China

Opinion: Six reasons why China’s climate pledges are huge news

Wind turbines in China’s Hainan province. Photo credit: Alamy.

By Vance Wagner

President Xi Jinping’s announcement of a post-2030 climate target aligns with global projections for what’s needed to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.

In perhaps the most significant positive climate development globally since the 2015 Paris Agreement, President Xi Jinping announced this week at the United Nations General Assembly that China will strive to peak its carbon emissions before 2030, and more importantly, that it will strive to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

Here are six reasons why the announcements are so important:

The announcements were made by President Xi

Similar to climate commitments made jointly with President Obama over the period 2014-2016, this week’s announcements signal to the global community – as well as to stakeholders in China – that climate action continues to be a top priority for China’s leader, despite geopolitical uncertainties and challenges to public health and the economy resulting from COVID-19.

The climate targets are unilateral

China’s previous major international climate announcements almost always involved joint action, usually with another developed economy like the United States or European Union. Joint announcements would emphasise shared responsibility for action, allowing China to step forward cautiously as a climate leader in a shared spotlight. Yesterday’s announcement was different – President Xi unilaterally announced ambitious climate targets, assuming a climate leadership role alone.

The climate targets are unqualified

The climate announcements contain no qualifiers that might deflect or soften some of China’s responsibility. In particular, the climate paragraph makes no reference to core multilateral climate principles like “common but differentiated responsibilities”, or to China as a developing country, both of which China has a long history of emphasising in global climate negotiations. Omitting such references represents a new level of confidence from China in its international climate commitments.

The announcements include near- and long-term actions

Solving climate change requires ambitious actions now that drive toward a long-term vision of deep decarbonisation. China’s announcements, while lacking detail, acknowledge the need for both near-term and long-term transformation. The long-term target is especially noteworthy as it’s the first time China has articulated a post-2030 climate goal and because it alleviates concerns that China’s emissions might “peak and plateau” after 2030.

The carbon neutrality target is physically meaningful

China currently emits about a quarter of global emissions. Therefore, the physical impact of China eliminating these emissions will be materially significant on a global scale – and a core component of solving the climate challenge. Importantly, China’s achievement of carbon neutrality before 2060 would align with global projections for what’s needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The carbon neutrality target is politically meaningful at home and internationally

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the carbon neutrality target sends a clear political signal, both domestically and internationally, that China intends to take ambitious, long-term action to address climate change. China currently burns half the world’s coal so the announcements send a clear – and new – signal to domestic stakeholders in China that the coal-dominant era is ending, and that President Xi’s vision for a prosperous China will be driven by green and low-carbon development. Meanwhile, internationally, the announcement ratchets up pressure on other major emitters to update their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and establish long-term carbon neutrality targets, while further isolating the Trump administration in its climate myopia.

Achieving these goals – especially the carbon neutrality one – will be immensely challenging. What policies and pathways will China pursue? How early can China peak its emissions and at what level? What about non-CO2 gases? How will China define neutrality? And what about emissions from China’s overseas investments?

The climate community – both within China and internationally – has a responsibility not only to keep asking these questions, but to support China to achieve (or overachieve) all its climate targets in a way that’s just and sustainable.

But for now, we celebrate this new momentum – for China, and for the global climate.

First published in China Dialogue.

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