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Experts react to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement that China will ratchet up its climate ambition by achieving peak emissions before 2030 and striving for carbon neutrality by 2060

A coal-fired power plant in China (Photo by Alamy)

A coal-fired power plant in China (Photo by Alamy)

In a virtual address to the 75th UN General Assembly on September 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China would deliver a stronger emissions-reduction target, peak emissions before 2030 and strive to reach carbon neutrality before 2060.

These pledges are a significant step forward in climate ambition from the world’s largest carbon emitter and second largest economy. Xi’s commitment came a week after the EU-China leaders meeting, where the EU pressed China to commit to setting a goal of climate neutrality. In her State of the Union address on September 16, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also proposed to raise the EU’s 2030 climate target by the end of the year.

All governments have been asked to deliver tougher climate targets under the Paris Agreement ahead of the next climate talks in Glasgow, UK, known as COP26, which have been delayed until 2021 because of Covid-19. With commitments from the EU and China, well over a third of global emissions will be covered by new, tougher targets. See: Can the Himalayan region go green as economies flounder?

China achieving its aim of reaching carbon neutrality before 2060 would lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius, according to analysis by the Climate Action Tracker, which measures government commitments on climate against the Paris Agreement goals.

Carbon neutrality refers to the elimination of carbon dioxide emissions by stopping emissions altogether or by balancing carbon dioxide emissions with some form of carbon removal. Carbon neutrality differs from climate neutrality because it does not consider other greenhouse gases.

China Dialogue asked a group of climate experts how China’s new pledges would contribute to the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming well under 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and what they mean for China’s transition toward a low-carbon economy.

Xie Zhenhua, Special Advisor on Climate Change Affairs of China, Ministry of Ecology and Environment; President of the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development of Tsinghua University

China’s commitment of carbon neutrality before 2060 goes beyond the 2065-2070 global carbon neutrality schedule under the Paris Agreement 2C scenario. This bold target may move global carbon neutrality ahead by 5-10 years. It will also play a key role in promoting stronger global climate governance.

China is actively following the global trend of green and low-carbon recovery by setting forth a clear, strong carbon peak and carbon neutrality targets. Given the current international economic and political dynamics, the global community must come together to further the global climate agenda by incorporating concrete goals into a green post-pandemic recovery pathway.

Zou Ji, President of Energy Foundation China

President Xi Jinping’s new vision shows that China’s climate targets are highly embedded into its modernisation goals. In 2020, China will embark on a new journey of modernisation as new plans and blueprints unfold. It is a necessity for the country to increase investment in climate security as well as other forms of “natural capital”, and to create a new economic growth engine through the ongoing low-carbon transition, as the country strives to accelerate sustainable development and benefit people from China and around the world on this journey. Such action will also be China’s outstanding contribution to the Paris Agreement goals and global governance as a responsible global power.

A thousand miles begins with a single step. To honour President Xi’s new climate pledges, the first imperative for China is to set up more ambitious climate targets in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025). This includes a carbon cap – requiring coal to be below 50% in the primary energy mix by 2025 and the acceleration of structural changes in energy production and consumption. China should also formulate national, provincial, and local peaking plans as soon as possible, as well as long-term decarbonisation roadmaps that are economically and technically viable.

Hu Min, Executive Director at Innovative Green Development Program (iGDP)

The pledges send a strong, long-term political signal for China’s low-carbon transition. The announcement was made a week after the EU-China leaders’ virtual meeting, reflecting both sides’ determination to cooperate on climate action.

We can expect that more concrete implementation plans will be released soon, and it’s looking hopeful that more regional and local governments in China will bring out their plans to achieve carbon neutrality.

Nevertheless, to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 is not an easy task, it requires major technological breakthroughs and large-scale investments, which can only be secured by strong policies and implementation plans.

Zhang Shuwei, Director at Draworld Environment Research Center

China’s commitment to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 comes at a critical moment, when the world is in much need of more ambitious climate goals. The pledge is highly consistent with the 2 degree-deep reductions pathway and reflects China’s responsibility as a major power. This will undoubtedly inject important momentum into global climate action.

Achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 means that China will have 30 years for continuous and rapid emissions cuts, after it reaches the emissions peak by around 2030. It will pose a significant impact for the transition of many sectors, including energy, transportation, industry, construction and agriculture. We expect the introduction of specific policy tools, such as carbon pricing to realise the goals. The rapid transformation process must be fair and manageable.

Joanna Lewis, Associate Professor and Director, Science, Technology and International Affairs, Georgetown University

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. The carbon neutrality goal is a big deal coming from China – even just the mention of it because of what it implies. The timing of the announcement may be a sign that China is anticipating a call for scaled-up climate action if Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected in the November US election. China is likely trying to get out in front of any US pressure or demands, while simultaneously appeasing the European Union, which has been pushing for such a goal bilaterally for some time.

Jonna Nyman, Lecturer in International Politics, University of Sheffield

Xi Jinping’s announcement of the aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 is a welcome indication of China’s commitment to carbon reduction. It is also a positive signal to the global community hoping for a constructive partner in the global effort to deal with climate change.

That said, the statement remains fuzzy on detail. I look forward to seeing how the carbon neutrality pledge will be translated specifically into policies and targets as part of China’s Covid-19 recovery and upcoming 14th Five Year Plan, which will set out key targets for 2021-2025. To achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, China needs clear policies and targets that shift the focus away from fossil fuels – and particularly coal – towards renewable energy. China’s coronavirus recovery has so far favoured fossil fuels over clean energy. If taken seriously, this new announcement will indicate a significant near-term shift in focus.

Barbara Finamore, Senior Strategic Director, Asia, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

China’s commitments to scale up its Paris Agreement pledges and aim to become carbon neutral by 2060 put pressure on the United States to restore its own climate leadership. An ambitious US 2030 target codified in a new ​nationally determined contribution (NDC), an unambiguous commitment to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050, and a strong policy framework to meet those targets will be essential.

Moreover, in a time of rising US-China tensions, it might seem implausible or even unwise to call upon the two countries to work together to tackle our global climate emergency. But it is in the vital national interest of both the United States and China to align their efforts to rise to this unprecedented challenge.

This article was first published by China Dialogue, India Climate Dialogue‘s partner site.


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