How will the world’s biggest developing country bring down the world’s highest greenhouse gases emissions to net-zero in the shortest period of time? (How) is China’s decarbonisation different from the rest of the world?
The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heinrich Böll Foundation or other participants of the 22nd Foreign Policy Conference.
As the world’s largest greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitter and the largest developing economy today, China is at the centre of global efforts to address climate change.
Many discussions around China’s climate policy focus on assessing whether China’s climate pledges are sufficient to constrain global temperature rising and pressuring China to pledge more targets with higher ambitions. This article will go through some of the fundamentals, hoping to contribute to the discussion with a more factual and nuanced context.
The ‘dual-carbon’ goals
China’s current climate pledge under the Paris Agreement can be summarised as “dual-carbon” goals (“双碳”目标):
- peaking carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions before 2030 and “making best efforts to peak early”, and;
- achieving carbon neutrality before 2060 (which means net-zero emissions of all greenhouse gases).
The above goals were firstly announced by China’s President Xi Jinping in December 2020 and were made official in November 2021 prior to the COP26 Glasgow, following China’s submission of its revised Nationally Determined Commitment (NDC) and its Long-term Strategy (LTS) to the United Nations.
In plain language, the “dual-carbon” goals mean CO2 emissions need to arrive at the peak level before 2030. Then, emissions shall enter a plateau period during which the emissions might fluctuate but mostly stay flat with a general trend of declining.
After that, CO2 emissions shall continue to decline and eventually drop to zero before 2050. (Theoretically, the peaking of other non-CO2 emissions will arrive afterwards, with no explicit timeline being pledged yet.)
Then, with negative technologies such as carbon sequestration and carbon capture and storage (CCS), CO2 emissions shall continue to decline to negative no later than the 2050s (so that the negative emissions could balance out the positive emissions of some other non-CO2 GHGs such as methane from agricultural sources and natural and chemical processes).
Eventually, the total emissions of CO2 and non-CO2 GHGs should arrive at a dynamic status of “net zero” before 2060.
In its way towards decarbonisation, China has to tackle multiple social, economic and environmental challenges such as alleviating poverty, addressing inequality, and tackling environmental degradation, to transform itself from the world’s largest developing country today to a “great socialist modern country” in the 2050s.
The stakes are high, and time is pressing. As the Chinese authority put it, China has to make the leap from peak emissions to carbon neutrality in the world’s “shortest time”.
In a nutshell, the “dual-carbon” goals require China to compress the tens of decades of process that many developed countries have gone through in achieving social and economic prosperity and will spend in achieving the decarbonisation transition in merely forty years.
That’s equivalent to:
- an action window of less than ten years for the world’s largest emitter today to reach the tipping point of its emissions curve, and
- another thirty-years action window to bring down 10-11 gigatonnes (Gt) of annual CO2 emissions at its peak level to negative, while mitigating other non-CO2 GHGs emissions.
To put this into perspective, under the Paris Agreement, the European Union (EU), which has peaked emissions in 1979, is committed to reaching net-zero by 2050. In terms of the scale of mitigation, over the same course of 30 years during which China needs to bring down 27% of global CO2 emissions to net-zero, the EU’s 2050 pledge corresponds to about a third of the mitigation burden of that of China.
Bending the curve
The dispute on whether China could advance the pledged deadline of 2030 or 2060 aside, the decarbonisation of the world’s largest emitter is undoubtedly significant.
Cambridge Econometrics, a UK-based think tank, estimates that China going net-zero by 2060 alone could avoid 215 GtCO2 emissions in the next 40 years. The avoided emissions are equivalent to its cumulative emissions in the past half-century. They also mean shaving 0.2°C to 0.3°C off global temperatures by 2100.
As of today, China has made three batches of climate pledges internationally, including a set of targets such as carbon intensity reduction, the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption, forest stock volume increment, and most recently, installed capacity of wind and solar power generation.
As shown in the table below, the first batch of targets set for 2020 under the Copenhagen Accord has all been achieved. The forest stock volume increase, in particular, is overachieved by almost 300%. The efforts in the 2010s also laid a good foundation for China to achieve the other climate targets in the 2020s.
#1 - Pledges for 2020
#2 - Pledges
#3 - Pledges
Peaking CO2 emissions
(and “making best efforts to peak early”)
Around 80% of China’s emissions “having peaked” or “expected to peak before 2025”
(and “achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”)
Carbon dioxide emissions
40 - 45%
60 - 65%
Non-fossil share in the primary energy consumption
Forest stock volume increase (compared to the 2005 level)
Around 4.5bn m3
Installed capacity of wind and solar power
Over 1,200 GW
(The chart showcases China’s internationally pledged climate targets for 2020 and 2030, as well as the progress by the end of 2020. China’s internationally pledged climate targets are extracted from its official submission to the United Nations in 2011, 2016 and 2021, respectively. China’s progress in achieving the first set of targets as of 2020 are compiled by the author from public information disclosed by the Chinese government in 2021. An earlier version of this chart was published on Carbon Brief in December 2021.)
