In what many are declaring to be a landmark pledge for climate action, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced during a speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday that China would aim to peak CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality “before 2060”.
President Xi Jinping unveiled his country’s surprise climate pledge amidst a litany of pre-recorded speeches at the socially-distanced 75th annual United Nations General Assembly being held in New York.
The speech (full text available here) was big on global cooperation, declaring that “we must join hands and be prepared to meet even more global challenges.”
President Xi seemed very much as if he was trying to supplant the United States as the world’s unofficial leader, decrying those who would “pursue a beggar-thy-neighbour policy or just watch from a safe distance when others are in danger”. Australia might also be included in that basket of countries.
The theme of President Xi’s speech was a response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, and he used language missing from the US and Australian responses: “COVID-19 reminds us that humankind should launch a green revolution and move faster to create a green way of development and life, preserve the environment and make Mother Earth a better place for all.”
“Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of Nature and go down the beaten path of extracting resources without investing in conservation, pursuing development at the expense of protection, and exploiting resources without restoration,” Xi said, pointing to the importance of the Paris Agreement and the need for all countries to “take decisive steps to honour this Agreement.”
And in an effort to put pressure on other countries, President Xi announced that “China will scale up its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions by adopting more vigorous policies and measures.”
Specifically, Xi announced that China will “aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”
“We call on all countries to pursue innovative, coordinated, green and open development for all, seize the historic opportunities presented by the new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation, achieve a green recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID era and thus create a powerful force driving sustainable development,” Xi added in closing the climate section of his speech.
Of course, Xi’s speech was not without his usual “back off” diplomacy, calling on countries to “respect a country’s independent choice of development path and model” – a continuing theme of Chinese global politicking.
China’s new commitment of climate neutrality before 2060 surprised many, catching many off guard.
“President Xi Jinping surprised the world by announcing to the UN General Assembly that China has set a target to become carbon-neutral by 2060,” said Wood Mackenzie research director Alex Whitworth.
“With this announcement, the world’s largest carbon emitter finally shifted from its long-term position of having limited responsibility to reduce global emissions as a developing country, to assuming clearer leadership in tackling climate change.
“President Xi also stated that China will reach peak emissions before 2030. The world’s largest, and growing, energy market, China currently contributes about 28% of global emissions.”
“China’s commitment to peak emissions before 2030 and go carbon neutral before 2060 sends a strong signal that the reality of the climate crisis and the need for multilateral cooperation has not been lost but is central,” said Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International.
“In the face of fires, floods and droughts around the world, it is crucial that these ‘signals’ quickly turn into action.
“One could hear the tectonic shift below our feet as both China and the EU are moving forward in Paris Agreement implementation, further isolating the Trump Administration.
However, actions speak louder than words, and the EU needs to answer China’s move by committing now to a 65 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.
“Xi’s announcement demonstrates how momentum for global climate action can be revived,” Morgan added.
“China is moving ahead on climate regardless of the US. There are two key questions next: how will China ensure that its actions match its commitments? And second, will Washington join in?”
“The announcement from China’s president, Xi Jinping, that China would seek to reach a peak in its emissions before 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, is significant given that global efforts to limit global temperature increases will mean significant action from China, the world’s largest emitter,” said Peter Kiernan, Lead Analyst, Energy, The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU).
“That said, more detail will be needed to assess whether China will match the ambitious long-term goal of carbon neutrality with the specific policy actions that are required to achieve it.
To this end, President Xi’s statement did mention that China will scale up its INDC, and an early indication of the direction of China’s energy policy will be the energy and climate-related targets included in the next five year plan, for 2021-25, which will be approved early next year.”
The news came just days after the European Commission announced plans to increase its climate ambitions, raising its greenhouse gas emissions reduction target from 40% to 55% by 2030, based on 1990 levels.
The EU’s shift came less than a fortnight after it pressed China to aim for climate neutrality by 2060 or face the risk of punitive carbon tariffs.
“I welcome the announcement by President Xi that China has set a date for its CO2 emissions to peak and will become carbon neutral before 2060,” said Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice president responsible for the European Green Deal, in a Tweet on Tuesday.
“We need decisive action from every country to keep temperatures under control, tackle climate change, and keep our planet inhabitable.”
“If China does shift its climate agenda to a decisively less carbon intensive pathway it will become more closely aligned with the EU on this front, which has recently proposed carbon neutrality by 2050, seeks to raise its 2030 climate targets, and has allocated a significant share of economy recovery funds to green projects,” said the EIU’s Kiernan.
“One of the motivations for President Xi’s statement could be, therefore, a perceived opportunity for China to enhance its global positioning on the climate change issue, especially by taking advantage of the fact that the US has been absent on this front.
In addition, focussing on accelerating a clean energy transition also has economic dividends, as evidenced by China’s already key role in the deployment of renewable and battery technologies.
The level of seriousness that China has about reaching a carbon neutrality goal will, however, be reflected in the actual policy framework that is designed to realise it.”
There are some concerns about the specifics of China’s plan, as highlighted by Wood Mackenzie’s Asia Pacific Vice Chairman, Gavin Thompson:
“Of course, big questions remain. Firstly, China’s definition of ‘carbon neutrality’ is not well defined from the short announcement.
Further, no roadmap was offered as to how this will be achieved. 2060 is a long time out and immediate, concrete steps have yet to be announced.
“But China’s upcoming 14th five-year plan has the potential to be the most important document in global energy market history. Increased investment in wind, solar, electric vehicle and battery storage technology deployment will almost certainly feature, and we can expect support for green hydrogen and carbon capture technology.
It won’t of course be the complete roadmap and I expect clean coal will continue to receive strong support.
“But if any country can achieve such ambitious goals it will be China. Strong state support and coordination have proven extremely effective at reaching economic goals; if this is now directed towards climate change then China is capable in transforming its carbon emissions trajectory over the coming four decades in exactly the same way it has transformed its economy over the past 40 years.”
“This is a very positive signal during a challenging year for the environment and global cooperation,” said Li Yan, Greenpeace’s China Chief Representative. “This year we have seen the devastating consequences of flooding across southern China, as well as typhoons and record-setting heat waves.
Moving the peaking timetable earlier is a much-needed response to the climate emergency we’re facing. If China, long held up as the world’s biggest emitter, can commit to carbon neutrality, justifications for delaying climate action melt away.
“How China’s commitment plays out on the ground is key. Will we see greater investment in low-carbon industries as part of COVID-19 economic recovery?
How soon can China leave coal behind, and can the country’s renewables industry maintain its momentum?
These are the follow-up questions that we need to ask.
Meeting these goals requires a low-carbon transition across the entire economy, including in transport, manufacturing, agriculture and consumption, not only in the energy sector.”