China’s carbon pledge revives hopes of a climate game change

Xi Jinping aims for carbon neutrality by 2060 but how he plans to meet that goal is still unclear. The declaration by Xi Jinping, China’s president, at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday – after Donald Trump had earlier criticised Beijing’s environmental record – has been hailed as a major step forward in international negotiations over how to slow global warming.

“It shows real leadership, not just a zero-sum back-and-forth over who does what first,” said Dimitri de Boer, chief China representative of ClientEarth, a non-governmental organisation focused on environmental law. “By announcing now, instead of waiting for the US election, China gains a lot of friends in Europe and some in the US too. It actually is a game changer on a geopolitical level,” he said. Until now, many discussions have been put on hold due to the pandemic.

But China’s path towards cutting emissions is still unclear. The 40-year timeframe to reach near zero carbon dioxide emissions also leaves open the possibility of delayed action in the short-term, in the hope that technological breakthroughs will deliver rapid gains later, experts warn. “The devil will be in the details and China should set more specific near-term targets and an earlier peaking date,” said Helen Mountford, vice-president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute, a non-governmental organisation, in a statement.

Much rides on how China resolves a climate contradiction in its energy sector: it leads the world in producing and installing wind turbines and solar panels but relies on coal for nearly 60 per cent of power production, accounting for about half of its carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuels, according to the IEA.

Despite Mr Xi’s calls for a “revolution” to speed up “green development”, Beijing has this year approved coal fired power plants at the fastest pace since 2015. At the same time, the government has pledged to end subsidies for new onshore wind installations by 2021 and has halved support for solar power plans this year, a trend that throws into doubt the future pace of adoption

The new target will require a radical reshaping of the world’s second-largest economy as it looks for ways to curb, capture or offset emissions for everything from livestock farming to the automotive sector.

China’s investment in carbon-intensive infrastructure remains high as a portion of gross domestic product compared with many developed countries. It produces half of the world’s steel and nearly 60 per cent of global cement. As such, Beijing faces an uphill battle to win round local government officials with a costly — and potentially destabilising — shift to clean up the economy in rust-belt regions heavily dependent on polluting industry for growth and employment.

One unanswered question is how to bring about a “just transition” towards carbon neutrality without causing mass upheaval for people’s lives and incomes, said ClientEarth’s Mr de Boer. “Chinese policy researchers will go to Germany to understand how a just transition worked there. But once you talk about the numbers [in Germany] — about 400,000 people — the Chinese start to laugh,” he said. “They have to do that for millions of people every year.”

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