Will China Really Become Carbon-Neutral?

Chinese president, Xi Jinping, recently announced that his country aims to reach peak carbon emissions before 2030 and become carbon-neutral by 2060. This came as a surprise considering China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and is still continuing to build new coal plants despite this new announcement. It raises several questions such as: Is this a serious commitment? Or a political powerplay? And perhaps most curiously: how would this be done?

Varun Sivaram, a senior research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy stated that this, “would be the most herculean thing ever accomplished in human history.” The whole of China’s economy and energy system would have to undergo tremendous changes to support this initiative. Last year, while most countries were reducing their reliance on coal-fired electricity, China continued to build more coal power plants than needed. Hence, it is unclear how serious the government is taking this new goal but some questions as to how this goal would be accomplished were answered as one of China’s top climate research institutes released the blueprint outlining the changes.

The researchers project a whooping 587 percent increase in solar energy generation between 2025 and 2060. The blueprint also sees nuclear generation in China increasing, which was anticipated, considering its early investment in new, advanced nuclear technology.

Coal may be the biggest matter of contention here that generates complications with the set 2060 goal because the country is still dependent on it and plans to continue the construction of new coal-fired power plants for now. The director of China’s top climate research institute confirmed that coal-fired electricity won’t be phased out until around 2050, leaving the country with only 10 years to radically transform its whole economy and communities that are coal-reliant. It means figuring out a whole new way to live for the residents and workers that relied on the coal industry for their livelihoods.

Even with the blueprint laid out, it doesn’t mean that the dependence on fossil fuel energy will disappear altogether because there are industries that will continue relying on non-renewable energy sources. A net-zero target means that China must take as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it puts in. So, to reduce the remaining fossil fuel emissions, there has to be an increase in carbon capture and storage technology.

This is a colossal project to undertake and ultimately, promises can be empty so no one can say whether China truly wants to take action against their contribution to climate change. And given China’s lack of visibility of government policy deliberations, we can contemplate this possibility all we want but we presumably will not be able to know for certain until there is concrete evidence that the country’s dependence on carbon energy sources is declining. We can only hold onto hope that there is a change occurring and that countries may sincerely be pushing for sustainability.