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China’s Unexpected, But Welcomed 2060 Carbon Neutrality Pledge

In late September 2020, China’s president Xi Jinping made a surprising announcement to the General Assembly of the United Nations: China was pledging to become carbon neutral by the year 2060. The pledge was made under the Paris Climate Agreement, which China signed in early 2016. This international agreement asked countries to issue their emission reductions plans by the end of the year, and China exceeded expectations. The goal of becoming carbon neutral in just 40 years was something experts were not anticipating from the superpower country, since China had never put forward an environmental goal this extreme before. 

The pledge seems simple on paper, perhaps purposefully ambiguous in order to provide the Chinese government leeway in how they would meet this commitment. Mr. Jinping outlined that the country was planning on reaching peak carbon emissions by 2030, before steadily declining in order to meet their carbon neutrality pledge by 2060. Nevertheless, this goal seems more monstrous when examining just how much overhauling of China’s present infrastructure must be achieved in order for the goal to be met. Currently, China produces 28 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, the most of any country on Earth. Meeting this objective will take massive amounts of change from within the country, contradicting the trend China has forthwith been heading in.

Between 2013 and 2017, China seemed headed in the right direction in terms of emissions. Coal consumption in the country was decreasing as concerns over worsening air pollution began to rise—annual deaths from air pollution in China peaked in 2013, according to a study conducted by The Lancet. To alleviate further harm from the poor air quality, China cut back on coal. After 2017, however, coal consumption began to increase once again as the Chinese government sought to invigorate industrial growth in their energy sector. The trend has only continued into 2020, with more construction permits for coal-fired power plants being granted in the first six months of this year than in all of 2018 and 2019. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, carbon emissions from “energy production, cement making, and other industrial uses were 4 percent higher” in 2020 than in 2019 in China. 

That is not to say China can’t go carbon neutral. China is currently a world leader in environmentally sustainable technologies, such as wind turbines and solar panels, and the world’s largest manufacturer of electric vehicles. The country would need to go much further, though, if they want to meet their goal in time. Experts agree that China must start generating most of the country’s electricity from zero-emission sources, like wind or nuclear power, now before expanding and generating most of their energy from these sources in the near future. China could also invest in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, as the country only currently has 1 CCS project fully operational at an oil field. Zhang Xiliang, a climate modeller at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says that electricity generated from zero-emission sources would need to more than double, increasing up to 15,034 terawatt hours by 2060, the year China is supposed to become carbon neutral. This gigantic overhaul of China’s infrastructure would leave 16 percent of the energy consumed in the country coming from fossil fuels, which would then need to be captured and sequestered, possibly by CCS technologies, or offset by increased forest growth or atmospheric carbon-sucking technologies.

When exactly their full plan is coming out, detailing just exactly how China will achieve carbon neutrality, is unclear. Many speculate that it will be included in the country’s next economic five-year plan, set to be released in March. These five-year plans, which date back to 1953, have been announced on a set schedule, and the 14th plan, covering the years 2021-2025, will most likely include the infrastructure changes China will make as the country shifts away from non-renewable energy. However, the ambiguity in Mr. Jinping’s speech to the United Nations may have been intentional. China’s Communist Party lost some economic control during the current COVID-19 pandemic, when the Chinese economy collapsed in early 2020 because of the virus. In the first three months of this year, the second-largest economy in the world shrank 6.8 percent compared with 2019, halting growth that had survived even the worldwide recession in 2008 and becoming the first economic shrinkage acknowledged by the Chinese government since 1976.

This pledge also comes at a time of great unrest and uncertainty for China. Presently, the country is facing conflicts all over the Asian continent, including in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Himalayas, and the South China Sea. Moreover, before China even made the pledge, European countries were beginning to place pressure on China to decrease its negative environmental effects. Most of these countries had already submitted an emission reduction target plan to the Paris Climate Agreement, with many pledging to reach peak emissions by 2025, a whole 5 years before China pledged they would.  In the past, European Union leaders have threatened China and other countries with carbon tariffs if they did not reduce their emissions, with some potential scenarios attributing an additional 30 U.S. dollars per metric ton of CO2 emissions. This tariff, if enacted, would greatly reduce the amount of trade coming from countries that did not reduce their emissions, providing yet another motivation for China to make such an unprecedented emission reduction pledge.



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