China says it will stop releasing CO2 within 40 years

By Jean Chemnick, Benjamin Storrow | 09/23/2020 06:48 AM EDT

China pledged yesterday to stop releasing carbon emissions before 2060 in a surprise move that catapults it ahead of U.S. ambitions on climate change and instantly raised questions about whether it can radically alter its status as the world’s top emitter within 40 years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is overseeing a dramatic move to decarbonize the nation's economy by 2060.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is overseeing a dramatic move to decarbonize the nation's economy by 2060. Huang Jingwen Xinhua News Agency/Newscom

China pledged yesterday to stop releasing carbon emissions before 2060 in a surprise move that catapults it ahead of U.S. ambitions on climate change and instantly raised questions about whether it can radically alter its status as the world’s top emitter within 40 years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s announcement at the U.N. General Assembly won accolades from European leaders who have pressed China for stronger climate action, and from climate advocates who are hopeful it will lead developing countries to follow suit.

Xi told the United Nations yesterday: "We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060."


He pledged that China would "scale up" its commitment to the Paris Agreement by "adopting more rigorous policies and measures."

The night before Xi’s unexpected announcement, China’s top climate diplomat at the Paris summit in 2015, Xie Zhenhua, said during an event hosted by the Asia Society that China would update its global promise on climate change, known as a nationally determined contribution, or NDC, by the end of this year.

That ended years of speculation about whether China would participate in the Paris Agreement’s second phase, during which countries are supposed to ratchet up their commitments to reduce carbon dioxide.

Xi’s pledge to peak emissions "before 2030" is a subtle repackaging of China’s 2015 Paris goal, which promised a peak "by 2030." Either way, it’s been anticipated that China would stop increasing its carbon output within this decade, even as its use of coal has rebounded from previous lows.

Its 2060 carbon neutrality pledge, while surprising, puts it behind global standards. The Paris Agreement calls on all nations to stop emitting greenhouse gases by 2050 to prevent 2 degrees Celsius of warming. Developed countries and regions like the European Union, its member states and Canada have set net-zero deadlines of 2050 or earlier.

The 2060 pledge marks the first time China and its top leader have made a long-term commitment to reducing emissions, said Gang He, a professor who studies energy and climate policy at Stony Brook University.

"This is huge given China’s energy-related carbon emission accounted for about 28.8% of the global energy-related carbon emissions in 2019 and its continuing growth of [gross domestic product] and growing population of middle class," he said.

China has long argued that it should have more leeway to increase its emissions as it grows its economy. But it also strengthened the prospects for a global climate deal in 2015 when it helped demolish the so-called firewall between rich and poor nations that was once a fixture in climate talks: the idea that nations that had grown rich by releasing carbon dioxide should shoulder the burden of reducing it.

China was not among that group, and its willingness to cut its own emissions helped change the tone of climate negotiations.

Now, China’s move to end its emissions altogether could help persuade other major developing economies, like India and Indonesia, to do the same, according to analysts.

"This is going to create something of a precedent that climate advocates can point to when they’re talking with the leaders of other emerging economies," said David Livingston, a senior analyst with the Eurasia Group. "They can say, ‘Look, China has continued to break down the firewall that once existed.’"

Xi’s statement came minutes after President Trump lambasted China as a global pariah on the environment in his own U.N. address. Touting the United States’ "exceptional environmental record," Trump decried China’s world-leading mercury emissions and its carbon emissions, which he said "are nearly twice what the U.S. has, and it’s rising fast," and the fact that U.S. carbon emissions from energy production declined more than those of any other country last year.

Those who attack the United States on the environment "while ignoring China’s rampant pollution are not interested in the environment," Trump said. "They only want to punish America, and I will not stand for it."

All of Trump’s assertions are mostly technically correct.

China is the world’s leading emitter of mercury by an overwhelming margin, according to a 2018 report by the U.N. Environment Programme. China’s carbon emissions did increase slightly last year as more coal came online, though experts say the broader trend is a plateau, while U.S. energy-related emissions declined by nearly 3%, according to the International Energy Agency in Paris. No other country saw its emissions drop as much.

But declines in U.S. emissions over the last decade are linked to a market-driven shift from coal to natural gas for power production and to Obama-era environmental policies that have been largely dismantled by Trump.

Meanwhile, China is pledging new actions in the future.

