On Tuesday the 22nd September, President Xi Jinping made history by committing China to its most ambitious climate targets yet. Further details are due to be set out in what will be China’s 14th “5 Year Plan” next March but already, the significance of this development is hard to overstate. President Xi has pledged that China will reach peak Carbon Dioxide emissions by 2030 and will achieve net zero by 2060. It has been estimated that meeting this commitment will require the installation of at least 80GW worth of solar panels and 36GW worth of wind turbines, every year. To put that into perspective, the UK has a total renewable energy capacity of 48.5GW (just 40% of China’s annual requirement), and renewable energy accounts for half of all the electricity we use.
Assuming these targets are met, the impact upon the global struggle to limit the effects of climate change will be immense. The Climate Action Tracker estimates that in meeting these targets, China would unilaterally lower the projected 2100 temperature increase to around 2.5°C, a 0.2-0.3°C decrease from the previous prediction and, when every fraction of a degree equates to drastic and long-term changes in the future quality of human life, this is a moment to celebrate.
China is often referred to as the most polluting nation in the world, which has the potential to be a misleading statement when not given the appropriate context. Yes, China is responsible for approximately 28% of the greenhouse gas emissions making it the world’s largest emitter, but it is also the world’s most populous nation. A slightly fairer metric is to consider CO2 emissions per capita, and in this, China could be considered less polluting than a whole host of other countries, including Japan, Russia, Canada, and the US.
Perhaps, therefore, the true reason to be cheerful is not the direct impact that an increasingly environmentally ambitious China will have, but the repercussions that will follow. Both in terms of the development of more efficient technology, and when considering economies of scale, this massive investment in sustainable development has the potential to drive down the cost of renewable energy globally. With the EU already contemplating the introduction of a “carbon border tax”, designed to make it more expensive to trade goods with a higher carbon footprint, this could be yet another economic incentive for the world community to prioritise green energy.
And finally, there is an important geopolitical angle to consider, especially given the timings of President Xi’s speech. It was delivered only a couple of days after President Trump struck a divisive tone in his own address, which contrasted directly with Xi’s internationalist message of “living in an interconnected global village with a common stake” and “a shared future in which everyone is bound together”.
Both China and European nations are a long way off targets that are compatible with the 1.5°C target set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, and it would be a mistake to conflate even these targets with actual progress, but they are at least moving in the right direction. All eyes now turn to the 2nd largest CO2 emitter- the United States, and to its upcoming presidential election.