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How China’s carbon neutrality goal will transform the global heating trajectory

China’s new climate pledge will lead to a dramatic dip in warming projections. If its upcoming presidential election sees the United States return to the climate negotiation table in earnest, the goals of the Paris accord could be firmly within reach.

Wildfires, US, 2013
China’s carbon neutrality pledge comes as the worst wildfires on record are ravaging the American west coast. Image: NPS Climate Change Response, Public Domain Mark 1.0 via Flickr

If China were to hit its new emissions goal of going carbon neutral before 2060, it would bring down global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius, Carbon Action Tracker, a research group that analyses nations’ climate pledges, has revealed.

The organisation estimates that the announcement by President Xi Jinping at the United Nations General Assembly last week will lower heating predictions to around 2.4°C to 2.5°C, down from 2.7°C previously.

This would bring the world closer to the Paris Agreement’s central objective of keeping the average global temperature rise to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to cap the increase at 1.5°C, said the group.

China’s new pledge—a milestone in international climate policy—comes on the heels of a proposal submitted by the European Union (EU) to cut emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030. The bloc already said last year it would become carbon neutral by mid-century.

With both the EU and China’s new commitments, there are now 126 countries with similarly ambitious announcements. Together, these nations are responsible for more than half of global emissions, with China alone contributing 25 per cent, Carbon Action Tracker data shows.

“If China and the EU—which together account for 33 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions—were both to officially submit these new steps to the Paris Agreement, this would create the much-needed positive momentum the world—and the climate—needs,” said Bill Hare, chief executive officer at Climate Analytics, a Berlin-based non-profit climate science and policy institute.

Should Joe Biden clinch the presidency in the upcoming United States elections, humanity would stand an even better chance of averting climate catastrophe. The Democratic presidential candidate has promised to rejoin the Paris climate deal and steer the nation, the second-largest polluter globally, toward a low-emissions future.

Hare said that a Democratic win could mean the world’s top three emitters, China, the United States and the EU, which account for 45 per cent of global emissions, would all have targets to go net zero by mid-century, placing the 1.5°C heating limit of the Paris Agreement “firmly in reach”.

However, China’s goal to deliver net zero emissions by 2060 will not be enough to cap warming at 1.5°C. That emissions target, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in a 2018 report, will need to be reached 10 years earlier.

Experts have also raised questions about how China, the world’s biggest emitter, will follow through on its promise. For instance, how the target will affect the nation’s climate impacts overseas—its investments through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could set the world on the path for near-3 °C warming—and whether it applies to all greenhouse gas emissions has not been revealed.

Two days after China’s announcement, South Korea, the world’s seventh-biggest carbon emitter, became the first East Asian nation to declare a climate crisis. In its climate emergency resolution, which was passed by the country’s national assembly, South Korea also adopted a target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

But for now, the goal does not legally bind South Korea to strengthen its climate commitment under the Paris accord, and the nation continues to back new coal power—the single-largest contributor to man-made global warming—both domestically and overseas, with seven coal-fired power plants currently under development within its borders alone.

In 2018, the IPCC examined how rapidly coal power would need to be phased out globally to give the world a chance of keeping warming below 1.5°C. It found this would require a reduction of 59 per cent to 78 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030, before declining to zero.

The research body has also repeatedly warned that half a degree in warming would make a tremendous difference in climate impacts. For instance, under 1.5°C of heating, almost 14 per cent of the global population would be exposed to severe heat waves at least once in five years, and sea level rise would be 0.4 meters by the end of the century. At 2°C, that share would grow to 37 per cent, and sea levels would rise by 0.46 metres, exposing up to 79 million people to flooding.

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