Xi vs. Trump

Xie said at the Asia Society event this week that the five-year plan for the Chinese economy would shrink coal’s share of the Chinese power mix for the years 2021 and 2025.

Observers say China’s announcement is a diplomatic olive branch to the European Union, in a year when European leaders have been increasingly critical of China on issues from trade to human rights.

Only last week, Xi held a long-distance meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in which the E.U. leaders urged China to update its climate goals and set a net-zero deadline.

And E.U. leaders are planning an event with additional commitments for Dec. 12, the fifth anniversary of the Paris deal, when China is likely to make additional announcements.

"By making these sweeping symbolic gestures and concessions on climate, they buy themselves quite a bit of goodwill with Europe and help to keep the E.U. on side in a year in which China doesn’t have many public diplomacy successes to brag about," said Livingston.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that support for global institutions permeated Xi’s U.N. statement beyond just support for climate action.

"He’s kind of posturing China as a guardian of multilateral cooperation, which we know is not always the case, but it’s clearly the decision they’ve made to lay this down as a marker," he said. "And that’s clearly drawing a contrast with President Trump."

Trump has moved to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, a process that will be complete the day after the Nov. 3 election. He has also stopped funding the World Health Organization and has taken other adversarial positions on international institutions.

China was long expected to wait to offer new climate commitments until the results of the U.S. election were known, but yesterday’s announcement changes that calculus. Now, if Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, wins in November, he will feel pressure to quickly offer ambitious Paris targets and a net-zero commitment rather than banding together with the European Union to push China to act, said Livingston of the Eurasia Group.

Added Meyer: "In a Trump scenario, this solidifies the collaboration with the E.U., not just on this but in defense of multilateralism more broadly."

But there are many unknowns about the scope of China’s climate plans.

Questions abound about how and when China plans to draw down coal use; whether coal capacity that has come online in recent years is to be offset with the retirement of older, dirtier, coal-fired power plants; and whether China will slow its funding of fossil fuel-based projects in countries that participate in its Belt and Road Initiative (see related story).

"There’s a lot of devil-in-the-details here," Meyer said.

Mixed record

China has a mixed record when it comes to greening its economy.

Beijing has adopted an emissions trading program for its power plants; has aggressively pursued a renewables build-out; and is pushing to electrify freight, taxis and public transit in attempts to improve the country’s air quality.

The city of Beijing, alone, is planning to convert 20,000 taxis to electric vehicles by year’s end, according to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

But Chinese leaders have also resorted to many of their old strategies to revive the economy from the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

The country announced 48 gigawatts of new coal capacity in the first half of 2020, more than was announced in all of 2019, as part of a stimulus effort aimed at propping up industrial production. China now has 252 GW of coal in planning or under construction, according to Global Energy Monitor, or more than the total coal capacity of the United States — 229 GW — at the end of 2019.

The new coal plants risk locking in emissions for decades to come and complicating China’s path to net-zero carbon, analysts said.

"That is not just a wrong direction for climate. It is also a wrong direction given how much the prices for wind, solar and energy storage has fallen," said Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former Obama administration official.

The dynamic highlights the long-standing tension between Beijing’s climate goals and local governments’ economic priorities, analysts said. They nevertheless said Xi’s announcement marks a significant statement of intent from the Chinese president and raises expectations for the role of green initiatives in the country’s next five-year plan, which is slated to be announced in March.

"My WeChat is covered with this news. We didn’t expect him to announce this," said Fei Meng, who leads Chinese policy at Energy Innovation, a think tank that advocates for clean energy. "It is good at this special moment because COVID still has a big impact on the economy. It is very, very important that President Xi can announce this to the world."

China’s emissions more than doubled between 2000 and 2008, growing from about 3.4 metric gigatons to 7.4 metric gigatons, according to BP PLC’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

The pace of emissions growth has moderated in recent years. BP estimates that China’s emissions growth averaged 2.6% between 2008 and 2018. China now accounts for 28% of global greenhouse gas emissions, almost double the next-largest emitter: the United States, at 15%.

Still, many analysts said the country should easily be able to peak its emissions before 2030.

Achieving net-zero emissions is another matter.

Reaching that goal by 2060 will require a massive makeover of China’s economy, said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute. The pledge is largely consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal of halting the rise of global temperatures before it reaches 2 degrees by century’s end, he said.

"If they are serious about this, it is certainly the biggest climate news in the last decade in terms of what will bend down global emissions," Hausfather said.