes out with a concrete, long-term strategy to the international community, that would be massive to increasing confidence in the international process which has not been at its highest ebb for the last few years,” Mr Black said.

"Perhaps more importantly, just the sheer economic muscle of China would change the behaviour of economic markets and investors. If they are convinced that China is heading in this direction, it will change decision-making, moving away from fossil fuels and towards clean technology.”

Former Democratic Governor Brown said he was optimistic, adding that Xi’s pledge had laid down the gauntlet for other nations on how they were going to ramp up tackling the climate crisis.

“I think it’s a positive step and if it's accompanied by the election of Joe Biden, then America will rejoin the Paris Agreement and nations will start figuring out faster how to reduce [emissions] in precise numbers,” he said.

"The beauty of Xi’s goal is it puts numbers on the table and invites others to go much faster and much further. The next moves should come from the United States and the European Union.”

Additional wire reporting

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