During a UN General Assembly speech on September 22, President Xi Jinping – much to the audience’s surprise – pledged that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. He also reiterated his 2015 Paris Agreement commitment to reach peak emissions by 2030. This could have enormous implications on climate change since China accounts for 28 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. But the feasibility of China’s pledge would depend on its parallel economic goals, track record of environmental actions, and availability of resources to meet its emission goals.
China is one of the few top-polluted countries in the world that introduced The Mask to its general public much before the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to its high population and reliance on coal power plants, the country has faced severe problems, like the 2013 Eastern China smog. The high toxic emission levels have led to serious public health concerns, prompting the government to declare a ‘war against pollution’ in 2014.
Alongside, China has intensified afforestation measures, transport control, and renewable energy sources over the years. It also began replacing coal with natural gas across industries and households. This way, China has managed to reduce its PM 2.5 concentration by 33 per cent in 74 cities from 2013 to 2017. Overall, the country’s total pollution saw a 10 per cent decrease from 2017 to 2018.
China has also introduced various legal and policy measures to meet its environmental targets. Its National Action Plan on Climate Change and involvement in the Clean Development Mechanism under the UNFCCC suggest seriousness towards the issue. The country has also established a Ministry of Ecological Environment that consolidates all its environmental protection goals under one department. It has also received funds from institutions such as China’s Academy of Environmental Planning to reduce air pollution.
But the road ahead stretches far as its air pollution continues to cause roughly 1.25 million premature deaths every year. After a temporary decline in emissions due to quarantine measures during the pandemic, they have risen again in light of China’s economic goals. It is tough to overlook the ecological costs of China's aggressive foreign policy and aim to establish soft power.
Due to China’s highly centralised system, it is challenging for the central bodies to ascertain and monitor the environmental needs of each local unit. Moreover, China's large population puts a strain on acquiring sufficient alternative resources. This was evident in 2013 when China attempted to reduce its reliance on coal through public campaigns for electric or gas heating. During this period, demand for the latter grew to unsustainable levels and left millions without adequate heat in the winter.
China’s economic activities, like the Belt and Road Initiative, have also raised scepticism over its environmental priorities. While the project has the potential to strengthen economic interdependence across continents, it has displaced humans and wildlife, funded coal power plants, and established ecologically detrimental manufacturing units across the world. Although Mr. Xi Jinping has emphasised his goal of ‘green development’ by building renewable energy, the project’s success depends on implementation at a local level. This might be difficult for many of the BRI partner countries with weak economies and political systems.
Finally, China’s authoritarian government’s control over non-state actors, such as environmental NGOs, limits civic involvement in combating climate change. Thus the power to implement China’s environmental policies falls on the central administration.
In addition to domestic challenges, China has also faced international pressure. Its pledge follows months of talks with the European Union, who threatened to impose carbon tariffs on the country upon failure to cut emissions. Although the EU has expressed support for the country’s carbon neutrality goal, it maintains the need for further steps and talks on coal consumption. EU itself has dedicated to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050; a pollution giant such as China’s decision to achieve the same just ten years later is a rather bold move.
China’s pledge might also influence other developing countries to aim for carbon neutrality. According to the Kyoto Protocol, 37 developed countries are mandated to reduce emissions, while developing countries can voluntarily comply as per the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities principle. This is due to the latter’s reliance on fossil fuel and other limitations on economic growth. Amongst these countries, China has also been leveraging its 'developing country' status to continue justifying its use of fossil fuels. But now, with its rapid GDP growth as the second-largest economy in the world, China has renounced its concessions, to join EU countries like Britain and Finland to fight the good fight.
With the U.S. officially backing out of the Paris Agreement by November 4, China’s step also portrays its geopolitical intentions. In addition to its Health Silk Road initiatives, its Digital Silk Road' etc., China has been seeking ways to return to the international platform to remedy its ‘Wuhan virus’ label. The carbon neutrality pledge might well be a calculated move.
However, if implemented successfully, it will have huge ramifications on global emissions. It might fulfil the Paris Agreement aim of limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees, if not the ultimate aim of 1.5 degrees. But until China irons out the details through its 14th Five-Year Plan, much is left to speculation.
- Although COVID-19 has temporarily decreased emissions, China’s ongoing economic recovery is also affecting its environmental goals. Moreover, the commitment to promote trade and infrastructural development in its region through the Belt and Road Initiative would likely lead to a clash between China’s economic and environmental goals.
- If China follows through, it will set the tone for a stronger global response to climate change. Developed countries like the U.S., soon withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, might face pressure to catch up. In addition, China’s step might change current protections offered to developing countries to spearhead a stricter movement towards reducing emissions.
- With the recent increase in the intensity of fires across California and Australia, in addition to the growing threat of unknown viruses, China’s pledge is more necessary than ever. Its upcoming Five-Year Plan could be one of the most important ones for climate change so far.