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China’s Carbon Commitment

Unsurprisingly, China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter and burns half of the world’s coal. Despite emissions decreasing by 25% during the first wave of COVID-19 they returned to their normal levels by June. This was a result of growth in coal-fired plants and in the cement and heavy industries. So when President Xi Jinxing recently announced at the 75th UN General Assembly that China would be carbon neutral by 2060, it sent out shockwaves globally.  If China meets this target, the risk of global temperatures rising by 1.5 degrees celsius could be significantly reduced. This is a very ambitious target and a monumental decision from China. The major implication is that this can influence other high polluting countries to emulate its environmental targets.

Though Xi’s “more vigorous” measures have not been laid out, experts predict these measures might include decreasing China’s dependency on fossil fuels, increasing focus on renewable sources and changing their energy economy to focus on ‘green growth’. Currently, non-fossil fuels make up 15% of China’s energy utilisation, primarily in solar and wind power. In order to achieve “net zero”, China will need to increase their focus on these energy sources. Experts say their capacity will need to increase over the next 40 years from 213GW to 2200GW and 231GW to 1700GW, respectively. They also need to become the centre of China’s power grid supplying 70% of China’s output. To do this would require 2x and 4x as much investment, respectively. This is extremely demanding considering our current economic climate where investment levels have already declined. For example Xinjiang, the biggest wind producing area of China, have already cancelled 31 projects in 2020 due to “overcapacity and inability to connect to the grid”. This demonstrates some of China’s lack of consistency to commit to their environmental projects. China will also need to simultaneously decrease fossil fuel utilisation from 85% to 25%. Tackling the coal industry will be the best way to do this. Coal currently accounts for 58% of China’s energy, employs 3.5 million citizens and already has pre-approved coal-fired power plants and coal-to-chemical ventures to accelerate China’s economic growth following COVID-19. These plans cover eight major Chinese provinces, which make up half of the country’s emissions. 35% of the plans are dedicated to fossil fuel projects whereas 13% are dedicated to low-carbon projects using nuclear energy, hydropower and electric vehicles. If these coal projects possess 30 year old assets it appears China’s carbon emissions may outweigh their net zero carbon emissions target. Another feasible way China is trying to become net zero is by using carbon capture and storage technologies. If successful, this could be paired with coal or gas power plants and together reduce carbon’s net emissions. China is also looking to use other offsetting projects like the “nature-based solution” project. This is a large-scale tree planting and wetland restoration of 86 million acres of forest across China by 2050 to help offset carbon emissions. China is also erecting a UN Global Geospatial Knowledge and innovation Centre and Research Centre for Sustainable Development Goals and hiring teams to constantly monitor their climate goals.

Despite China’s current carbon-status, some establishments remain optimistic about the net zero announcement. State-owned energy company China National Petroleum Corporation, one of the world’s largest energy groups, pledge that China’s commitment to reducing coal levels to 14% by 2050 is still a possibility. Similarly, The International Energy Authority commented that soon China should not even need new coal-fired plants because the price of a unit of wind or solar power will soon become comparable to that of coal.

Global responses are more varied. President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission commented that this announcement is an important step in demonstrating that the world’s biggest polluters are taking on the huge responsibility of decreasing carbon emissions. Having China and Europe on board to commit to the ‘race towards zero’ may help other countries follow suit to committing to higher emission reduction targets. Denmark have already encouraged their citizens to shift to purchasing electric vehicles and Sweden and France have implemented net zero carbon targets by 2045 and 2050. The United States remains withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and any major form of climate advocacy. Xi’s ambitions now portray him and China as a more environmentally conscious leader. The tense relationship between the US and China may be eased depending on the outcome of the November Presidential election. If candidate Joe Biden is elected he has promised to reverse America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and plans to commit the US to net zero targets. This would mean China, the US and Europe, who account for 45% of the world’s emissions, would then all have net zero targets. It  would show a huge proportion of the world is taking joint accountability to combating carbon emissions production.

Overall while China is displaying a huge commitment to wanting to make changes for the environment Xi’s announcement appears overly ambitious. The transition from primarily using fossil fuels to using renewables within a span of 40 years will require China to undertake a major overhaul within its energy sector. This may be difficult to achieve as China’s powerhouse status depends on the fossil fuel industries in order to thrive economically. Therefore it will be difficult to ascertain if China will ever become “carbon neutral”. Nevertheless announcing to take responsibility is a start and hopefully other countries around the world will follow suit in committing to a serious pledge.