Chinese President Xi Pledges Carbon Neutrality by 2060

The timing is interesting though.

Unloading coal in China
Unloading coal in Lianyungang, Jiangsu, China.

 TPG/Getty Images

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the President of the United States attacked China's environmental record, blaming it for dumping plastic into the ocean, destroying coral reefs, and emitting "more toxic mercury into the into the atmosphere than any country, anywhere in the world." He concluded his environmental complaints:

"China’s carbon emissions are nearly twice what the US has and it’s rising fast. By contrast, after I withdrew from the one-sided Paris Climate Accord, last year, America reduced its carbon emissions by more than any country in the agreement, those who attack America’s exceptional environmental record while ignoring China’s rampant pollution are not interested in the environment. They only want to punish America and I will not stand for it."

Next up to the virtual podium was Chinese President Xi Jinping, who promised that China's emissions would peak in 2030 and would decline to net-zero by 2060, stating:

"Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature and go down the beaten path of extracting resources without investing in conservation, pursuing development at the expense of protection, and exploiting resources without restoration."

Xi's speech (unlike the U.S. president's) was all sweetness and light, leaving the criticism to others. According to CGTN, a house organ for the Chinese government,

"The announcement about the new target, according to analysts, also comes as the U.S. presidential elections are just five weeks away. With wildfires blazing in California and Oregon, killing residents, razing houses to ashes and affecting air quality, a considerable number of voters are likely to consider the country's climate action plan before they cast their ballot."

An "opinion" piece in the CGTN notes that while the EU and China are making bold moves and promises, it begs the question, what is the third big emitter doing?

"As the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases measured on a per capita basis, the U.S.' retrogression on climate change is concurred by scientists with rare objections. 'On a national level, the U.S.' governance of climate matters has undoubtedly regressed,' professor Zhang argued, 'because the interest groups that the Republican Party represents, on a certain level, oppose the whole idea of climate change.'"

We would happily describe President Xi's plans but nobody knows what they are. According to Gavin Thompson, Asia-Pacific vice-chairman for energy at Wood Mackenzie, in the South China Morning Post, “No road map was offered as to how this will be achieved. 2060 is a long time out and immediate, concrete steps have yet to be announced.”

Forty years is indeed a long time; 2030, when Xi promises emissions will peak, is much closer. Coincidentally, that is the year by which we are supposed to have cut emissions in half if we are going to hold global heating to 1.5°C. Meanwhile, as part of its COVID-19 recovery program, the Chinese government has just approved 17 more gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants, with 249.6 gigawatts under construction or being planned, "which is larger than the current coal fleets of the United States or India." According to the SCMP,

“'What is behind this is to some extent Covid-related because large-scale infrastructure projects are very appealing when local governments face economic difficulty,' said Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer for Greenpeace East Asia."

So they are building coal-fired plants like mad, cranking up the government-controlled production machinery to get the economy humming again, causing emissions to keep rising, but don't worry, they will stop doing this in 10 years.

Nikita Khrushchev with shoe at UN, 1960
Nikita Khrushchev with shoe at UN, 1960.  Screen capture

Promising that emissions will peak in 2030 deserves no applause when they are approving new coal plants and emissions should be going down now. Promising net-zero without any mention of how this will be done (we evidently have to wait until March for the five-year plan) isn't much better.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and China attack each other at the UN with a vehemence that we haven't seen since Khrushchev banged his shoe on the desk in 1960. It's all just so much posturing.