Are China’s new 2030 climate targets ambitious enough?

Five years after the Paris Agreement, and China has updated its climate targets for 2030 as scheduled. These goals will have a huge impact on the country’s carbon emissions over the coming decade.

Wind turbines in Xinjiang, China
Wind turbines in Xinjiang, China. Image: Chris Lim from East Coast (东海岸), Singapore (新加坡), CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On 12 December, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced new 2030 climate targets via video link to the Climate Action Summit organised by the UN, the UK and France. This is the second time in three months China has boosted its climate commitments.

A total of 45 countries announced more ambitious climate targets during the online meeting, and 24 made altogether new commitments. Under the Paris Agreement (adopted exactly five years earlier), countries are committed to volunteer Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) with a five-yearly process of assessment and if possible, greater commitments. China’s first NDC was submitted to the UN in 2015 and included targets for both 2020 and 2030.

During the online meeting, Xi announced a number of updated targets for 2030, including tougher goals for carbon emissions intensity, non-fossil energy share and an increase in forest volume. He also said China’s wind and solar power generating capacity will reach at least 1,200 gigawatts (GW) by 2030.

Back in September, Xi caused a stir when he told the UN General Assembly that China would aim for carbon neutrality by 2060. China is the first major developing nation to set such a goal, and the move bolstered confidence in global climate change efforts. But the lack of a detailed roadmap from the government, and the approval of a number of coal power plants as part of the post-pandemic stimulus, caused scepticism about the prospect of carbon neutrality.

Last week, the UN’s Emissions Gap Report for this year urged all countries to turn carbon neutrality goals into forceful near-term policies and actions, and to reflect these in their NDCs.

China has at last published the key steps it will take on the way to carbon neutrality, and the emissions curve for the coming decade is becoming clearer.

The key is how fast low-carbon tech can be developed and applied, how fast the economy can be restructured, and how well we tackle the problems that arise during that transition.

Zou Ji, president, Energy Foundation

Peak timing

In his speech, Xi restated China’s commitment to reaching peak carbon by 2030. Of the climate targets that were updated, the most relevant to peak carbon is the carbon intensity reduction of over 65 per cent on a 2005 baseline by 2030. This is tougher than the 2015 NDC’s 60-65 per cent reduction target, but not as big a change as some experts had expected.

Prior to the summit, many Chinese researchers had recommended a reduction of 70 per cent, if not more. Li Shuo, senior policy officer for Greenpeace East Asia, said that 70 per cent or more would have meant peak carbon coming around 2025, given reasonable assumptions for economic growth.

Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and current president of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, wrote in advance of the summit that he hoped to see China reach peak carbon before 2025 – and that simply reiterating the “before 2030” commitment would no longer match the expectations of the international community.

Research from China and overseas indicates a peak around 2025 is doable. Zou Ji, president of Energy Foundation China, told China Dialogue that date is important for the carbon-neutrality goal: “The earlier you peak, the more control you have. Things are less certain as it gets later.”

A World Resources Institute (WRI) report on carbon neutrality said China has strong economic and social reasons to achieve peak carbon by 2026. The health benefits of climate action would avoid almost 1.9 million deaths by 2050 and produce around $1 trillion in net economic and social benefits. Manish Bapna, executive vice president and managing director of the WRI, said that “without strong climate action, China will miss out on opportunities from a healthier and more efficient economy.”

Research on a carbon neutrality roadmap published in October, by Tsinghua University’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD), found that a 68 per cent drop in carbon intensity by 2030 would mean achieving peak carbon shortly before that year, and then a steep decline as emissions trend towards zero. Li Shuo said: “We can’t place our hopes in some miraculous emissions technology appearing after 2030. That’s not realistic.” He thinks the updated commitments are a step forward but “it is not yet time to open the champagne.”

Zou Ji pointed out that the new NDC has not taken China off the path to carbon neutrality. A 65 per cent reduction in carbon intensity compared to a 70-75 per cent reduction will mean a two- or three-year difference in the date of peak carbon, and there is always the possibility of further reductions in carbon intensity in the coming years. “The key is how fast low-carbon tech can be developed and applied, how fast the economy can be restructured, and how well we tackle the problems that arise during that transition,” he told China Dialogue.

Zou points out that China’s emissions growth has been slowing for years, and that the decoupling of emissions from economic growth is already underway, with growth no longer reliant on carbon emissions. This means China is better able to manage and limit total carbon emissions, and he is calling for a carbon cap to feature in the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025).

Boosting renewables

As expected, China increased its renewables targets, with non-fossil share of energy set at 25 per cent by 2030, and a new target for wind and solar capacity added to the NDC.

Kevin Tu, a senior advisor with international energy thinktank Agora Energiewende, thinks the significance of that 25 per cent non-fossil share target should not be underestimated. Given the International Energy Agency’s predicted non-fossil energy share for China, of 18.6 per cent, this could mean a 12 per cent reduction in coal consumption.

Chai Qimin, director of strategic planning at the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC), says these commitments are expected to bring $990 billion in new low-carbon investment and over 8.7 million new jobs in renewable energy, as well as to spur rapid global development in fields such as renewable power generation and smart grids.

The new renewables target means adding 80 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity annually for the next 10 years – much more than between 2016 and 2020. But a report from Energy magazine points out it will still be slower than the 120-150 gigawatts annual increase the industry itself expects.

In September, and in response to China’s 2060 carbon-neutrality commitment, the renewables industry significantly increased its predictions for future expansion. Swithin Lui, an analyst with the NewClimate Institute, said the target is relatively conservative and will not shake coal power’s dominance in the energy mix – but that the country has “a history of promising little and over-achieving, so we can be reasonably optimistic that China may do more than it has led us to believe.”

Zou Ji added that the NDC is not the end of China’s low-carbon transition efforts, but does send a clear signal, that China is “now more set upon a low-carbon path.” Fang Li, chief representative at the WRI’s China office, has already seen local changes: “I just returned from a trip to Zhejiang and Guangdong, where I’ve seen local governments drafting emissions plans, and some industries are also starting to act.”

“China’s actually done a very good job over the five years since the Paris Agreement was reached,” she said.

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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