Skyscrapers in Shanghai’s Lujiazui CBD are shrouded in haze. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. Photo: Xinhua

It’s not often that Beijing has won plaudits recently from the international community. 

But on Tuesday (September 22) President Xi Jinping recommitted the world’s most populous nation to tackling climate change and offsetting all of its emissions by 2060, stoking a frenzy of excitement from environmental activists and endorsements from global leaders.

Addressing the virtual 75th United Nations General Assembly, Xi vowed to ramp up actions to ensure China’s carbon dioxide emissions will peak in the next decade and further erase the carbon footprint of the world’s second-largest economy by 2060. 

Carbon neutrality refers to balancing CO2 emissions with carbon removal and offsetting. The goal, hailed by Chinese state media as a “planet-size” plan, resonated widely with the Western media and academia. 

Xinhua quoted Oxford’s climate change research center as saying the plan, if fully and transparently enforced, might help the world attain climate change objectives set out in the Paris Accord “way ahead of the original schedule.” 

The state news agency also cited Niklas Hohne, founder of the Berlin-based New Climate Institute, who said that Xi’s carbon neutrality pledge was the most portentous affirmation to augment the Paris Accord, especially after Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the pact. 

A preliminary study by the institute’s Climate Action Tracker noted that China’s endeavor to be carbon neutral by 2060 may help arrest the rise in global emissions by a third by then and help reduce global temperature rise by 0.3 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Xie Zhenhua, China’s former Minister for the Environment and chief negotiator leading the Chinese delegation in the Paris Accord talks, said China might help the world become carbon neutral about five years ahead of the original forecast of 2070.  

The stated aim of the international treaty, which Beijing has also acceded to, is to eliminate worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases by 2100 and cap the global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius compared with the global average in the pre-Industrial Revolution era. 

China will need to double down on the promotion of clean, renewable energy sources to offset its carbon emissions. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing’s 2060 goal of net-zero carbon emissions has, nonetheless, met incredulity with some observers calling it a tall order. 

China discharged more CO2 and other greenhouse gases than any other country in 2019, accounting for 28% of the world’s total. It is also the largest importer of fossil fuel and burns half of the coal used for energy generation worldwide. China’s 2060 target is also ten years later than that of the European Union. 

British energy and renewables consultancy Wood Mackenzie has warned of China’s heavy reliance on fossil fuel and coal-fired power generation.  

“Transitioning hundreds of millions of Chinese households and manufacturers to renewable or clean sources of electricity needs not only political resolve but also prodigious amounts of capital, technology and solutions,” read its report. 

HSBC also noted in a report that concrete, measurable details of Beijing’s 2060 plan were still lacking. 

Some also point out a build-up of promise fatigue and wonder if announcement of the distant carbon neutrality goal is just Beijing’s bid to burnish its international reputation amid its souring ties with the West. 

A coal worker walks next to wagons amid smog in Huaibei, Anhui province, China, on January 29, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Stringer / File Photo
A coal worker walks next to wagons amid smog in Huaibei, Anhui province, China, on January 29, 2018. Photo: Reuters

It also appears that the soot on Beijing’s energy mix is hard to rub off.

Coal used by coastal power plants at five major Chinese utilities hit 488,800 tonnes in the last week of March, more than double a record low seen on February 10, according to China Coal Transport and Distribution Association.

Though China’s coal uptick was partly in response to a spike in electricity demand as factories restarted after lockdown measures ended in mid-March, April’s coal imports surged 35% to 34.42 million tonnes from a year earlier. That demand, which slipped slightly year-on-year in May, is projected to rise for the rest of the year as the economy stirs back to life.

Despite Beijing’s green mantra, China’s coal consumption in 2019 was up, not down, by 1% year-on-year. That marked the third consecutive annual rise in coal use, perpetuating the dependence on one of the world’s dirtiest energy sources. 

Still, Xinhua has teased observers with greater roles for nuclear and renewables in China’s energy supply as well as the nascent carbon capture technologies as the State Council drafts the 14th Five-Year Plan covering 2020 to 2025. A Xinhua op-ed said China would have “more electric cars, more metro lines, more solar panels, more nuclear power plants and plant more trees as natural carbon removers.”   

It said most populous urban centers such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen already boast some of the world’s most extensive metro systems and electric bus fleets to shed their dependence on petroleum. Beijing had since this year greenlighted the construction of more than ten new nuclear reactors, some of which would be designed with indigenous talent and ingenuity. 

Wood Mackenzie’s vice-president for Asia-Pacific Gavin Thompson played up the prospects. 

“Only China may be able to achieve such an ambitious climate change goal,” he said.

“As seen in China’s economic reforms throughout the past four decades, powerful state-level, top-down drive and coordination pay off well and China can count on the same approach to realize emission transformation.”

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