China’s carbon-neutral pledge edges the world closer to climate action

A Chinese windfarm. Photo credit: Asian Development Bank via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

China, the world’s largest emitter, has pledged serious carbon cuts intending to go carbon-neutral by 2060. Analysts say this is one of the biggest promised reductions in the world and would reduce temperature increase by 0.2 – 0.3 degrees C this century. 

China’s President Xi Jinping made the announcement, which took many analysts by surprise, at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly last week. This will be the first time that the world’s largest emitter of CO2 has committed to ending their contribution to causing climate change.

If China were to deliver on their pledge it would bring about the biggest reduction in climate change to date according to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT). 

Not enough

Even with China’s commitment, the world is still on track to warm well above what climate scientists believe to be the safer level of 1.5 degrees C and the absolute cut off at 2 degrees C. They warn if the 2 degrees C mark is breached it could mean irreversible tipping points, unfolding a runaway climate situation. If we are to avoid temperatures increasing below 1.5 degrees C global emissions would need to reach net-zero no later than 2050, which is ten years earlier than China’s pledge.

200 countries committed to reducing their emissions below 2 degrees C under the 2015 Paris Agreement. However, they will be falling short, as their voluntary pledges would only reduce emissions by 2.7 C. But if you were to add the new commitment from China it would bring total emissions down to between 2.4 – 2.5C. 

Niklas Hoehne, from the German-based New Climate Institute, celebrated the move by China: “This is the most important announcement on global climate policy in at least the last five years.”

Greenpeace praised China’s move but offered some caution, Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace International’s Executive Director, said: “China’s commitment to peak emissions before 2030, and to 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.  Xi’s announcement demonstrates how momentum for global climate action can be revived. There are two key questions next:  how will China ensure that its actions match its commitments?  And, second, will Washington join in?”

Galvanising action

While not enough, CAT believes that China’s move will galvanise action.

They added that mid-century emissions pledges from China, the EU and the US which, combined, account for roughly half of the world’s emissions could bring the 1.5 target within reach. The EU is well underway to achieve this with more ambitious goals to be set by the end of this year. 

But what happens in the US will depend on the presidential election this November. The Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, is running on the most ambitious climate platform of any US presidential candidate, and has pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, but were he to lose the election to Donald Trump, a climate denier, it will be next to impossible for the world to meet the 1.5 goal. 

Analysts and clean energy professionals are now speculating that this pledge could result in a boost for clean energy in the country and speed forward carbon pricing.  Yuan Lin, senior analyst at Refinitiv Carbon Research, commented “China’s new climate ambition will also alter the world order in clean energy investments and abatement technologies. China is world-leading in terms of installed wind and solar capacity. Nevertheless, the 2060 climate neutrality goal will require significant ramp-up of technological progress, requiring tremendous amounts of funding. China will go all-in to achieve the carbon neutrality goal, retire coal as soon as possible, push for more rapid uptake in renewables, electric vehicles, hydrogen, energy storage, carbon capture and storage as well as negative emission technology.”

China is responsible for 29% of the world’s emissions.

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