China’s zero carbon pledge: what does it mean for the global fight against climate change?

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In front of a large painting of the Great Wall, one of China’s most impressive exploits, President Xi Jinping surprised the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday with an ambitious promise.

“We aim to reach a peak in CO2 emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060,” he told leaders at the annual gathering, which takes place largely virtually due to the pandemic of coronavirus.

“Humanity can no longer afford to ignore repeated warnings from nature,” Xi said.

Its promise could become a defining moment in the global climate crisis: the first time that China, the world’s largest emitter, has pledged to stop adding to global warming that is pushing the planet towards irreversible catastrophe.

“It is deeply significant that the leader of the world’s largest country, and also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has ended the era of oil, coal and gas,” the former governor of California Jerry Brown, president of the California- China Climate Institute, says The independent.

“It’s a marker that other nations must take into account and try not only to emulate, but to go beyond. “

Xi’s remarks seemed particularly well calculated within minutes of President Trump’s speech in which he criticized China’s environmental record and called on the UN to “hold them accountable” for the Covid-19 epidemic.

Mr. Trump also claimed that the United States has reduced its carbon emissions more than any other signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement. (Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis that tracks government efforts under the Paris Agreement, has found that the United States is “grossly inadequate” in reducing emissions.)

The United States, like other major polluters, India, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Australia, have no emissions targets. Mr Trump, who called climate change a “hoax,” is expected to withdraw from the Paris agreement if he wins re-election in November.

Along with China, 30 countries now have various carbon neutrality commitments, meaning there is no additional carbon being released into the atmosphere. In total, it accounts for around 43% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels.

Xi’s commitment to carbon has also garnered some positive publicity for China at a time of growing international outrage over the severe restriction of civil rights in Hong Kong, following Beijing’s sweeping law on carbon. national security over the semi-autonomous city and widespread accusations of mass detentions and cultural genocide. Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

In the past, China has argued that as a developing economy, it should not be held to the same reduction commitments as developed countries, like the United States, United Kingdom and European states, whose decades of unbridled pollution led to global warming in the 20th century.

Flooded streets in Chongqing along the banks of the Yangtze River(Chinese press service via Getty Ima)

But international pressure has been based on China, which pledged under the 2016 Paris agreement to reach a peak in emissions around 2030. EU leaders, which pledged in favor carbon neutrality by 2050, urged China earlier this month to aim for 2060 or face punitive carbon. prices.

The news that China’s emission levels could now drop before the end of the decade has been greeted with caution by analysts. Xi did not provide any details on Tuesday on how the goals would be achieved.

Li Shuo, head of climate and energy policy at Greenpeace East Asia, described Xi’s announcement as “vital momentum for global climate policy.”

But Mr. Li added, “Xi’s commitment will need to be backed up with more details and concrete implementation. How long can China reach peak emissions? How to reconcile carbon neutrality with the expansion of coal underway in China?

“These are tough questions that demand a better answer from Beijing. But in any case, Xi’s new pledge will certainly help turn a tough year for the environment and mark the start of a re-energized series of global climate efforts.

How China ultimately decides to tackle the climate crisis will have a global impact.

The country released the equivalent of 10 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2018, according to the Global Carbon Project which tracks emissions around the world. It was almost twice as much as the United States and three times as much as the EU.

China burns about half of the coal used in the world each year. Between 2000 and 2018, its annual carbon emissions nearly tripled and represent about a third of the global total.

Satellite images and media reports suggest new coal-fired power plants are under construction, with a total capacity of 148 gigawatts – almost equal to the EU’s total coal-fired electricity capacity, according to the organization at Purpose non-profit Global Energy Monitor.

The country also faced an economic slowdown, missing a recent growth target earlier this year, Bloomberg noted, and put energy conservation on the back burner.

On the other hand, China is also the largest market for solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, and it manufactures around two-thirds of the solar cells installed in the world. It is the largest financier of energy infrastructure in the world.

Richard Black, director of the nonprofit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said The independent that China could deliver on Xi’s promises by simply speeding up much of what it is already doing – increasing production of electric vehicles (EVs), wind turbines, solar panels, and the rate of nuclear reactor construction (this the latter will likely spark a debate around security). It also planned the deployment of charging points for electric vehicles and the expansion of the rail network across the country.

“I think we will also see interesting investments in steel manufacturing,” he added. “There is a development in the manufacture of steel using zero carbon methods in Europe, but for China it would be a game changer. Not only for steel, but also for aluminum, cement, all heavy industries. “

Governor Brown said that in order to achieve Xi’s stated goals, “the first is to get rid of the coal as soon as possible.”

He echoed the sentiment on increasing EV production, saying if China did, “Europe, Germany in particular and the United States had better wake up.”

“To do what the world needs, Xi will step up production of the electric and hydrogen car. And as soon as it does that, Europe and America must respond on an equal or higher level. At the moment, that doesn’t seem likely, ”he added.

If China meets the lofty targets, it could prevent a further 0.4-0.7F (0.2-0.4C) warming for the world, according to “very rough estimates,” MIT management professor John Sterman, which models and tracks emission reductions and engages with Climate Interactif, narrated The Associated Press.

Prof Sterman said he was particularly excited about the effort to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 – instead of 2030. The gas stays in the atmosphere for more than a century, so Earlier emission reductions are more effective than promises in the future, he said. .

“Emissions that do not occur by 2030 will reduce warming much more than the same emission reductions after 2060,” the professor said.

While the pledges offer a glimmer of hope for the international climate community, China is also benefiting at home by reducing its emissions. China constantly faces poor air quality in many large urban areas, while the country’s densely populated and environmentally fragile coastal regions are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and temperatures.

This year’s flooding in the Yangtze River killed hundreds and displaced millions in central and southwestern China, and hampered efforts to revive economies in the wake of Covid lockdowns -19.

It is hoped that Xi’s speech will gain momentum ahead of the UN climate change conference, or COP26, next year in the UK after being delayed by the pandemic. It also follows a number of years of missed climate targets and increasingly devastating impacts of climate change, including increased forest fires, more severe heat waves and typhoons, monsoons, hurricanes and droughts.

“If China offers a concrete long-term strategy to the international community, it would greatly increase confidence in the international process which has not been at its highest level in recent years,” Black said.

“Perhaps more importantly, the sheer economic power of China would change the behavior of economic markets and investors. If they are convinced that China is going in this direction, it will change decision-making, moving away from fossil fuels and towards clean technologies. “

Former Democratic Governor Brown said he was optimistic, adding that Xi’s pledge had thrown the gauntlet for other nations on how they would tackle the climate crisis.

“I think this is a positive step and if it comes with the election of Joe Biden then America will join the Paris Agreement and nations will start figuring out more quickly how to reduce [emissions] in precise numbers, ”he said.

“The beauty of Xi’s goal is for him to put the numbers on the table and invite others to go much faster and much further. The next steps should come from the United States and the European Union. “

Additional wire reports

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