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China says it will cut its net carbon emissions to zero by 2060

IN A RECORDED video message to the UN General Assembly on September 22nd, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, made a surprise announcement. He said that as well as aiming to halt the rise of its carbon emissions by 2030—a goal set five years ago—China would strive for “carbon neutrality” by 2060. In climate-change jargon, this means achieving a balance between carbon emissions and carbon-reduction both technological and natural, such as planting trees. For China to succeed, it must descend from its emissions peak far more rapidly than any other major economy has either succeeded in doing, or has pledged to do. It will be a huge challenge.

Under the Paris agreement on climate change, reached in 2015, signatories were required to submit fresh plans for reducing their emissions by the end of this year. Covid-19 has put a spanner in the works. On September 2nd Patricia Espinosa, the UN’s chief climate-change official, said she expected about 80 countries to meet the deadline. Before Mr Xi’s speech, many analysts had predicted that China would not show its hand until after America’s elections in November, when American climate-change policy for the next four years will become clearer. Stung by international criticism of its early handling of the pandemic, it may be that China decided to reveal its hand earlier to boost its image.

But are the targets realistic? China will certainly have no problem ensuring that its emissions reach a peak before 2030. Already in 2014—a year before Mr Xi first declared such a goal (“around 2030” was the wording then)—experts had concluded that the peak could arrive as early as 2025. Indeed, some scientists believe that its emissions from fossil fuels—the biggest source of human-produced carbon—may have peaked already. The Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy, a think-tank in Beijing, reckons they could begin declining in 2025. So Mr Xi’s reference to a target of 2030 in his speech to the UN was distinctly underwhelming.

Aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060 is another matter. Mr Xi had already floated the idea that China might strive for such a goal on September 14th at a video summit with European Union leaders, though he did not commit to a deadline. That he would mention neutrality was “a political breakthrough”, says a European envoy in Beijing. Last year European leaders set a target for “climate neutrality” by 2050. America has kept silent on the topic.

China is the source of 27% of global emissions of carbon-dioxide (CO2). Were it to commit formally to the 2060 target, previous forecasts of global warming trends by 2100 would need to be revised. Climate Action Tracker, a research group, had calculated that if all governments adhere to their Paris-accord pledges, the planet would warm, on average, by 2.7°C by 2100 compared with pre-industrial temperatures—still a long way off the Paris target of 1.5-2°C. Mr Xi’s announcement, they now say, could knock between 0.2°C and 0.3°C off this estimate.

That would still mean more warming than agreed in Paris, but China is not acting alone. Like China, the EU has not committed formally to its mid-century target. But doing so would have a big impact: the union accounts for 10% of global CO2 emissions. All eyes are now on American voters. Victory for Joe Biden in the presidential election would mean the world’s top three emitters—China, America and the EU, which account for about 45% of global emissions—would all have similar time-frames for achieving net-zero goals. This would place the warming limit agreed in Paris “firmly in reach” says Bill Hare of Climate Action Tracker.

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Mr Xi did not say how China would meet its 2060 goal. American CO2 emissions peaked sometime between 2005 and 2007, then dropped by about 14% in the subsequent decade. EU total emissions peaked in 1990 and have since fallen by about 32%. The aim is to reduce them by 45% by 2030. That would amount to a near-halving of emissions in four decades. China, by contrast, is implying that it will plunge from peak to near-nothing in just 30 years.

In his UN speech, Mr Xi chose his words carefully. He referred to carbon neutrality by 2060, not climate neutrality. The implication is that the target will apply only to emissions of CO2, not other greenhouse gases such as methane, a big contributor to global warming. The EU’s goal for climate neutrality covers all emissions.

Crucially, China has not spelled out whether its new target will cover domestic emissions only, or include the considerable emissions caused by China’s generous investments in coal outside its borders, including through the Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure-building scheme. A new five-year economic plan, to be adopted next year, may reveal how China plans to wean itself off fossil fuels.

Achieving the 2060 target will require a complete decarbonisation of China’s electricity supply, more than 60% of which still comes from burning coal. Yet China is still building coal-fired power plants faster than any country. In the first six months of 2020 it built more than 60% of the world’s new installations of them. Carbon-heavy infrastructure being planned and built today could remain usable for decades. China’s efforts to revive its covid-struck economy include making it easier to secure permits to build such stuff.

But China worries about the impact of climate change—it is already plagued by floods and droughts. When it has the political determination it can implement changes in ways that free-market systems may find hard to replicate. For example, it can ramp up nuclear power production without fear of public opposition—grassroots activism of any kind is suppressed. Its nuclear generating capacity more than doubled in 2014-19 to 48.7GW, according to Bloomberg NEF, an energy think-tank.

Even with a big expansion of nuclear energy, it is extremely unlikely that China could meet its target without finding ways of capturing CO2—either before it is emitted by power stations or directly from ambient air—and storing it underground. No method has yet been found for achieving this at scale. It will also be difficult to make substantial cuts in emissions from industrial processes and heavy transport without yet-to-be-invented technologies. Planting new forests would help absorb carbon, but it would need to be on a colossal scale to make the difference needed.

The lack of an obvious roadmap makes Mr Xi’s commitment all the more remarkable. His ambitions will require a new approach to economic development that will need to become obvious soon.

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/news/2020/09/24/china-says-it-will-cut-its-net-carbon-emissions-to-zero-by-2060
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