Thursday

22nd Oct 2020

Analysis

China's carbon pledge at UN sends 'clear message' to US

  • Under the Paris climate agreement, China said that its emissions would peak by 2030 - but until now it had never committed to a long-term goal (Photo: Jonathan)

China's recent pledge to reach peak emissions before 2030 and become carbon-neutral by 2060 has been welcomed worldwide - if achieved, it could curb global warming by 0.2-0.3 celsius this century.

While the decision is seen as a significant shift in Beijing's climate ambitions as well as a step forward in the fight against climate change, experts warned that these targets must be backed with a detailed action plan - especially considering China's ongoing coal expansion.

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The Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the new climate target to the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday (22 September) - a week after the EU committed to increasing its emission-reduction target from 40 to 55 percent by 2030.

As the world's largest polluter, China is responsible for around 28 percent of global emissions.

Under the Paris climate agreement reached in 2015, China said that its emissions would peak by 2030 - but until now it had never committed to a long-term goal.

Meanwhile, more than 60 countries worldwide have already pledged to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050 - including all member states of the European Union bar Poland.

Given that the Covid-19 pandemic postponed this year's UN climate negotiations (COP26) until 2021, little progress was expected in this week's meeting.

However, China surprised its counterparts with the announcement, injecting new momentum into global climate action.

In his speech, the Chinese president also called on other countries to invest in a green recovery as "a powerful force driving sustainable development" after Covid-19.

"The carbon neutrality goal is feasible, both technically and economically, and with China and the EU both setting stronger targets, the picture for how the world can meet the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement just got much clearer," said Richard Baron, executive director of the 2050 Pathways Platform.

In 2014, China and the US surprised the world with an agreement on climate change, considered a building block of the subsequent Paris agreement. But the US began the procedure to withdraw from the accord in November.

Six years later, experts believe that the Chinese announcement comes at the right time, notably ahead of the US election in which climate change has become a significant aspect for voters.

Will Washington follow?

According to Li Shuo, who is a policy adviser at Beijing-based Greenpeace, China's announcement is clearly "a bold and well-calculated move that demonstrates Xi's consistent interest in leveraging the climate agenda for geopolitical purposes".

"Xi 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 US, will Washington follow?" he said.

Similarly, Katja Biedenkopf, climate policy expert at Belgian university KU Leuven, said that the new 2060 climate target sends a clear message to Washington: "China is not waiting for the US in terms of climate policy".

"This is a very strong political signal and yet another pledge which needs clear action," she added, warning that Beijing should reconsider its investment in polluting coal-fired power plants.

While the share of coal in electricity has been steadily declining for years, this is still a key challenge for China's green transition.

The new Chinese five-year plan, due to be presented in early 2021, is expected to set some more details such as a limit for coal power capacity and how should be aligned with the new 2060 carbon neutrality target.

Meanwhile, Biedenkopf said that China's decision is "good news" for European industry and policymakers since it allows, to some extent, similar level playing fields.

With tougher environmental rules under Green Deal, European businesses previously expressed concerns about a competitive disadvantage.

But Biedenkopf stressed that the Chinese efforts are also driven by economic interests in the EU's transition towards climate neutrality.

For example, Europe could become a big market for Chinese electric cars as China is the world's largest manufacturer of rechargeable batteries.

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