China’s carbon-neutral target for 2060: What does it mean for global climate action?

China accounts for 28% of the world's emissions and almost 10% of global GDP

China’s President Xi Jinping announced late on Tuesday (22 September) that the country would aim to reach peak emissions before 2030, which would be followed by a long-term target to become carbon neutral by 2060.

As the world’s largest emitter, China is accountable for around 28% of global emissions. However, up until this point, the nation had yet to commit to a long-term emissions goal. Under the Paris Agreement, China had pledged to cut the carbon intensity of its economy by 60-65% against a 2005 baseline.

Mr Xi made the announcement via videolink to the UN General Assembly in New York. It follows heated discussions at the joint summit between China and the EU last week, whereby EU representatives discussed issuing carbon tariffs on the country if it didn’t reconsider it’s long-term commitments to the climate crisis.

Emissions from China have increased year on year for the past two years and even though the coronavirus pandemic saw emissions in the country fall by 25% in June, the re-opening of coal-fired power plants and heavy industry has seen retaliatory emissions rise.

Key negotiations

In joining the likes of the UK and the European Union (EU) in setting an ambitious long-term climate goal, China has provided a timely boost to next year’s crucial COP26 summit. Despite being delayed by a year as a result of the coronavirus, the later date could enable stronger global commitments on climate action.

China and the US famously made a joint commitment to collaborating to reduce emissions under the Obama administration, but with President Trump announcing his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the US could soon be the only major economy to not commit to long-term climate goals.

Notably, the US’s withdrawal would take place one day after the 2020 US election on 3 November – and a week before COP26 is set to commence in Glasgow. If Trump were to lose the election, however, it is likely that the Democrats would keep the US in the Paris Agreement. Despite the ongoing “trade war” between the US and China, climate action could act as a welcome remedy to those negotiations, provided Trump isn’t re-elected. If that is the case, the door opens for the US to truly drive the global economy towards the needs of the Paris Agreement.

In the meantime, however, China’s scope of influence shouldn’t be ignored. Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) commented on how China’s commitment could also cause financial markets to shift exponentially towards greener solutions.

“China isn’t just the world’s biggest emitter but the biggest energy financier and biggest market, so its decisions play a major role in shaping how the rest of the world progresses with its transition away from the fossil fuels that cause climate change,” Black said.

“The announcement today is also a major fillip for the European Union, whose leaders recently urged President Xi to take exactly this step as part of a joint push on lowering emissions, showing that international moves to curb climate change remain alive despite the best efforts of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in the run-up to next year’s COP26 in Glasgow.”

What China’s announcement does do is give the nation a key role in the COP26 climate discussions, which in turn could persuade other nations to follow the low-carbon trajectory.

Negotiations have also started on a “Paris-style” global agreement to halt irreversible ecological damage and biodiversity loss as part of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD summit was scheduled for Kunming, China this month but has also been postponed because of the pandemic.

Studies suggest that improved biodiversity and nature-based solutions can deliver up to 37% of the emission reductions required by 2030 to meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. The UK and China now have a unique opportunity to align their long-term carbon neutrality goals with a wider response to the ecological crisis.

Roadmaps required

In June, it was revealed that 53% of global GDP is covered by a net-zero ambition in some form. With China accounting for more than 9% of global GDP, it is likely that two-thirds of the global economy will be covered by long-term climate ambitions aligned to the requirements of the Paris Agreement by the end of 2020.

Of course, China’s commitment still lacks the details on how it will reach carbon-neutrality, and many major economies will have to start outlining intermediate efforts to reach their long-term targets. These are now starting to emerge.

The EU last week confirmed plans to target a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as part of a broader European Green Deal programme aimed at reaching “climate neutrality” by mid-century.

In the UK, climate watchdog the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has confirmed that its advice on the Sixth Carbon Budget, which covers the reduction levels required for the period of 2033-2027 will now be published in December 2020, rather than September. The CCC claims this will allow for extra time to complete the analysis in a way that reflects on the current impacts of the coronavirus.

It will be the first carbon budget to be created since the UK legislated for net-zero, with all other carbon budgets to date having been developed in line with the 2008 Climate Change Act’s original 2050 target of an 80% reduction in GHG emissions, against a 1990 baseline. Some green experts believe the budget suggestions could form the UK’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement.

Amy Davidson, executive director, North America at international nonprofit, the Climate Group, said: “The significant announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping during the UN General Assembly and in the midst of Climate Week NYC is very welcome. China ramping-up its climate ambition comes just a week after the EU proposed increasing its own 2030 target. Despite the absence of US federal leadership, at Climate Week NYC this year, we are seeing countries, business, states and cities encouraging each other to set more ambitious emission targets.

“While we look forward to further announcements and more details, China’s decision to take a path to net-zero emissions is a major landmark. Not just for China’s economic and environmental interests, but for our global interest too.”

Matt Mace

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