In September, when the world’s largest emitter set an ambitious carbon neutrality target for 2060 at the UN, it set off a chorus of optimism that global heating could be kept below devastating levels.
“We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060,” China’s President Xi Jinping told the UN general assembly in September. “COVID-19 reminds us that humankind should launch a green revolution,” he added.
Given that global emissions are already increasing, amid the pandemic-related recession and the absence of Paris climate agreement agreements, China’s decision was generally regarded as the most effective pledge since the mid-century Paris agreement to press for carbon neutrality.
“It’s like steroids in the move to decarbonization,” said Niklas Hagelberg, coordinator of the Climate Change Programme at the United Nations Environment Programme, of the pledge from the world’s largest carbon emitter.
It is expected that global energy emissions alone will decrease if China, the world’s largest energy consumption country, decarbonizes. According to Hector Pollitt, chief economist at Cambridge Econometrics, a UK-based economic research company, global heating could now be constrained to about 2.35 degrees Celsius by 2100, which is 0.25C lower than the projected increase, even without any more commitments from other nations.
In the wake of Beijing’s commitment, neighboring countries followed suit, with Japan committing to net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and South Korea to carbon neutrality by 2050 in the ensuing weeks — the three Asian economies accounted for one-third of all global carbon emissions in 2018, according to Greenpeace.
Factoring all these new agreements, Pollitt estimates that by the end of the century, warming will be sustained at around 2 degrees-the upper limit of the Paris climate agreement. The environment group is now waiting expectantly for the Chinese government to consolidate its pledge in its new five-year strategy, scheduled to be announced at the beginning of April.
Is the pledge unexpected?
While many countries were due to enhance their Paris pledges in 2020, few expected that China, with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, would commit to carbon neutrality in such a relatively short time-frame.
“It’s fair to say, it’s pretty ambitious,” said Pollitt, especially with China’s emissions rising 2% in 2019 alone. “But it’s necessary if global targets are to be met,” he added.
Christine Loh, chief development strategist at the Institute for the Environment at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says the decarbonization target “did not come out of the blue.”Rather it confirms China’s paradigm shift from polluted “factory of the world” to clean, green producer of homegrown high tech goods, and the world’s biggest market for electric vehicles.
“Climate change has been important for a very long time in China,” the former Hong Kong legislator said of Beijing’s central role in creating global climate targets over the last decade, including at Paris.
Long-time chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua, whom Loh describes as the “Al Gore of China,” argued strongly for the nation’s “right to emit” as a developing country back at the failed Copenhagen COP15. Since then, however, Xie has increased China’s ambition, and closely collaborated with key Western climate negotiators like Todd Stern, the US Special Envoy for Climate Change under President Barack Obama, on the landmark Paris climate deal in 2015.
“Obama was able to work with China,” despite their differences on trade and human rights, were able to make Paris a reality, said Loh.
Underlining China’s new climate commitment is the reinstatement of Xie as the nation’s special climate envoy in 2021 — the 71-year-old had left the position in 2019. China’s climate czar has also worked closely with his counterpart in the new US administration, John Kerry.
Emissions peaking too late?
Perhaps most unexpected is the promise to reach peak emissions before 2030. “Without China, the rest of the world will struggle to peak,” said Pollitt.
UNEP’s Niklas Hagelberg fears this tipping point will come too late if the world is to achieve a 50% emissions cut by 2030 — a fundamental target on the road to 2050 decarbonization.
That means China’s emissions will have to begin falling by 2025, otherwise, “it won’t be sufficient to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 or ’60,” he said.
Yet Hagelberg believes this could be possible if China shows the political will to rapidly shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. According to Pollitt, carbon neutrality by 2060 requires that no new coal power plants are built.
Can China get off coal?
With half of China’s energy-related CO2 emissions generated by electricity production — nearly 15% of all energy-related carbon emitted globally — and 57% of China’s energy coming from coal, transitioning from the fossil fuel will take extraordinary ambition.
The nation’s electricity industry has been campaigning to construct hundreds of new coal-fired power plants in the run-up to China’s 2021-2025 five-year strategy, with Hagelberg stating that 300 GW of coal-fired power plants are in the pipeline.
But as the cost of renewables plummets, the prospect of coal is rapidly untenable, and China itself continues to affirm its supremacy in the emerging solar power market. HSBC estimates that within the next five years, annual solar installations will grow to 85 GW. Just 30 GW went online in 2019, by contrast.
“The incredibly fast drop in prices for renewables will increase confidence to increase ambition,” said Hagelberg.
If renewables resume their downward price trend, a report published in Nature last May showed that they could supply 62 percent of China’s electricity by 2030.
Hagelberg claims that, with Beijing having demonstrated the political will to counter its extreme emission problem in recent years, a dramatic move away from coal is likely. And if new coal-fired power stations are installed, to mitigate this growth, old plants will be decommissioned.
“It’s going to have to happen if they’re going to meet their targets,” he said.
The benefits of rapid decarbonization
Given the scale of China’s 2060 pledge, Christine Loh believes that China has not only been planning for a decarbonization revolution, but also that it fears the impact of climate change, including severe flooding. “It believes in the science,” she said.
Meanwhile, according to Cambridge Econometrics modeling, the huge investments needed to achieve decarbonization could raise China’s GDP by up to 5 percent by the end of this decade and 1-2 percent in the long run due to the decrease in fossil fuel imports (including crude, whose consumption has tripled in the last decade).
But with about 5 million workers working in the coal industry alone in China, work shortages remain a concern in the short term. However, further analysis by Cambridge Econometrics reveals that the vast development of infrastructure that will underpin a renewable energy revolution will potentially produce as many jobs as will be created by 2060.
China’s renewable investments would not only slash CO2 emissions and lower the price of clean energy, but could create what Pollitt calls a positive “spillover” effect globally. The climate community will be closely monitoring the details of China’s committment in the upcoming 5-year plan, due out in April.