When I first moved to China in 1990, winter meant coal. The moment Beijing turned on the municipal heating system, our faces would become covered with soot. People stockpiled loose coal in huge piles outside their homes for heating and cooking. I could see the smokestacks of
four large coal power plants and the country’s largest steel mill in the distance. China’s addiction to this most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels made the prospect of a country dedicated to fighting climate change seem fanciful.
Now, in perhaps the most
important news of 2020 that you may have missed, China has stepped up on its own as a climate leader. On 22 September, President Xi Jinping announced in a video address to the UN general assembly that China would aim to become “carbon neutral” before 2060 – Beijing’s first long-term target. In so doing it joins the European Union, the UK and dozens of other countries in adopting mid-century climate targets, as called for by the Paris agreement.
And not a moment too soon. China is currently responsible for
28% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than the United States and the European Union combined. As a practical matter, becoming “ carbon neutral” means that China will have to reduce its carbon emissions by as much as 90%, and offset the rest through natural systems or technologies that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they emit. If successful, this effort alone will shave around 0.2C to 0.3C from global warming projections, making Xi’s pledge the world’s single largest climate commitment to date.
Achieving this goal will be a colossal undertaking for a nation that is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. China burns
half the world’s coal and is still building new coal power plants, though they are increasingly uneconomic and unnecessary. It also burns coal directly in factories that produce half 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 bicycles. China has since become the largest global automobile market, as well as the world’s largest importer of crude oil.
But here’s the paradox: it also leads the world in the very clean technologies that make Xi’s plans feasible. China is by far the largest
investor, producer and consumer of renewable energy. One out of every three solar panels and wind turbines in the world are in China. It is also home to nearly half the world’s electric passenger vehicles, 98% of its electric buses and 99% of its electric two-wheelers. The country leads in the production of batteries to power electric vehicles and store renewable energy on power grids. By 2025, its battery facilities will be almost double the capacity of the rest of the world combined.
China’s clean energy drive and economies of scale have driven down the once-exorbitant cost of these technologies to the point where they are threatening their fossil fuel competitors everywhere. Large-scale solar photovoltaics and onshore wind projects are now the
cheapest form of new power generation for at least two-thirds of the world’s population. It will soon be cheaper to build new solar and wind plants than to continue to operate existing coal plants. The cost of electric cars and buses continues to plunge, and they will be as cheap as their polluting alternatives within the next five years.
To reach carbon neutrality, China will need to rapidly accelerate all that it has done so far. It must
double its annual investment in solar and triple or quadruple its investment in wind. It will also need to channel enormous efforts toward 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 track record of
underpromising and overdelivering on its climate commitments. It’s highly unlikely that Xi would have made the announcement himself in such a major international forum unless it was supported by strong evidence that the target 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 preempt pressure to act on climate from a new US administration. But we shouldn’t forget that Xi’s words were also intended for domestic consumption. It sends a powerful domestic signal to everyone in China that addressing climate change is a top priority.
China’s central government has some built-in advantages over the EU and US. It has the capacity for long-term industrial planning, backed by massive investments and supportive policies. It can, and will, direct every provincial governor and city mayor to develop their own long-term climate plans.
But central government can expect stiff resistance from many of the powerful vested 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 plants at an alarming rate, despite central government efforts to slow construction down. China’s power industry is
calling for even more coal, while the State Grid Corporation, the world’s largest utility company, has long resisted crucial power sector reforms. China’s slumping economy has also strengthened the hand of those calling for more carbon-intensive stimulus projects.
Although the news from the UN may have been quickly drowned out by remarkable developments elsewhere in the world, it represents a giant step towards avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of global climate breakdown. It’s a dramatic shift from 30 years ago, when I watched first-hand as representatives from China and 40 other developing countries crafted a negotiation strategy that would relieve them of any binding obligations.
Like other countries that have made similar pledges, China must now develop detailed implementation plans and policies. The upcoming 14th five-year plan (2021-25) is a
critical place to start. After four years of inaction and regression from the world’s other superpower, Xi’s announcement should provide some much needed momentum to the international climate negotiations. The planet deserves nothing less.