2060 pledge: How the world’s largest CO2 emitter vows to go greener

2060 pledge: How the world’s largest CO2 emitter vows to go greener

Why We Wrote This

2060 is a long way off. Will countries fulfill their recent pledges to go carbon neutral, or even climate neutral? Time will tell. But one thing is certain: Global climate efforts need China on board.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Traffic fills a highway during rush hour in Beijing, March 3, 2020. China plans to reduce car emissions as part of its goal to be carbon neutral by 2060.

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December 9, 2020

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One year ago, in a trailblazing move, the European Union vowed to become the first major economy to go climate neutral by midcentury. And in a less restrictive but widely welcomed commitment this fall, Chinese leader Xi Jinping followed the EU’s lead, vowing carbon neutrality by 2060. Japan and South Korea soon followed suit.

It’s a significant turnaround for Beijing, the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide, which has long resisted restrictions on economic growth. And though China’s just one country, it could prove a significant step toward the global goal of reining in global warming. 

“In the absence of Chinese cooperation, it would be very difficult to achieve the global carbon control efforts,” says Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. And the goal is attainable, he says, since China’s top-down, state-led approach to environmental controls – and Mr. Xi’s centralization of power – makes it harder for local officials to resist policies to reduce carbon.

But that’s not to say it’s a sure bet. The effort faces significant challenges: China’s reliance on coal, pressure to boost economic growth, and a lack of public pressure at home for tackling climate change.

In a surprise and widely welcomed pledge for the global environment, Chinese leader Xi Jinping committed in a speech to the United Nations in September that China would “achieve carbon neutrality” before 2060. Mr. Xi’s announcement came after pressure from European leaders and signaled a significant turnaround from Beijing’s long resistance to restrictions on economic growth. Whether China will reach its target remains uncertain. Yet experts say the pledge marks a major step in the world’s campaign to arrest climate change.

Why is China so critical?

China is the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide, generating about 28%. CO2 accounts for about 80% of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Action from Beijing is essential to the goal of limiting global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), as established by the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“In the absence of Chinese cooperation, it would be very difficult to achieve the global carbon control efforts,” says Yanzhong Huang, author of “Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State.”

Internationally, China’s pledge was followed by two other large Asian economies, Japan and South Korea, which both committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. All build upon the European Union’s trailblazing move a year ago, when it vowed to become the first major economy to go climate neutral, a step above carbon neutral that includes other greenhouse gases, by midcentury.

Beijing’s goal is attainable, Dr. Huang says, since China’s top-down, state-led approach to environmental controls – and Mr. Xi’s centralization of power – makes it harder for local officials to resist policies to reduce carbon. “As long as Xi remains committed … disobedience and foot dragging should be very rare,” says Dr. Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Instead, he predicts, “local government officials will jump onto Mr. Xi’s policy bandwagon to demonstrate their enthusiastic support.”


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Still, the effort faces significant challenges: pressure on leaders to boost China’s economic growth; ongoing reliance upon coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel; and the lack of public pressure at home for tackling climate change.

How does Beijing plan to reach the goal?

Beijing has set an interim goal of reaching peak carbon emissions before 2030, followed by more aggressive measures to hit the 2060 target. Its strategy includes encouraging private investment in climate-friendly projects, reducing car emissions, and promoting electric vehicles. According to a recent government blueprint, by 2035 most of the country’s new cars will be either hybrids or new-energy vehicles.

“By 2025, China will be close to achieving peak emissions as a result of more ambitious actions to bolster renewables, pivot toward market mechanisms, and enhanced energy efficiency measures,” according to an analysis by MacroPolo, the think tank of the Paulson Institute in Chicago.

What are the main challenges?

One major obstacle is China’s longstanding reliance on coal power. Coal accounted for more than 57% of China’s energy use in 2019, and the country continues to operate and construct coal mines and build new coal-fired plants. “They actually issued more construction permits to coal-fired plants in the first half of this year than in [all of] 2018 and 2019 respectively,” says Dr. Huang. China’s carbon emissions increased in 2019 for the third year in a row.

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“Dethroning coal won’t happen overnight,” MacroPolo senior research associate Ilaria Mazzocco writes in its report, saying coal industry officials argue coal is vital for China’s energy security. But she adds that Beijing is signaling changes, starting in 2021: freezing new power plant approvals, restricting coal power capacity targets, and other reforms to make renewable energy more attractive.

Political will poses another long-term challenge, Dr. Huang says. Although there is broad public support in China for controlling air pollution, Beijing lacks the kind of grassroots pressure to curb global warming that exists in Western democracies. While China’s authoritarian leaders have the final say, their agenda can shift because “their legitimacy is primarily dependent on their ability to deliver robust economic growth,” he says. It is “very difficult for them to transcend the dilemma between economic growth and environmental protection.”

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