While US President Donald Trump concentrated on turning up the political heat on China in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Xi Jinping surprised many by using his speech to announce China’s ambition to become a world leader in tackling global warming and become carbon-neutral by 2060.
A lot of work needs to be done to achieve this lofty target. China is currently the world’s biggest producer of carbon emissions and the second-largest consumer of coal, after the United States. Fossil fuels account for about 85% of the country’s energy supply, so reducing its carbon emissions to zero within 40 years is no mean feat.
Many commentators are sceptical about Beijing’s ability to make good on the commitment. They are rightly asking to see more detail on how this intention can be turned into concrete action.
However, this is a significant shift in policy and one that should be welcomed. While the US has backed away from many environmental commitments under President Trump, China has been moving in the opposite direction: reducing its dependency on coal, stating its carbon emissions would peak around 2030, and supporting the Paris Agreement.
Moreover, this marks a significant shift away from its previous position that, as a developing nation, it should wait for developed countries to lead the way in reducing emissions. Beijing now hopes to place itself in a leadership position in the global battle against climate change.
There are good reasons to be optimistic that China can make good on its ambitions.
While coal use has increased in recent years, the government reduced consumption from 2013 to 2017 as part of a clear policy to improve air quality and make the transition to cleaner energy sources. If the Chinese have done it before, they can do it again.
China is also innovating in a wide range of areas, many of which I have written about previously, such as the development of urban farms, the use of advanced technology to make farming more efficient, and the emergence of other more sustainable practices, such as vegan or plant-based protein.
To become carbon-neutral by 2060 will probably require the country to increase the contribution from renewable energy sources from 15% today to something nearer to 85% within four decades.
This will require substantial investment, technological development, and a shift in the way that 1.4 billion people live, work, and consume.
For now, we must wait for more details to emerge and should expect the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) for national and social development to provide some of this information.