China’s newly announced commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 is set to be a game-changer, both for a renewables industry that will be tasked with an unprecedented roll-out of new wind, solar and storage capacity, as well as the fundamental shift it represents in the geopolitical environment of international climate change negotiations.
The scale of a Chinese commitment to achieving zero net emissions cannot be underestimated. Official greenhouse gas measurements place China as the world’s largest emitter, at almost 12,500 million tonnes a year, representing more than a quarter of all global emissions, almost double the emissions of the United States and more than 20-times larger than those of Australia.
To meet its new target, China will need to undertake an unprecedented deployment of zero-emissions technologies, building upon the country’s already significant portfolio of wind and solar capacity. To give a sense of the scale of the shift that will be needed; China currently consumes around 7,250 TWh of electricity, more than 25-times Australia’s total electricity demand.
Conservative estimates suggest that China could require thousands of gigawatts of new wind and solar capacity to be added over the next four decades just to shift existing electricity demand to zero emissions sources, before demand growth is taken into account, and presumes its current fleet of nuclear and hydroelectricity plants are maintained.
China will need to replace its 1,300GW fleet of coal generators and around 85GW of gas generation with zero emissions sources.
It would also require an unprecedented deployment of storage infrastructure, through the construction of new shorter-term battery storage capacity and an expansion of China’s hydroelectric capacity to provide pumped-hydro energy storage capacity.
It also spells doom for Australia’s coal sector, with China ranking as Australia’s second-largest export market for coal, purchasing around $15 billion worth of Australian coal annually.
In revealing the target in an address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping tied the need to act on climate change and to invest in new technologies with the need to drive economic development in a post-Covid-19 recovery.
“China will scale up its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions by adopting more vigorous policies and measures,” Xi Jinping said. “We 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.”
Climate Action Tracker, which assesses national climate policies against the level of action required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and keep global warming to within safe levels, estimated that China’s target would lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3°C.
“This is the most important announcement on global climate policy in at least the last five years,” NewClimate Institute’s Niklas Höhne said, which partners with Climate Action Tracker.
“This would mean that China, responsible for a quarter of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions, would phase out any conventional use of coal, oil and gas by the middle of the century, unthinkable a few years ago.”
Analyst estimates suggest China’s target could lead to as much as 215 billion tonnes of avoided emissions by 2060, while helping to boost China’s GDP growth by as much as 5 per cent, driven by the huge investment required to build the new wind and solar projects needed to achieve the target. It will have a dramatic impact on China’s emissions trajectory, as evidenced by projections prepared by Carbon Brief.
However, China’s announcement could have an even wider reaching impact, achieving more than just a reduction in China’s own emissions, by placing pressure on other big emitters to ramp up the strength of their own targets.
Analysts at the World Resources Institute said the target would have massive ramifications in the geopolitical environment around climate action.
“This announcement will send positive shockwaves through diplomatic circles and should prompt greater climate ambition from other major emitters,” the World Resources Institute’s vice president for climate and economics Helen Mountford said.
“The case for ambitious climate action is stronger than ever and can deliver a strong economic recovery from COVID-19. Bold climate policy measures can grow China’s economy, create jobs and position the country well to compete and lead in a low-carbon 21st century economy.”
With China committing to achieving the zero emissions goal by 2060, and a prospective Biden administration promising to commit the United States to net-zero emissions no later than 2050, the Morrison government is becoming increasingly isolated in its refusal to adopt a zero emissions target.
This is a refusal that has again been reiterated in recent weeks, with prime minister Scott Morrison saying that he would not commit to a net zero emissions target by 2050, as has been advocated for by both environmental and business groups alike, instead pointing to the comparatively vague wording contained within the Paris Agreement that requires zero net emissions to be achieved sometime in the ‘second half of the century’.
Federal energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor told ABC’s 730 report that he did not think the Paris Agreement even required individual countries to commit to achieving zero net emissions, suggesting instead that this was a ‘global commitment’.
“There is not, as you say, a commitment from individual countries in Paris to be net zero by 2050,” Taylor said. “The commitment is a global commitment to get to net zero in the second half of the century, and that’s why technology is so critical. We want to bring that forward to as soon as possible, but ultimately this is a global commitment and it’s going to require global solutions.”