Noteworthy, China has not set a cap on carbon emissions yet. “Carbon intensity”, the sole indicator on carbon emissions in its climate pledges, is a relative term to GDP output. China has not explicitly communicated whether this indicator only covers energy-related emissions or emissions from all activities.
For similar reasons, it is a hurdle to assess how much China's efforts under the “Copenhagen Accord” have contributed to emissions reduction (China’s own official data suggests its efforts in the 2010s represent a cumulative reduction of about 5.7bn t CO2) and how much its “enhanced ambitions” brought up in 2021 could further bend the emissions curve.
My analysis for Carbon Brief in December 2021 estimates that China’s new NDC could lower the country’s peak emission by 1.62 Gt CO2 (assuming the peak arrives in 2030, not before, and the official data on carbon intensity reflects all emissions not just from energy activities). That is comparable to the emissions of Germany, South Korea and Brazil in 2020 combined.
If China can live up to its potential and deliver a 70-75% reduction in carbon intensity by 2030, it could mean further shaving the peak level by another 0.5 Gt CO2. That is roughly Canada’s emissions in 2020.
Peaking before 2030
There is a widely spread anticipation that China could – and should – peak emissions before the pledged deadline of 2030, and even “before 2025”.
Some domestic policies have already conveyed an exigence of peaking emissions before 2030. For example, China encourages public institutions and central enterprises with the “conditions to peak ahead of time” to aim for an earlier peak “before 2025”. Similar instructions are also outlined in several provincial climate actions plans in the 14th five-year period (14FYP, which covers a five-year period from 2021 to 2025).
“Peaking before 2025” is proposed for several energy-intensive and high emission industries such as iron and steel, cement, aluminium, chemical and petrochemicals at sectoral, national or provincial level. Altogether, these industrial sectors account for about 20-25% of China’s total emissions.
However, a recent guidance on the steel sector adopts a “more conservative” peaking deadline of 2030. While some analysts argue it is unlikely a sign of retreating the national climate goal, others think the adjustment creates many uncertainties for an earlier and lower peak.
At the same time, evidence of an early peak is accumulating. About 80% of China’s emissions have or might peak by 2025, according to Energy Foundation China. In the last quarter of 2021, the emissions surge since the post-lockdown has started to cool down.
At COP26 Glasgow, US Special Climate Envoy John Kerry even told the press that US officials believe that China “may have already peaked” and “plateaued” its emissions. However, this information is neither confirmed nor denied by Chinese authorities.
An earlier peak, if it happens, will surely demonstrate a key characteristic of China’s climate policy making – “pragmatism”. The most recent high-level reference of this is Xi Jinping’s call for world leaders to “focus on concrete actions” in his written statement to the COP26 climate summit. The international society, on the other hand, wants to see both “concrete actions” and more ambitions from China.
Another main feature is what scholars and policy analysts call “under-promise and over-deliver”. As a top government advisor describes, China’s climate targets under the Paris Agreement only represent a “bottom line” and they will “definitely be achieved”. It is important to note, however, this empirical description is not always a golden rule.
Transition towards net-zero
It is beyond doubt that peaking emissions ahead of the deadline at a lower level is beneficial to China, in particular, in relieving the long-term challenges of achieving carbon neutrality after the emissions peak.
But China didn’t opt for the scenario in which it “could have peaked emissions” through an “administrative order”. Instead, the country decided to promote decarbonisation in an “orderly manner” under the ruling party’s new development philosophy, and put emphasis on the role of both administrative orders and market-based mechanisms in driving the transformation.
Professor Wang Yi, a Chinese academic and politician, summarised the consideration behind this as follows: as a developing country, the most important thing for China is “not to reach the peak immediately” but to “move to a transition pathway that will lead to carbon neutrality in forty years”.
Pacing the transition is no easy task; mishandling the intricate and sometimes contradictory priorities risks leading to social disruption and even “sacrificing the hard-earned progress” on climate change. As China’s leader Xi Jinping put it himself, achieving the “dual-carbon” goals is not something that can be “waited for” nor “rushed”.
In China, many scholars hold the view that “peaking carbon emissions before 2030” and “achieving carbon neutrality before 2060” should not be treated as two separate goals for two different phases. Rather, they “come as a package” and reflect the long-term planning of the country’s overall social and economic development.
It is also clear that the country’s leadership has decided to incorporate decarbonisation into the overall economic and social development framework, aiming to leverage decarbonisation as the “lever of the system” to transform the Chinese society towards a high-quality development.
While the pathway toward net-zero remains uncertain, it is comforting to see that China's economic growth has started to show less dependence on carbon emissions (a phenomenon that is often referred to as “decoupling”): since China started to tackle climate change in 2010, the country has almost doubled its GDP per capita while largely maintaining a steady level of emissions per capita, and similar trends are observed in a number of provinces in the past five years.