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China to be net zero by 2060: impressive or falling short of global needs?

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Last month at the United Nations General Assembly, China’s president Xi Jinping announced their new commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2060. Not only does this mean that more than one sixth of the world’s population has now pledged to achieve carbon neutrality within 40 years, but this accounts for a staggering third of the world’s CO2 output. This pledge comes as a significant surprise since it’s the first time the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide has made such a monumental commitment to tackling climate change. 

China’s climate change record

It’s worth noting that as the largest CO2 emitter, China’s role in addressing climate change and meeting global targets is instrumental. Despite having invested more in renewable energy than any other country, China’s increasing investment in fossil fuels, namely coal,  makes it the world’s largest producer of coal power. Many environmental bodies have highlighted concerns that without China taking an active role in addressing climate change, it would be difficult – if not impossible – to meet environmental targets. 

Hopes were raised when China ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016 after a joint statement with the United States was issued, confirming that both of the critical players would sign the Paris Climate Agreement. Despite the US withdrawing from the Agreement in 2019, China reaffirmed its strong support for the “irreversible” Paris Agreement in the same week. In fact, one of the reasons President Trump decided to withdraw from the agreement was the belief that it demanded a great deal from the US but not enough from China, one of its main competitors. It’s arguable that the US had no idea that China would make as astounding an announcement as it has this week, but

the question remains: is China’s pledge an achievement to be championed or does it fail to recognise the urgency of our environmental destruction? 

What does a 2060 deadline mean?

There’s no ignoring that China’s commitment to the 2060 deadline is both surprising and a positive step in the global fight against climate change. However, it’s arguable that the shock of China’s announcement has resulted in a rose-tinted reaction – China is being championed when, in fact, we know that by 2060 the damage to the environment will be irreversible.

Not only will the damage be irreversible, but we are yet to see any real plans of how China will achieve such a target. President Xi Jinping’s calls for a “revolution” seemingly contradicts Beijing’s approval of coal-fired power plants in 2020 at the fastest pace since 2015. Similarly, the government announced plans to end subsidies for new onshore wind installations by 2021 and plans for solar power installations have halved. Based on these recent actions, we can only assume that a significant change in direction is on its way to make such a target feasible or that China will fail to meet the objective. 

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What to watch for

China will announce its next five-year plan in the Spring – the 14th of its kind – which will set the agenda and priorities for the forthcoming period. A key focus of this plan will be whether the cap on coal power capacity will remain the same, be raised, or be lowered. Only when the contents of the five-year plan are released will we know whether China has decided to speed up their climate change initiatives and prioritise those which will render its 2060 target realistic. At this point, it’s fair to say that China needs to revolutionise their climate change policies and, while the 2060 net-zero target is good news, it still falls short of the significant changes needed to secure a sustainable future – for all of us.  

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