When President Xi Jinping announced that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, not many people are fully aware what it would mean for the country and the world.
Carbon neutrality refers to achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by balancing greenhouse gas emissions with carbon removal or simply eliminating carbon dioxide emissions altogether. It means having a net-zero carbon footprint.
Xi's pledge came in a speech at the General Debate of the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 22, less than an hour after U.S. President Donald Trump attacked China for "rampant pollution." But Trump conveniently ignored the fact that the economies of the developed world, including the U.S., were powered by coal and petroleum for almost two centuries, as their pollution remained completely unchecked in that period.
Meanwhile, he has often referred to climate change as a "hoax" and withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement two years ago. Most recently, during a tour of wildfire-ravaged California in September, Trump said, "I don't think science knows" about climate.
Both the U.S. and China have been hit by extreme weather conditions this year predicted by climate change models. In China, heavy rains over the summer unleashed the most severe flood season in three decades, while the U.S. is facing one of its most active hurricane seasons on its southern and eastern coasts and record wildfires in western states.
China is currently the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But it is also the world's leading manufacturer, with exports contributing 20 percent to its GDP. Moreover, this volume translated into a climate change framework means that one fifth of these greenhouse gas emissions have actually served consumers in other nations, while leaving a carbon footprint in China.
Not with standing this reality and the fact that decarbonizing is painstaking and expensive, China's bold carbon-neutral pledge comes ahead of any such promise from the U.S. In abandoning the Paris Agreement, Trump said if the U.S. remained, it would leave millions of families trapped in poverty and joblessness. China is fully aware of these risks.
The most challenging part of the pledge for China is not the magnitude of investment in or application of renewable energies, but the social transition that it entails. Halving or eliminating coal capacity would result in the loss of millions of mining jobs, which will affect regions that depend on its revenue. But the Chinese see every crisis as an opportunity.
As former U.S. President John F. Kennedy correctly stated, "The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word' crisis.' One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognize the opportunity." Xi's announcement suggests that he believes this transition can be managed, and that the benefits outweigh the costs.
In the past years, China has emerged as a leader in clean energy technologies, including solar panels and wind turbines, as well as the world's largest manufacturer of electric cars and buses. Its investment in clean energy will not only drive dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, but also lower the cost of clean energy, creating a spillover effect in other countries.
In addition, the share of coal in China's primary energy consumption has declined to nearly 57 percent, while non-fossil energy exceeds 15 percent. Thus, by 2050, non-fossil energy could account for more than 90 percent of total power generation, which would set China on a path to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2060.
A report by Carbon Brief, a UK-based website focusing on climate science, showed that China's pledge could avoid 0.25 degree Celsius of global warming this century, which would mean temperatures would rise to 2.34 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, instead of the 2.59 degrees Celsius predicted in a baseline scenario.