While speaking on video to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Sept. 22, China’s President Xi Jinping said that his country will hit peak carbon emissions before 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060.
China’s new commitment is seen as a key development in the fight against climate change, and the most significant climate policy move in recent years. Prior to this announcement, the country’s target, set during the 2015 Paris climate deal, was to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030.
Responsible for around 28% of global emissions, China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide (while the United States remains the biggest aggregate emitter), yet has avoided making a long-term commitment to reducing its emissions until now. In terms of clean energy technology, however, the country is a global leader — it’s currently the biggest producer, exporter, and installer of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles in the world.
“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 in his speech.
This announcement comes as countries around the world consider embarking on green economic recoveries in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If China achieves its new carbon neutrality pledge, it will single-handedly lead to a better environmental outcome in the decades ahead for the world, according to the Climate Action Tracker.
Based on the combined efforts of the nearly 200 climate pledges made through the Paris climate agreement, the world is expected to warm by 2.7 degrees Celcisus by the end of the century. But if China achieves carbon neutrality by 2060, global warming will be reduced to 2.4 to 2.5 degrees.
This would still be way above the 1.5-degrees mark that scientists agree is the cutoff for avoiding the most severe impacts of climate change. To remain below this point, global carbon neutrality would need to be reached by 2050, a whole decade earlier than China’s current pledge.
But this new commitment, especially since it’s made by a global superpower, has the potential to push other major carbon emitters to take similar steps in the fight against climate change.
In his speech to the UNGA, Xi called on all countries to contribute to a green recovery for the global economy in the post-COVID-19 world. This echoes UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ repeated calls for countries to “build back better” in the wake of the pandemic by prioritizing climate change in their economic recoveries.
This spring, when China was under lockdown in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19 cases, the country saw its emissions plunge by a dramatic 25%. However, by June, when the country opened up again and began its economic recovery, emissions bounced back to normal levels.
There have been signs that China is returning to its heavy reliance on coal during its COVID-19 recovery. The country’s consumption of coal, oil, and gas in June was on par with the previous year, and there has been a surge in new coal-fired power plant approvals, according to the South China Morning Post.
“There is no such thing as clean coal, and coal should have no place in any rational recovery plan,” Guterres said in a video message to Tsinghua University in July. “It is deeply concerning that new coal power plants are still being planned and financed, even though renewables offer three times more jobs, and are now cheaper than coal in most countries.”
The world is largely dependent on the decisions that China, the US, and India — the three biggest carbon emitters — will make in the near future to reduce global emissions. Together, the three countries are responsible for half of the world’s carbon emissions.
At the same time, low-income countries that do not contribute nearly as much greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere are often at higher risk of being devastated by the impacts of climate change. Their lack of resources limits the degree to which they can protect their residents through climate-resilient adaptations and infrastructure.
As a result, climate change has played a role in displacing more than 33 million people from their homes in 2019 alone. The vast majority of those displacements occurred in developing countries that account for less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
China’s new climate goal is great news for the world, but whether it will be achieved is still up in the air. Xi has yet to provide details on how the country plans to reach its carbon neutrality target.