Some will view Xi Jinping’s declaration of a 2060 date, made to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, as canny political posturing
Some will view Xi Jinping’s declaration of a 2060 date, made to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, as canny political posturing © Mary Altaffer/AP

The commitment by China’s president Xi Jinping to make his country — by far the world’s biggest carbon emitter — carbon neutral by 2060 is an extremely important shift. With China’s emissions now accounting for 28 per cent of the world’s total, there is no global solution to global warming without China. Until now Beijing had insisted that it should, because of its status as an emerging market, be given more leeway than the US and other industrialised nations in global climate accords such as the Paris Agreement. These are aimed at keeping the global temperature rise well below 2 degrees centigrade from pre-industrial times, and preferably to just 1.5 degrees.

Beijing had previously avoided setting a date for carbon neutrality, instead promising only that emissions would begin to decline after around 2030. Some will view Mr Xi’s declaration of a 2060 date, made to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, as canny political posturing — making Donald Trump, who is pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement, look all the more isolated on the international stage. That may well be the case. Yet it is also true that Beijing’s shift will place pressure on laggards such as the US — the world’s second biggest carbon emitter — to join the dozens of countries that have now set net zero or carbon neutral targets.

India, which is set to rival China in CO2 emissions in the coming decades, and other emerging markets will also face more intense international pressure to green their economies in light of China's pledge. Even if that pressure yields little in the way of fresh commitments, the Climate Action Tracker, the independent research body, thinks China’s step alone will lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius — the biggest dip since 2015. Beijing has also sent a clear signal to oil, coal and gas exporters that one of their biggest markets may need less of their fuel in future — potentially speeding up the decline of fossil fuels.

Far more detail is needed on how China will achieve its target. The specifics are not set to come until Beijing presents its upcoming 14th Five-Year plan, which will draw up a blueprint for the economy from next year until 2025. Mr Xi also repeated to the UN that China’s emissions are set to peak only “before 2030”; many in Europe and elsewhere would like to see them begin to fall much sooner than that. Fears that achieving neutrality by 2060 is too little too late are also not without merit.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear in 2018 that emissions would have to nearly halve by 2030 and fall to net zero by 2050 in order to meet the 1.5 degrees centigrade goal. EU plans to reduce emissions by 55 per cent by 2030, and to near zero by 2050, are in line with that. China’s new target — and the reiteration of the 2030 commitment — is not. In the more immediate future, it is still a particular cause for concern that Beijing continues to invest heavily in coal both domestically and as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

There remains room for improvement, then. Yet it would be wrong not to recognise Mr Xi’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2060 as a substantial leap forward. Targets — even distant ones — matter. The Chinese president has verbally tied China to a specific date by which it will end its contribution to climate change. That paves the way for activists and other jurisdictions at the vanguard of efforts to reduce carbon emissions to seek to intensify collaboration with Beijing in coming up with technological and financial solutions to mitigate global warming. It is a chance they ought to seize.

Letter in response to this editorial:

A Biden win would be a chance to press China on climate goals / From Paul Bledsoe, Former White House Climate Adviser under President Bill Clinton, Strategic Adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute, Washington

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