And not a moment too soon. China is currently responsible for 28% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the United States and the European Union combined. In practice, becoming “carbon neutral” means that China will have to reduce its carbon emissions by up to 90% and offset the rest with natural systems or technologies that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they take. emit. If successful, this effort alone will reduce about 0.2 ° C to 0.3 ° C of projected global warming, making Xi’s pledge the world’s largest climate pledge to date.
Achieving this goal will be a colossal undertaking for a nation that is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. China burns half of the world’s coal and is still building new coal-fired power plants, although they are less and less profitable and unnecessary. It also burns coal directly in factories that produce half of the world’s steel and cement. One notable aspect of my smog-filled days in Beijing was the virtual absence of private cars – the streets were mostly filled with bikes. China has since become the world’s largest automobile market, as well as the world’s largest importer of crude oil.
But here’s the paradox: He also leads the world in very clean tech that makes Xi’s plans achievable. China is by far the largest investor, producer and consumer of renewable energy. One in three solar panels and wind turbines in the world are in China. It is also home to nearly half of the world’s electric passenger vehicles, 98% of its electric buses and 99% of its electric two-wheelers. The country is a leader in the production of batteries to power electric vehicles and store renewable energy on electrical networks. By 2025, its battery installations will be almost double the capacity of the rest of the world combined.
China’s pursuit of clean energy and economies of scale have lowered the once-exorbitant cost of these technologies to the point where they threaten their fossil fuel competitors everywhere. Large-scale solar PV projects and onshore wind projects are now the cheapest form of new electricity generation for at least two-thirds of the world’s population. It will soon be cheaper to build new solar and wind power plants than to continue to operate existing coal plants. The cost of electric cars and buses continues to drop and they will be as cheap as their polluting alternatives over the next five years.
To achieve carbon neutrality, China will need to quickly step up everything it has done so far. It must double its annual investment in solar and triple or quadruple its investment in wind power. It will also need to channel huge efforts towards developing the next generation of expensive but potentially transformative technologies such as green hydrogen, energy storage and offshore wind. China is already in a race with the EU to take the lead here. These efforts will transform our global climate fight by helping to make essential next-generation climate technologies available and affordable in every country.
Can we trust these ambitious promises? I think so. China has a record of under-pledging and over-fulfilling its climate commitments. It is highly unlikely that Xi would have made the announcement himself in such an important international forum unless it is backed up by strong evidence that the goal is achievable. The timing was also clearly designed to take advantage of the lack of US climate leadership at the international level – and perhaps to prevent pressure from a new US administration to act on the climate. But it should be remembered that Xi’s remarks were also intended for domestic consumption. This sends a strong national signal to everyone in China that tackling climate change is a top priority.
The Chinese central government has certain intrinsic advantages over the EU and the United States. It has the capacity for long-term industrial planning, supported by massive investments and supporting policies. He can and will lead each provincial governor and city mayor to develop their own long-term climate plans.
But the central government can expect strong resistance from many powerful interests whose cooperation is most needed. Local governments, still dependent on the fossil fuel economy for jobs and tax revenue, continue to build new coal-fired power plants at an alarming rate, despite central government efforts to slow construction. China’s electricity industry is clamoring for more coal, while the State Grid Corporation, the world’s largest utility company, has long resisted crucial power sector reforms. The fall of the Chinese economy has also strengthened the position of those calling for more carbon-intensive stimulus projects.
Although the UN news may have been quickly overwhelmed by remarkable developments elsewhere in the world, it represents a giant step towards averting the most catastrophic impacts of global climate degradation. This is a radical departure from 30 years ago, when I saw firsthand representatives from China and 40 other developing countries craft a negotiating strategy that would relieve them of any binding obligations.
Like other countries that have made similar commitments, China must now develop detailed implementation plans and policies. The next 14th five-year plan (2021-25) is an essential starting point. After four years of inaction and regression by the other global superpower, Xi’s announcement is expected to provide much-needed impetus to international climate negotiations. The planet deserves nothing less.