China’s newly stated aim to reach to carbon neutrality by 2060 is one of the most important announcements on climate change policy ever made.
A few months ago I stood back from updating this blog. I am now returning to posting regularly. I will be doing so at an exciting time for climate policy.
At the United Nations General Assembly last month China’s President Xi announced that China will achieve carbon neutrality before 2060[i] with emissions peaking before 2030. This is among most significant announcements on climate change policy ever made.
It commits the world’s largest emitter (by far) to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions over the next 40 years. This alone is likely to reduce global temperature increases by about 0.25 degrees C, compared with China reaching carbon neutrality in 2100[ii].
And its impact will go beyond that. Emissions reductions elsewhere are now likely to be cheaper and more readily available, because China’s efforts to reduce its own emissions will lead to low carbon technologies being deployed at huge scale. And with Europe also setting goals of reaching net zero by 2050 there appears to be enough political momentum to encourage other countries to follow a similar path.
This could lead to global emissions being reduced to close to zero well before 2100, with the world thus standing a good chance of meeting the goal of the Paris Agreement of limiting temperature rises to well below 2 degrees. This is the first time this has looked at all likely – though limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees still looks very difficult.
Why has China chosen to make this announcement? There seem to be four main reasons for the announcement.
First, China has long been concerned about the effects of climate change, especially because of the risks it creates for food and water supply. The increasing effects of climate change now visible around the world are likely to have heightened China’s concerns.
Second, it seems clearly designed to promote Chinese leadership in a global context. President Xi’s speech was notably internationalist in its rhetoric, a perspective conspicuously absent from the United States over the last four years. It is not necessary to take the text at face value to interpret it as seeking leverage internationally. Such leverage is likely to be especially valuable to China at a time when the Chinese Government is rightly being criticised for gross violations of human rights.
Third, the costs of reducing emissions, especially the costs of renewable energy sources, have fallen rapidly, and are expected to continue doing so.
Fourth, China appears to see major opportunities for its industries in producing and exporting low carbon technologies. It is already a world leader in the production of many technologies, notably solar panels and batteries, and it will doubtless look to extend this to other technologies. There will inevitably be losers from this, especially in coal mining and in coal fuelled industry and power generation, of which China has vast amounts. However there seems likely to be time to manage this. Approaches may include very large scale retrofitting carbon capture and storage to existing power and industrial plants using coal.
A fifth motivation may be increasing energy security by reducing demand for imported oil and gas.
One caveat is that, in line with other countries, China’s commitments refer to emissions within China. However, emissions from other countries supplying China will also matter a great deal. For example, if greatly increased meat consumption in China is supplied by imports it will likely put tremendous pressure on emissions, ecosystems and biodiversity elsewhere. It is thus essential that China’s efforts to reduce its emissions are accompanied by other measures to reduce the environmental impact of its development in other parts of the world, including through activities in its belt and road initiative.
China’s new course of action poses a challenge for other countries that have previously led in this area.
The UK can justly claim it has long provided leadership on climate change. Margaret Thatcher was among the first world leaders to highlight the importance of climate change, which she did in a number of speeches she gave in the late 1980s. The Hadley Centre, one of the world’s leading centres for climate research, was established in 1990. In 2005 the UK further raised the international political profile of climate change when it chaired the Gleneagles G8 summit. The Climate Change Act, passed nearly unanimously by Parliament in 2008, established legally binding targets for emissions reduction – the first legislation of its kind anywhere in the world. In 2019 the UK became the first major economy to adopt a legally binding net zero emissions target, to be achieved by 2050. And the UK has reduced per capita emissions since 1990 by more than any other major economy, although this partly reflects changes in industrial structure not connected with climate policy.
To play a continued leadership role, the UK will need to continue to show by its actions what can be done to reduce emissions to net zero. It needs to identify and implement practical, cost effective pathways to this goal. This process has begun, but more is needed.
In parallel, diplomatic activity is necessary so that Europe, China and others seeking to eliminate their emissions can be effective in bringing other countries along, especially the USA.
Those of us working on climate change policy for a long time have become accustomed to the idea that the chances of limiting global temperature rise to below 2 degrees were low. China’s announcement has changed that. It may not be enough. Even more rapid action, followed by decades of negative emissions, may prove essential to stabilising the climate. Nevertheless it marks a huge step forward, and should inspire everyone to make even greater efforts.
Adam Whitmore – 14th of October 2020
[i] I assume here that carbon neutrality means net zero emissions of greenhouse gases, as set in the Paris Agreement and many other documents. It is possible it refers to eliminating carbon dioxide emissions only, but this would in any case be a huge step forward as CO2 is by far the most significant greenhouse gas.
[ii] This depends on assumptions of the emissions track that would otherwise be achieved. Reducing temperature rises by 0.25 degrees with 50% probability requires cumulative emissions to be reduced about 210GtCO2. China’s annual emissions were 11.2 Gt in 2017 (energy and industry only – see https://www.pbl.nl/sites/default/files/downloads/pbl-2020-trends-in-global-co2-and-total-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2019-report_4068.pdf ) so reducing emissions linearly to zero by 2060 instead of by 2100 saves around 210GtCO2.