Four years ago China was emitting almost 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. In forty years it will be emitting … none.
That was the astonishing pledge made by its premier at the UN’s virtual general assembly in New York last month. Xi Jingping said his country – the world’s second biggest economy and the biggest emitter of harmful greenhouse gases – would reach net zero before 2060.
China emitted 9.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2017 – almost a third (28 per cent) of global emissions – largely due to its coal-fired power stations, which produce 70 per cent of its energy. It is also one of the world’s largest importers of oil and consumers of meat: it accounts for a third of the planet’s intake.
Xi said the coronavirus pandemic had shown the need for a “revolution [in] green development”, adding: “The human race cannot ignore the warnings of nature over and over again.” The steps set out in Paris climate talks of 2015 were the bare minimum that countries must do to address the climate emergency, he said, just over a month before the US officially pulls out of the historic agreement.
It remains to be seen what steps China will take to reduce and offset its emissions but it has a steep hill to climb: global coal-fired power capacity has doubled in the past two decades, due in large part to its rapid economic expansion, although it is now cheaper to build new wind and solar power than to maintain half of the coal plants currently in operation, according to figures from Carbon Brief. And while it is eating more environmentally friendly food, its carnivorous habits must change. Sceptics will be convinced only when its net zero commitment is enshrined in law, though, as it is in countries including the UK, France, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and New Zealand.
A new face in the White House should help – the trade war with Donald Trump has curtailed Chinese subsidies for wind and solar – but until the US rediscovers its moral authority, it is good to see another major emitter assuming the mantle of green leadership.