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China’s Climate Goals ‘Realistic,’ ‘Ambitious’

FILE - Russia's President Vladimir Putin, China's President Xi Jinping, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. President Joe Biden and others are shown during a climate change virtual summit, April 22, 2021.

At a climate summit short on specifics, China stood out.

At a virtual gathering hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping made no new commitments beyond what he told the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September: "We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060."

Although many of the world’s governments have committed to keeping global warming below 2 Celsius, peaking emissions in 2020 or later means that emissions would need to fall faster than what is thought to be the maximum possible reduction of about 35% per year.

Carbon neutrality is achieved when the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere is the same as the amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere.

Haim Israel, managing director of research at Bank of America, was quoted by CNBC as saying the next battle between the U.S. and China will be over climate change and “it’s not just about saving the planet. We believe climate strategies offer a route to global supremacy.”

To achieve the CO2 emissions goal, Xi pledged to “strictly control” coal-fired power plants in China’s current five-year plan and “phase it down” over its 15th five-year plan, which starts after 2035.

China, a leader in producing technology for renewable energy like solar panels, burns coal to generate electricity that is critical to all sectors of its economy. Meeting emissions goals, “requires extraordinary hard efforts from China,” Xi said.

A giant screen shows news footage of Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a video summit on climate change from Beijing, China.
A giant screen shows news footage of Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a video summit on climate change from Beijing, China.

China must shut, retrofit or put into reserve capacity as much as 364 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power, and its carbon intensity of power generation must be halved, from 672 gCO2/kWh today to 356 gCO2/kWh, according to London-based climate data provider TransitionZero.

Jennifer Turner, director of China Environment Forum and manager Global Choke Point Initiative at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, told VOA Mandarin via email that China’s emission goals “are realistic, particularly if you consider China has met their original Paris commitments much earlier than planned, although they still have not made that official.”

She pointed out that “China is the #1 investor in clean energy in the world and investing heavily into battery storage, a field where progress will make it much easier to use the power more effectively from China’s massive wind and solar farms.”

Turner added, “In short, China has the political and investment power to meet and quite possibly go beyond these goals. President Xi spoke often over the past four years about China being a climate leader and he can move more aggressively to keep that title.”

Jane Nakano, senior fellow of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank, told VOA that China’s goals are “very ambitious” and added that whether the goals are realistic or not, “China has accomplished a lot of things that many other economies would have had a harder time really delivering.”

She continued to say: “The good news is that there's finally a very public articulation by Xi Jinping that there's a linkage between coal consumption by China and its climate mitigation goal and pledge.”

The more mixed and what Nakano called “perhaps disappointing news” is that China will not “really start phasing down on the coal consumption” until the next the 15th five-year plan.

President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, April 23, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks to the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, April 23, 2021, in Washington.

Biden set out a goal for the U.S. to cut emissions by 50% to 52% from 2005 levels at the start of a two-day gathering that began on April 22, Earth Day, and was attended virtually by leaders of 40 countries, including big emitters India and Russia.

The U.S. plan puts it on track to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 C compared with preindustrial levels. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement on June 1, 2017. Rejoining the Paris Agreement signed by 197 nations was one of Biden's top priorities, and he signed an executive order initiating a 30-day process to reenter the pact hours after his inauguration on January 20.

Greenhouse gases are those in Earth’s atmosphere that trap heat. They let sunlight pass through the atmosphere, but they prevent the heat that the sunlight delivers from leaving the atmosphere, according to NASA. The main greenhouse gases are water vapor, CO2, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons.

The other greenhouse gases, especially methane, are also big contributors to global warming. That's why the U.S. and the European Union countries are targeting greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, European leaders set a target for climate neutrality by 2050 that covers all emissions.

China's carbon dioxide emissions, which account for about a quarter of the world's total, are about twice those of the United States.

Scott Moore, director of the Global China Program at the University of Pennsylvania and a former U.S. official in the Obama administration, said no matter how contentious the relationship between Washington and Beijing on many fronts, climate change gave China an area for working constructively with the U.S. on a global challenge.

Moore, who participated in negotiations with China on the Paris Agreement, told VOA that cooperating with the U.S. on climate change gives China an opportunity to pressure Washington on other issues.

"They want to link cooperation on climate change with some type of concession on human rights or political freedom. That's obviously a nonstarter in terms of U.S. policy," he said.

When commenting on U.S.-China cooperation on climate change in January, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the cooperation, "unlike flowers that can bloom in a greenhouse despite winter chill, is closely linked with bilateral relations as a whole."