On September 22, at the United Nations General Assembly, China’s President Xi Jinping announced that China would achieve “carbon neutrality before 2060” and that China would strive to peak carbon emissions “before 2030.” This pledge is a watershed moment for global efforts to address climate change. It is the first time that China, the world’s largest emitter, has committed to a long-term greenhouse gas emission reduction target. Notably, the announcement came directly from China’s President.
In the absence of federal leadership and policy, climate action in the U.S. has largely been at the subnational level. Through executive order and legislative action, for example, California and New York have established targets for carbon neutrality by 2045 and 2050, respectively, and other states and cities are beginning to follow suit. California is a pioneer on a number of climate change policies, including on carbon markets, electric vehicles, and climate resilience. In fact, only a day after China made its announcement at the General Assembly, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order banning the sale of new gasoline-powered cars in California by 2035. In early October, he issued another executive order setting the goal to conserve 30 percent of the state’s land and coastal water by 2030 to prevent further species loss and ecosystem destruction.
For California, China’s announcement will create new opportunities for state agencies to work with national and provincial governments in China on a range of issues around carbon neutrality, including mid- and long-term planning on technology pathways, prioritization of sectors and decarbonization strategies, and policy coordination. China’s carbon neutrality goal will also help to focus and align existing California-China collaboration around zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), cap-and-trade, energy efficiency, renewable energy innovation, and climate resilience.
Impact and Implications of China’s Announcement
China’s carbon neutrality pledge demonstrates its intention to take ambitious, long-term action to address its greenhouse gas emissions. As the world’s largest consumer of coal, China produces 28 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and 26 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. By some calculations, if China achieves carbon neutrality before 2060, it could avoid around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming this century – the biggest single reduction ever estimated. According to one analysis, meeting the 2060 pledge would avoid the release of 215 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide over the next four decades, a significant share of the remaining carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees.
While not as noteworthy as its carbon neutrality pledge, China’s promise to peak emissions “before 2030” also represents an improvement on its Paris Agreement goal, which was to peak emissions “by 2030.” Some researchers have suggested that China is on track to peak emissions within the next decade.
However, the announcement, while historic, offered few details. President Xi did not elaborate on how China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 or how carbon neutrality would be interpreted across sectors and regions in China.
A major concern is China’s surge in new coal capacity over the past two years. In fact, China’s coal consumption rose dramatically this year as its economy contracted for the first time in 30 years amidst COVID-19 disruptions. China currently has 250 gigawatts of coal generation capacity under development. This includes 48 gigawatts of new coal projects, completed and operating, from January to April 2020, more than went into operation in all of 2019. By May of this year, carbon emissions from energy production, cement-making, and other industrial uses was already 4 percent higher than the year before.
The 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), which will be released by next year, is critical in charting a more detailed course for China from its near-term climate target to the 2060 carbon neutral goal. Key unanswered questions are expected to be addressed in this plan, including the energy intensity target after 2020; whether there will be a carbon cap; how much share of non-fossil fuel will be in power generation, and whether fossil fuel subsidies will be eliminated.
While there is still much uncertainty around China’s plan to achieve this goal, research shows that deep decarbonization and divestment from fossil fuels could pave a pathway toward carbon neutrality by 2060.
According to research from Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy, China’s pledge will require carbon emissions to fall rapidly, with carbon emissions peaking between 2025 and 2030, total energy demand peaking around 2035, and coal-fired electricity eliminated by 2050. Additionally, it would require a significant shift from fossil fuels to renewables, including boosting the share of non-fossil fuel energy from 15 percent in 2019 to 20 percent by 2025, ratcheting up to 84 percent by 2060. China would also have to capture and geologically sequester remaining carbon emissions.
A report from the Energy Transitions Commission and Rocky Mountain Institute last year similarly finds that it is “technically and economically feasible” for China to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. In the power sector, China will need to electrify its economy as much as possible, doubling generation by mid-century. China would also need to decarbonize its other heavily fossil-fuel-reliant sectors, including transportation, buildings, and industry.
Opportunities for California-China Collaboration on Carbon Neutrality
Even before President Xi’s announcement, the California-China Climate Institute had initiated a multi-part, collaborative carbon neutrality project to (a) build dialogue between agencies in California and China on carbon neutrality; (b) review and synthesize existing deep decarbonization studies in U.S. states and at a national level in China to develop a common framework for policy coordination; and (c) support capacity building for carbon neutrality analysis at a provincial level in China. The 2060 carbon neutrality goal provides a new source of momentum and purpose for this work.
California’s 2022 “scoping plan” will detail how California intends to achieve its climate goals, including its 2045 carbon neutrality target. This plan will help shape state policy over the next decade and also create openings for further California-China dialogue on carbon neutrality. Sector-specific opportunities for cooperation between California and China are also evolving in several key areas, including zero-emission vehicles, renewable electricity, low-greenhouse gas industrial technologies, building efficiency and electrification, and nature-based solutions.
With China’s recent commitment to achieving carbon neutrality and California’s existing neutrality goal, there will be many new and exciting opportunities to partner, to learn from one another, and to expand ambition in the years ahead.