On 22 September, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the United Nations General Assembly through a video message to unilaterally announce its new emission targets: “China will scale up its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions by adopting more vigorous policies and measures. We aim to have [carbon dioxide] emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.” On 1 October, President Xi reaffirmed this pledge at the UN Biodiversity Summit while condemning unilateralism and calling for more international cooperation. With China currently emitting about 28 percent of global carbon dioxide – about the same as the United States, European Union, and India combined – this commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 comes as an unexpected and unprecedented pledge.
According to the Climate Action Tracker, the realization of China’s announced goal of achieving carbon neutrality before 2060 would lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3°C, the biggest single reduction ever estimated by the Climate Action Tracker. Experts, such as Niklas Höhne of NewClimate Institute, have referred to this pledge as “the most important announcement on global climate policy in at least the last five years.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel also welcomed China’s new climate goals and reaffirmed “that we need to work with China when it comes to protecting the climate.” However, there are reasons to be skeptical about President Xi’s announcement.
First, the Chinese economy’s reliance on coal-generated energy accounts for about 60 percent of the country’s total installed capacity, and Beijing has not laid out any concrete policies to reduce this reliance. On the contrary, a gigantic 58 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity have been approved or announced just in the first six months of this year, the equivalent of 25 percent of the entire installed capacity of the United States. Moreover, Chinese investors are eagerly financing coal plants abroad; a whopping 72 percent of coal plants currently under construction outside of China rely on Chinese finance. Hence, even if the government would lay out concrete policies to phase out coal, Beijing will have to face a coal lobby that is still getting stronger by the day.
Second, China’s pledge comes amidst a general trend towards less space for civil society to organize with regards to environmental issues during the Xi Jinping era. While Hu Jintao was General Secretary of the Communist Party (2002-2012), it was still possible for environmental NGOs to organize against issues such as air pollution, waste dumping, and dam building. Under Xi Jinping, such grassroots organizing has become increasingly restricted and at times repressed. For instance, on 25 September – just days after President Xi’s announcement at the UN – environmental activist Ou Hongyi (aged 17) was detained together with three other activists after organizing a silent protest in Shanghai. The young activist was forced to write a self-criticism letter, prompting teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg to criticize China’s treatment of activists. Incidents like these suggest that Beijing does not intend to give civil society a voice in the energy transition even as the political leadership is waking up to the climate crisis.
The upcoming 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021-25 will answer some of the issues mentioned above. However, if current trends continue China’s climate agenda will remain associated with an increasing reliance on coal and a narrowing space for civil society, no matter how ambitious its goals are. Hence, although China’s pledge may be applauded it should not make us complacent. At its current rate, the climate crisis will continue to outpace government targets, leading to mass ecological disaster and human displacement. The uncontrollable rains and floods along the Yangtze River that left hundreds dead and wreaked economic havoc last August are only a preview of just one of the many consequences of the climate crisis: at its current pace, global warming is expected to harm 70 percent of the world’s population with greatly increased river flooding. Hence, Chinese citizens and global activists alike should continue to demand a radical and just transition to mitigate against the disastrous consequences of a crisis of which we are already feeling the consequences.
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