In his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 22, 2020, President Xi Jinping of China announced that China will scale up its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to tackling climate change by adopting more vigorous policies and measures in an effort to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality before 2060.

The announcement is among the most significant signs of progress concerning countries' efforts to mitigate climate change since agreeing to the Paris Agreement in 2015. Further clarifications on the exact commitment will be needed, and it is likely that even more ambition will be needed in future. Here are four key questions and answers about this important development.

1. What Exactly Is New?

The announcement marks the first time that China has set a concrete long-term target of carbon neutrality. This means that by 2060, the country will either stop carbon dioxide emissions altogether, or — more likely — use various means to remove an equivalent amount of any remaining emissions.

Xi also said that China will seek to peak its emissions “before 2030,” which is a change from the country’s initial NDC under the Paris Agreement to peak emissions “around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early.” While the new language shifts the existing timeframe for peaking emissions earlier, it leaves the precise year unclear, which opens the door for further potential announcements of an enhancement of its 2030 commitments. These could come, for example, as a response to new commitments by other countries or regions.

2. How Will China’s New Goals Impact Global Efforts to Fight Climate Change?

It is hard to overemphasize how transformational China’s carbon neutrality pledge is for international efforts to limit climate change. The Climate Action Tracker estimates that if China meets this target, it will lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees C (about 0.4 to 0.5 degrees F). This pledge puts the world one big step closer to achieving the Paris Agreement's goals and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

That said, the IPCC concludes that global carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to reach net zero on average by 2044 and 2066 respectively to limit warming to below 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) over pre-industrial levels. The net zero date for all GHGs is later because some of the non-carbon dioxide GHGs, such as methane, are harder to phase out but are extremely potent and can drive temperatures higher in the near term.

The world can still meet the Paris Agreement goal even if countries get to net-zero emissions at different times. However, for this to work, any net-positive emissions from one country in 2044 (carbon dioxide) and 2066 (GHGs) will need to balance out with net negative emissions in another country. And given the size of China's emissions, the math may not work if the neutrality target only covers carbon dioxide.

China’s commitment to go carbon neutral by 2060 is huge progress, but it is 16 years later than the IPCC recommends to fulfill the 1.5 degrees C goal. Major emitters, such as China, must adhere to this recommendation.

Nineteen other countries and the EU have adopted a net zero emissions target, and more than 100 are considering doing so. Current targets cover a range of time frames; most countries reference specific years between 2030 and 2050, while others like Singapore and Japan use more general references to the second half of the century. The EU, which had been the largest jurisdiction (as the world’s third-largest emitter) with a net zero target prior to China’s announcement, has committed to reaching net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. The U.S., which is currently the world’s second biggest emitter and is by far the most responsible for historical emissions, has no plan to announce any long-term targets under the current administration.

3. How Do China’s 2030 Climate Targets Link to Its Carbon Neutrality Goal?

While China’s long-term target may not cover non-carbon dioxide GHGs, the country must also address those gases; current non-carbon dioxide emissions in China have a warming impact greater than all GHGs from Japan or Brazil. Enacting policies to deal with these gases in the 2030 climate commitment could facilitate their ultimate inclusion in China’s long-term vision.

WRI research shows that China can stabilize non-carbon dioxide emissions by early 2020s. This is a decade earlier than current trajectories and would make China's total non-carbon dioxide emissions return to 2012 levels sometime before 2030.

China also needs to update its 2030 commitments on carbon dioxide to align short- and mid-term actions with its long-term vision. Doing so would boost the credibility of the carbon neutrality goal and cut the long-term costs.

Experts conclude that it is technically and economically feasible for China to set more ambitious 2030 targets. A study published in Nature Sustainability finds that China’s carbon dioxide emissions could peak as early as between 2021 and 2025. An analysis by the Energy Foundation China indicates the share of non-fossil energy could also be scaled up to 25% by 2030, which is five percentage points higher than the current NDC. According to Cambridge Econometrics, the scale of investment to align China’s short- and mid-term action with its 2060 vision could lead to net economic gains – potentially increasing China’s GDP by as much as 5% later this decade.

4. How Can China Fulfill These Ambitious Goals?

Because many carbon removal technologies are costly, the first and foremost task for China is to reduce human-caused emissions to as close to zero as possible and then balance the remaining emissions with an equivalent amount of carbon removal.

As many investments have a long lifespan, to get close to zero emissions, China needs to immediately stop or curb investment in carbon-emitting infrastructure without carbon capture and storage capacity and dramatically improve the energy efficiency of energy-consuming equipment. Otherwise, the country would need to shoulder the costs of early retirement of these carbon-intensive systems.

According to the Global Energy Monitor, China has 98,520 megawatts (MW) of coal power plants under construction and another 153,726 MW under various planning stages as of July 2020. If built, these power plants risk becoming stranded assets and would get in the way of China’s pursue of carbon neutrality.

Source: Data are based on International Energy Agency (2011), and Erickson et al. (2015).

Other short-term actions include enabling green power dispatch — which prioritizes dispatching renewable and low-cost electricity over electricity generated by coal — and other incentives to promote renewable energy, to mandate continuously updated industrial energy efficiency standards, and accelerate the electrification of transport vehicles.

Within a few years, China also needs to scale up investments in energy storage, power grid and hydrogen technologies; reduce the demand for industrial products (steel, cement, plastics, chemical products, etc.); develop alternatives for industrial products; electrify the energy supply for industries; and promote a systemic shift to low-carbon transport modes. Many of these needed measures are aligned with China’s plan on “new infrastructure” such as 5G, internet of things, industrial internet, cloud computing, blockchain, data centers, smart computing centers and smart transportation.  

Last but not least, China will need to fully unleash the potential of afforestation, wetland restoration and other natural-based solutions to increase carbon sinks, as doing so will provide environmental, economic and social benefits. The country should also speed up large-scale demonstration of carbon capture and storage from point sources of emissions, which could be catalytic in driving promising frontier technologies, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture and storage (DACS). Scaling up research, development and demonstration of BECCS and DACS are also very important.

China’s new climate pledges represent an exciting morale boost at a time when the impacts of climate change have never been clearer. Now the world is watching to see how the country will turn these pledges into action.