China is committing to peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and hit carbon neutrality by 2060, President Xi Jinping announced yesterday, in what was seen as a surprisingly bold videolink address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Xi “called on all countries to achieve a green recovery for the world economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic,” the BBC reports. “The announcement is being seen as a significant step in the fight against climate change,” during a year when global climate negotiations were supposed to deliver substantial progress before the pandemic shut down key meetings and discussions.
“China will scale up its intended Nationally Determined Contributions [under the 2015 Paris Agreement] by adopting more vigorous policies and measures,” Xi said. “Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature,” he added.
“Fantastic news,” UN Climate Secretary Patricia Espinosa tweeted in response. “A big shift for curbing emissions and a significant step forward in international cooperation.”
Just before Xi took the (virtual) podium, Donald Trump had delivered an address that mocked international institutions and sought to blame China and the World Health Organization for a global pandemic that has now killed 200,000 Americans, one-fifth of the global total. In that context, “Xi Jinping’s climate pledge at the UN, minutes after…Trump’s speech, is clearly a bold and well-calculated move,” said veteran Greenpeace Asia climate negotiator Li Shuo. “It demonstrates Xi’s consistent interest in leveraging the climate agenda for geopolitical purposes.”
Li Shuo added that, “by playing the climate card a little differently, Xi has not only injected much-needed momentum to global climate politics, but presented an intriguing geopolitical question in front of the world: on a global common issue, China has moved ahead regardless of the U.S. Will Washington follow?”
While it remains to be seen what China means by carbon neutrality and what steps it will take to get there, “today’s announcement by President Xi Jinping that China intends to reach carbon neutrality before 2060 is big and important news—the closer to 2050 the better,” said Todd Stern, a lead negotiator of the Paris accord who served as U.S. climate envoy under President Barack Obama.
“His announcement that China will start down this road right away by adopting more vigorous policies is also welcome,” Stern told BBC. “Simply peaking emissions ‘before 2030’ won’t be enough to put China on the rapid path needed for carbon neutrality, but overall this is a very encouraging step.”
Xi’s carbon neutrality commitment “is a game-changer,” agreed Asia Society senior adviser and former climate diplomat Thom Woodroofe. “For the first time ever, there is now a clear, long-term trajectory for decarbonization in China.”
With about 28% of global emissions, the BBC notes China is the world’s biggest source of carbon dioxide. The country “had previously committed only to aim for peak emissions in about 2030,” The Guardian adds, and “its response to the coronavirus crisis has included plans to build new coal-fired power stations. But last week the country held an online summit with the European Union, amid signals Beijing would take a stronger climate stance.”
Massachusetts Institute of Technology management professor John Sterman, who models and tracks countries’ carbon promises and performance for Climate Interactive, gave The Associated Press a “very rough estimate” that Xi’s announcement on its own could prevent 0.2 to 0.4°C of future global warming, depending on how and how soon the country achieves the reductions.
“That’s a lot,” he said. “China’s by far the world’s big emitter,” producing more carbon pollution than the EU and U.S. combined, so Xi’s statement “puts a lot more pressure on the United States”.
In a post earlier this month for the Brookings Institution, Stern speculated on what it will take for China and the U.S. to get a deeply damaged diplomatic relationship back on track.
“If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the election in November, it will be vital to again work effectively with China on climate change,” Stern wrote. “Given our climate impact—China accounted for 27% of global greenhouse emissions in 2019, the United States for 13%—as well as our influence and the power of our example, there is simply no way to contain climate change worldwide without full-throttle engagement by both countries. And yet reviving our climate cooperation will be no mean feat in light of both the deterioration of our overall relationship and the evolving landscape of the climate challenge.”