Xi’s Climate Pledge Stuns World But Barriers Remain

Chinese leader Xi Jinping unexpectedly announced sweeping and potentially transformative, albeit vague, commitments to cut China’s carbon footprint last week. In an address before the United Nation’s General Assembly, Xi said, “We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.“ Xi’s pledge both reaffirmed goals set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and unilaterally set a new benchmark for emissions control. Since Trump’s ascension to the American presidency, China has angled to assume a global leadership position on climate change. Xi’s speech comes six years after Premier Li Keqiang’s declaration of a war on pollution. For the New York Times, Steven Lee Myers explained the significance of Xi’s speech:

Under the Paris climate deal reached in 2015, China pledged that its emissions would peak around 2030. Mr. Xi promised on Tuesday to move up that timetable, though he did not provide specifics. The bigger surprise, analysts said, was Mr. Xi’s pledge to reach “carbon neutrality” — meaning China’s net carbon emissions will reach zero — by 2060.

More than 60 other countries have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, a consensus deadline that scientists believe must be met to have a reasonable chance of averting the worst climate catastrophe. Those countries are small compared to China, which now produces 28 percent of the world’s emissions. Even if its target is a decade later, China is now on record setting the goal for the first time.

“I think it is potentially enormous — stressing both words,” Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said in a telephone interview from Helsinki, Finland. [Source]

The Chinese public is extremely supportive of international climate accords; 94% of Chinese citizens support China’s entrance into the Paris Agreement. China’s leadership often emphasizes their commitment to environmental protection. Since the beginning of 2020, Xi has publicly embraced the “Two Mountains Theory”, which holds that the environment cannot be sacrificed for economic growth. The success of China’s climate pledge has immense global significance. In Foreign Policy, Adam Tooze notes that the fate of global CO2 reduction hangs on Asia’s, and especially China’s, ability to cut emissions:

Global warming is produced not by the annual flows of carbon but by the stocks that have accumulated over time in the Earth’s atmosphere. Allowing an equal ration for every person on the planet, it remains the case that the historic responsibility for excessive carbon accumulation lies overwhelmingly with the United States and Europe. Still today China’s emissions per capita are less than half those of the United States. But as far as future emissions are concerned, everything hinges on China. As concerned as Europeans and Americans may be with climate policy, they are essentially bystanders in a future determined by the decisions made by the large, rapidly growing Asian economies, with China far in the lead. China’s rapid rebound from the COVID-19 shock only reinforces that point. With his terse remarks, Xi has mapped out a large part of the future path ahead.

As the impact of his remarks sank in, climate modelers crunched the numbers and concluded that, if fully implemented, China’s new commitment will by itself lower the projected temperature increase by 0.2-0.3 degrees Celsius. It is the largest favorable shock that their models have ever produced. [Source]

China’s aspirations for global green energy leadership are often connected to the Belt and Road Initiative, which Chinese state media extols for promoting sustainable development. China’s preeminence in solar energy has lead to a new policy of “solar diplomacy”. But Chinese renewable energy use is nonetheless controversial, with new evidence indicating that Chinese hydropower dams on the upper Mekong river cause droughts in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Crucially, China consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined, and Chinese coal emissions alone made up 20% of global CO2 emissions in 2019. Reducing coal-dependency often sets China’s central government at loggerheads with cash-strapped provincial governments. China’s coronavirus relief policies encourage provincial governments to increase coal use, as the Washington Post reports: “Guangxi province alone in March announced investment of $4.7 billion in five new coal power plants from 2020 to 2022.”

AFP expands on the current economic contradiction facing China as it strives to reach environmental targets:

There is a “tension at the heart of China’s energy planning”, Mr Li Shuo, senior climate and energy officer at Greenpeace China, told AFP.

It “pits Beijing’s strategic interests against the immediate goals of cash-strapped provincial governments, makes it difficult to walk the talk” on cleaner future. [Source]

Chinese investment in coal does not end at the border. Chinese capital finances 72% of all coal-fired plants outside of China.

Is China’s model of “authoritarian environmentalism” the key to defeating climate change? That is a question posed by China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet, a new book by Judith Shapiro and Yifei Li. A review of the book by The Economist’s Chaguan notes that China’s most effective environmental policy comes from close collaboration between grass-roots activists and the state:

Successful green policies in China share common elements, the book argues. They eschew rigid targets and top-down solutions that “cut everything with the same knife”, to borrow the Chinese phrase for one-size-fits-all prescriptions. Success stories also typically involve the state working with volunteer groups and seeking input from civil society. The book cites a reforestation scheme in the late 1990s in the Loess Plateau of north-western China. Designers spent two years consulting local farmers and scientists, tailoring their plans to local conditions. Orchards of walnuts and dates, shielded by desert willows and traditional landscaping techniques, slowly returned life to barren lands. Later, when impatient officials tried to scale up the scheme with the mass-planting of a few types of fast-growing, water-hungry tree, they failed. [Source]

But space for civil society participation is limited and shrinking. Bloomberg quotes UCLA Law professor Alex Wang, “[t]he China model of environmental protection ‘has been cautious about too much organized society participation.’” Just days after Xi’s announcement, 17-year-old climate activist Howey Ou was detained and questioned after leading a global climate strike on Shanghai’s famous Nanjing Road.

Documentaries addressing environmental concerns are often banned: Investigative journalist Chai Jing’s 2015 documentary Under the Dome was scrubbed from the internet after racking up 150 million views. This spring Chinese netizens shared bootleg copies of a film detailing the extreme health tolls of those involved in China’s metals industry. Art exhibits extolling environmental messages likewise encounter official censure. The artist Brother Nut’s Beijing exhibit of 9,000 Nongfu Spring bottles filled with polluted spring water was shutdown soon after it opened.

There are a myriad of political, economic, and social barriers that might prevent China’s ability to achieve this goal, but many observers are nonetheless hopeful.


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