It’s official: China, the world’s largest polluter, has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2060.
- China is both the world’s largest polluter and consumer of renewable energy
- Its population size makes emissions reduction a mammoth task
- Coal continues to make up the overwhelming share of China’s energy mix
This means that by that year China will not release more CO2 emissions into the atmosphere than it captures in some form.
President Xi Jinping made the announcement during a speech to a virtual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, stating that “humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature”.
For years, China has been touted as an emerging green superpower, with the country making headlines for advances in sustainable technology, and its rapid uptake of renewable energies at a scale few other countries can match.
This has happened alongside grand policy statements from Beijing, touting its green credentials and its ambitions to rid its large cities from the damaging smog that severely impacts its citizens’ health.
But beyond the rhetoric, how will Beijing step up to meet its latest pledge? And can it be trusted to stick to it?
Weaning energy-hungry China from coal
One of the stumbling blocks for China’s capacity to drastically reduce its emissions is the sheer scale of its energy consumption, which is overwhelmingly powered by fossil fuels.
The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) most recent consumption figures for China found that it consumed 6,833.1 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2018 alone.
To put this in perspective, the European Union (including the UK) consumed 3,098.1 TWh in 2018, while North America consumed 5,151 TWh in the same year.
China has the world’s largest installed renewable energy capacity, but it is also the world’s largest producer, importer, and consumer of coal, according to figures from the IEA.
The country is also responsible for the financing and construction of new coal power plants abroad, under its vast trade and development program known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“If this announcement also implies a shift in its foreign policy, promoting low-carbon instead of fossil technologies, this can further help developing countries to follow a similar low-carbon path towards carbon neutrality,” Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change and the environment at Imperial College London, said.
But coal has been central to China’s rise as an industrial powerhouse, and ironically, it has been coal which has given Chinese industry the maturity to produce renewable energy products at such a large scale.
While China’s reliance on coal in its energy mix is tracking downward, it still makes up the lion’s share of the country’s total energy production.
And as China slowly comes back online after its COVID-19 lockdowns, which saw emissions plunge by 25 per cent, emissions are again rising upward.
A study from Helsinki’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found that emissions in May rose 4 to 5 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.
He said the number of carbon particles in the air — the ones responsible for global warming — are “already at a tipping point reaching and exceeding 415 parts per million (ppm)”.
If the world hits 500ppm, the world may warm by 3 degrees Celsius, which would exacerbate extreme weather events and possibly endanger the world food supply.
“The melting of glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau threatens the Yangtze and Yellow River basins, which sustain two-thirds of the economy and the livelihoods of 600 million people,” Dr Thomas said.
“Between 1998 and 2017, countries reported $US2.9 trillion [$4.1 trillion] in economic losses, 77 per cent of it from climate change. The United States had the greatest losses, but China, Japan, and India were next.
So what will this mean for the average citizen?
Mr Xi’s carbon-neutral pledge will affect the lives of almost 1.4 billion people, and may influence other countries in its sphere of influence.
But it may take a while for citizens to start feeling its effects.
Roc Xunpeng (Shi), a specialist in Chinese environmental and energy policy at the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute, told the ABC Mr Xi’s announcement “in the short run” would begin to be felt at the consumer level.
“China’s minimum energy-efficient standards are the highest in the world, and in that case, the costs [for electrical products] will increase.”
Paired with a Government program to create more energy-efficient households, Dr Roc said these costs would not be too prohibitively expensive for middle-to-high income families.
But for Sam Geall, executive director at China Dialogue — a non-profit organisation looking into China’s environmental challenges — the rise of renewables has greatly improved the quality of life for China’s poor.
“There has actually been a kind of a largely undiscussed — including by China in its official propaganda — low-carbon transition that’s happened at the grassroots level, particularly in rural areas,” Dr Geall said.
He said China’s rural areas had adopted solar water heaters in large numbers, which had been “transformational for a lot of poor people”.
“Similarly, the take up of electric bikes has been a kind of a boon for the battery industry, [as] it has brought down the cost of batteries through scale of production, and when integrated with a renewable energy-dominant grid, it is part of a low-carbon transition.”
The road to 2060? Opaque
In the interim, there is scant detail on how Beijing can begin to start on its carbon-neutral pledge, and for observers like Dr Geall, Mr Xi started with a pretty low bar.
He said the pledge and the specific method China will use to achieve it “isn’t that significant”, and instead thinks people should watch for Beijing’s new National Determined Contribution (NDC) — a term that describes the size of a country’s emissions reduction commitments under the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement.
The Paris Agreement commits all countries to drastically reduce their emissions to keep the globe from warming by 1.5-2 degrees Celsius by 2100.
In China’s case, Dr Geall said its forthcoming five-year plan would set out the detail for its emissions reduction commitments.
“That will have an overall emissions cap for the five years, an overall coal capacity cap, and it will lay out the carbon intensity targets, the energy intensity targets,” he said.