Climate change: how China can achieve its pledge of zero emissions

President Xi Jinping’s announcement in September that China will cut its carbon emissions to zero by 2060 was as welcome as it was surprising. It signalled a clear intention that the country would take on the mantle of leading the world into the clean energy era, just as the US was vacating the position. The pledge was greeted with praise by world leaders. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called it an “important step in our global fight against climate change”, while the UN saw it as progress “for . . . the world”.  If successful, it will represent the biggest reduction in emissions of any country.

The new target, if achieved, will lower global warming projections by 0.2C-0.3 degrees centigrade, according to Climate Action Tracker, a non-profit research group. But the public commitment has also provoked scepticism. Today, China contributes nearly a third of the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. Roughly 60 per cent of its energy use is derived from coal and it is the world’s second largest consumer of oil. 

Some observers question whether it is possible to reconcile being carbon neutral with the country’s current expansion of coal and whether Beijing has the political will to deliver the clean energy revolution that is required to fulfil its promise. “Achieving carbon neutrality will require China to phase out virtually all fossil fuels and dramatically accelerate zero-carbon electricity sources, such as solar and wind,” says Barbara Finamore, senior strategic director, Asia, at the National Resources Defense Council, a US advocacy group. 

Notably, the pledge turns China’s 2030 carbon peak into a hard target. In reality, what happens in the 2020s will not significantly impact the 2060 target, as coal plants can operate for a 30-year lifetime and then retire before 2060.

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