The World

China’s New Climate Pledge Is Extraordinarily Ambitious

But is it real?

Head-and-shoulders shot of Xi Jinping in a suit.
China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2007. Feng Li/Getty Images.

Chairman Xi Jinping of China dropped some potentially historic news in the middle of an otherwise pro forma address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, setting a surprisingly ambitious and specific target for reducing carbon emissions.

Calling for a global “green revolution,” Xi told the world that “by adopting more vigorous policies and measures … we aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.” This added some more specificity to the country’s peaking date—China had previously pledged to peak emissions “around” 2030—but the 2060 carbon neutrality target is the bigger news and a potential game changer from the world’s largest CO2 emitter.

If China were to achieve this goal, it could shave .2 to .3 degrees Celsius off global warming projections, according to Climate Action Tracker. This is the sort of change that could make the difference between a very bad or truly catastrophic climate future. It could also potentially serve as an example for other countries and reinvigorate the Paris Agreement process, which has been foundering since President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the accord in 2017.

But … is it for real? China has made ambitious climate pledges before, even as it has continued constructing coal plants in the name of economic development. While Xi, in his speech, urged other governments to “achieve a green recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID era,” China’s own post-COVID stimulus plan pours billions of dollars into fossil fuel projects. China’s statistics reporting can also be notoriously unreliable, particularly at the local level, making it hard to track progress.

Nevertheless, experts say Xi’s pledge, especially considering the high-profile setting in which he made it, should be taken seriously. “In the climate domain, the Chinese have always honored their pledges,” says Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor of Energy and Environmental Policy at Tufts’ Fletcher School who served as China adviser to the special envoy for climate change under the Obama administration. “They tend to be conservative in their target-setting, but they meet those targets. They’re very much on track to be able to honor their 2030 targets.”

David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute, said Xi’s pledge “clearly sets out a direction of travel that’s transformational. The question is how to turn policy into practice.”

We should get more details about Xi’s bold but vague pledge when the Chinese government releases its latest nationally determined contribution—the carbon reduction goal statements that parties to the Paris Agreement submit to the U.N. every five years—ahead of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. (That conference was supposed to be this year but was postponed due to the coronavirus.)

One big question is when, exactly, before 2030, China plans to peak emissions. At an EU-China summit this month, EU leaders urged Beijing to peak by 2025, but Chinese leaders have been mum so far about a specific target.

Waskow also notes that China’s previous NDC doesn’t address non-CO2 emissions like methane and hydrofluorocarbons, which have a disproportionate impact on global warming. China’s contribution to this type of emissions alone, says Waskow, “would be equivalent to the seventh largest emitter in the world.” It’s unclear how these emissions factor into the new pledge.

Then there’s the question of how China plans to achieve its target. Yifei Li, a professor of environmental studies at NYU Shanghai and co-author of the book China Goes Green, says that it’s likely to be a combination of investments in green technologies, “carbon sinks” like ongoing reforestation projects in Northern China, and stepping up its national carbon cap-and-trade mechanism. “For example, if you’re organizing a sporting event, all of the vehicles and all of the water and all of the energy that you use for lighting the stadium will have to be accounted for,” says Li. “And if it exceeds your allocated carbon credits, you’ll have to buy them.”

While Li believes Xi’s pledge is good news for the planet, he is concerned that this plan would give an already extraordinarily powerful government a new mechanism to reward friends and punish enemies. “The Chinese government will be able to set these carbon emission rights for individual companies and government agencies,” he explains. “So, if it’s a well-behaving community, they could get five more credits. This enables the government to further intervene into the economy and private communities.”

Experts are also concerned that China may not reduce its pollution but simply relocate it. The massive global infrastructure investment project known as Belt and Road has already been criticized by environmentalists for putting money into energy-intensive projects, including coal-fired power plants, in other countries. “Chinese overseas financing is essentially a safety valve for the economic pressure that this energy transition creates,” says Scott Morris, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “Through Belt and Road, China has a mechanism for pushing out the dirty stuff so it doesn’t cause immediate disruption in the economy.” In other words, it won’t do much good for the world if China reduces its emissions while causing emissions to rise in Pakistan and Malaysia by the same amount.

The hope is that China’s commitment, the most ambitious so far by a developing country, will spur similar ambition from others. But it’s also important to remember that China’s size and economic power make it unique. Not every government can afford to be as ambitious.

“It will make other developing countries nervous that somehow this is intended to set out a path for them,” says Morris. “They don’t have the resources to manage this transition, which is why they’re very vocal about the need for support from wealthy countries.” It remains to be seen if China’s ambition to make its own energy transition will be matched by a commitment to help poorer countries do the same. China has been bidding for assistance from the Green Climate Fund, set up under the Paris framework, much to the irritation of the Trump administration.

Another question raised by Xi’s announcement is why it came now. It’s likely that China’s leaders are looking for a rare public relations win at a time when China is facing international backlash over the coronavirus, human rights, and trade policy. It was telling that Xi made his pledge just minutes after Trump’s China-bashing UNGA speech. “There has been a good amount of ill-will against China lately because of the pandemic and other things,” says Li. “The Chinese Communist Party is eager to rebuild its image as a responsible power. The environmental governance apparatus in the United States has been completely damaged by Donald Trump, so it’s a void space and China is eager to fill that space.”

This dynamic could create a challenge for Joe Biden if he wins the presidency. A Biden administration will undoubtedly make climate change more of a priority than its predecessor—it would be hard not to—but has also signaled it will continue to take a hard line on China when it comes to a range of issues including, but not limited to, human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, trade, intellectual property, Taiwan, and military competition in the South China Sea. Some experts have called on Biden to maintain good relations with China specifically to coordinate the fight against climate change, but that approach runs this risk of letting China “greenwash” its abuses.

Gallagher, the former Obama administration adviser, says this need not be an either/or choice, noting that in 2015, when the U.S. and China reached the landmark bilateral climate agreement that set the stage for Paris, tensions were also high on a range of issues including the South China Sea and alleged cyberattacks. “We showed that the United States and China can disagree on some issues and cooperate on others,” she says.

Granted, tensions are far higher now than they were then, but, Gallagher notes, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for the world if the U.S. and China behaved as rivals, fighting over the role of global climate change leader. “We can continue to push each other a little bit, almost in a competitive spirit,” she says.

Of course, that dynamic will require a U.S. president who sees fighting climate change as a worthwhile goal in the first place.