25 Sep Major policy shift: China to become Carbon Neutral by 2060
On Tuesday, 22nd September 2020, at the virtual UN General Assembly in New York, China – the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases – announced that it will cut its carbon dioxide emissions to nearly zero by 2060 (https://www.ft.com/content/730e4f7d-3df0-45e4-91a5-db4b3571f353?desktop=true&segmentId=7c8f09b9-9b61-4fbb-9430-9208a9e233c8) (https://www.ft.com/content/93a15a83-08e8-4293-a12d-e4235edec7ea?emailId=5f6d7178c86f250004776fc7&segmentId=22011ee7-896a-8c4c-22a0-7603348b7f22).
This new target will require a radical reshaping of the world’s second-largest economy and could push coal demand in China close to zero.
President Xi Jinping stated that the coronavirus pandemic had showed the world needed a “revolution” that would speed up “green development”. He also added that the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was the “minimum” that was needed to protect the earth.
Thom Woodroofe, a former climate diplomat and senior adviser at the Asia Society, said that “For the first time ever there is now a clear long-term trajectory for decarbonisation in China”, and that “Xi’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 is a gamechanger” (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/22/china-pledges-to-reach-carbon-neutrality-before-2060).
China, which emits about 28 per cent of global carbon dioxide, previously promised its emissions would peak by 2030, but had refused to set a date to begin cutting back on the grounds that it was a developing country (https://www.ft.com/content/730e4f7d-3df0-45e4-91a5-db4b3571f353?desktop=true&segmentId=7c8f09b9-9b61-4fbb-9430-9208a9e233c8).
China’s announcement will raise the pressure on the US, which is now the biggest emitter in the world that does not have a carbon-neutral target.
President Donald Trump will officially withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement in November and has refused to honour any emissions’ targets for the US. Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, has vowed to rejoin the Paris agreement and to set the US on course for a low-emissions future (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/22/china-pledges-to-reach-carbon-neutrality-before-2060).
China’s leadership is also set to reveal more about its path toward cutting emissions as part of its five-year plan for 2021 to 2025, which will be released next month, with details to be made public in March of next year.
Notwithstanding the major policy shift that China has decided to take, it is important to note that the 2060 objective is still less ambitious than the 2050 date set by dozens of small states as well as European powers (https://www.malaymail.com/news/life/2020/09/23/china-eyes-climate-leadership-with-2060-carbon-neutral-goal/1905839).
Also, some analysts highlighted that China had not yet clarified what “carbon-neutral” would mean, and what types of offsets it would include in its definition , as well as the fact that China’s leader did not immediately put meat on the bones of his carbon-slashing commitment (https://www.ft.com/content/730e4f7d-3df0-45e4-91a5-db4b3571f353?desktop=true&segmentId=7c8f09b9-9b61-4fbb-9430-9208a9e233c8) (https://www.malaymail.com/news/life/2020/09/23/china-eyes-climate-leadership-with-2060-carbon-neutral-goal/1905839).
An Energy Policy Officer at Greenpeace in Beijing stated that “Xi’s pledge will need to be backed up with more details and concrete implementation” and to answer questions such as “How much earlier can China peak its emissions?” and How can we reconcile carbon neutrality with China’s ongoing coal expansion?”
It is worth mentioning that China currently has 135 gigawatts of coal-power capacity either permitted or under construction, according to Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based environmental group.
As China struggles to stimulate a sluggish economy, the number of proposed coal plants has risen in 2020 at the fastest rate in five years, prompting concerns that China’s recovery measures will favour polluting industries.
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a Belgian climate scientist and former vice chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN expert panel, questioned whether China would follow its own guidelines as it pursues a global infrastructure-building binge — for example, if it will still back coal plants in Africa.
However, Cameron Hepburn, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, stated that “China may still be building coal-fired power plants, but momentum is slowing and will soon grind to a halt as the pathetic economics of new coal is exposed” (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/09/23/asia-pacific/china-carbon-neutral-2060/).
Also, Christiana Figueres, founder of climate advocacy group Global Optimism Ltd. and former executive secretary for the U.N. climate negotiations leading up to the Paris Agreement, who stated that “The fact that President Xi Jingping is now taking advantage of White House absence of leadership is also not surprising” and “When there is a geopolitical vacuum of leadership then someone steps in” (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/09/23/asia-pacific/china-carbon-neutral-2060/).
On parallel lines, Li Shuo, senior climate policy officer for Greenpeace East Asia, also pointed out the global power implications of China’s pledge. Xi’s speech, he said, was “clearly a bold and well-calculated move. It demonstrates Xi’s consistent interest in leveraging the climate agenda for geopolitical purposes”.
The specifics on how China will achieve its 2060 carbon neutrality target are not set to come until Beijing presents its upcoming 14th Five-Year plan, which will draw up a blueprint for the economy from next year until 2025 (https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-2060-climate-change-gambit-11600964415?mod=itp_wsj&mod=&mod=djemITP_h).