In a jaw-dropping announcement, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his government plans to boost China’s Paris climate accord target and called for a green revolution, just minutes after US President Donald Trump blasted Beijing for “rampant pollution”.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Xi reiterated China’s goal of achieving a peak in carbon dioxide emissions before 2030.
He then announced that his country would effectively balance out its carbon emissions with measures to offset them before 2060, the first time the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide has pledged to end its net contribution to climate change.
“China will scale up its intended nationally determined contributions [to the Paris agreement] by adopting more vigorous policies and measures,” Xi said, urging all countries to pursue a “green recovery of the world economy in the post-COVID era.”
Xi used the lectern to call for multilateral action on climate change after Trump called the Paris climate agreement – with nearly 200 signatories – a one-sided deal and criticised China for being the world’s largest source of carbon emissions.
Todd Stern, the United States’s climate envoy under the administration of former President Barack Obama, who worked on brokering a bilateral climate agreement with China in 2014, said the announcement was an “encouraging” step.
“Today’s announcement by President Xi Jinping that China intends to reach carbon neutrality before 2060 is big and important news – the closer to 2050 the better,” he said, but added that the 2030 goal “won’t be enough” to get it on track for the longer-term target.
The US and China have been hit this year by extreme weather of the kind predicted by scientists to accompany climate change. In China, heavy rains over the summer unleashed the most punishing flood season in about 30 years, while the US is facing one of its busiest hurricane seasons at the same time that record wildfires ravage western states.
‘America’s exceptional environmental record’
Trump has referred to climate change as a “hoax,” and in 2017 pulled the US out of the Paris accords laying out an international approach to the problem. Joe Biden, his Democratic presidential challenger and a former vice president, has included climate change on his list of significant crises facing the US.
Trump, who has rolled back or pared down hundreds of environmental regulations, said the US had reduced its carbon emissions by more than any country in the agreement.
“Those who attack America’s exceptional environmental record while ignoring China’s rampant pollution are not interested in the environment. They only want to punish America. And I will not stand for it,” Trump said.
Li Shuo, a climate diplomacy expert at Greenpeace, said Xi’s climate pledge, minutes after Trump’s speech, was “clearly a bold and well-calculated move”.
“It demonstrates Xi’s consistent interest in leveraging the climate agenda for geopolitical purposes,” he said.
All Paris signatories are required to update their commitments under the agreement before the end of the year, and China could release more details on its climate plans at that time. The country’s leadership is also set to reveal more about its path towards cutting emissions as part of its five-year plan for 2021 to 2025, which will be released next month, with details to be made public in March of next year.
Although many analysts have predicted that China was already on track to achieve peak emissions by 2030, the formal announcement was welcomed by the European Union, which has been negotiating with China to set a target for carbon neutrality and to announce a peak date. The EU had been urging Beijing to bring the date forward to 2025.
“I welcome the announcement by President Xi that China has set a date for its CO2 emissions to peak and will become carbon neutral before 2060,” said Frans Timmermans, vice president for the European Green Deal, while adding that every country needs to ramp up its climate targets.
End of the road for Chinese coal?
European officials were also expected to press China to toughen its climate goals, according to two officials who spoke to Bloomberg News on the condition of anonymity. The EU wanted Chinese emissions to peak by 2025 instead of the country’s target date of 2030. The bloc also wanted China to stop building coal-fired power plants at home and financing them abroad, the people said.
Whether or not China’s climate plans include putting limits on its coal power financing is another key question. The country wields enormous influence around the world through its Belt and Road initiative. Coal-fired power generation in Pakistan rose 57 percent in the fiscal year ended this past June, for instance, largely on the back of Chinese investments.
China also leads the world in the deployment of clean-energy technologies. To reach net-zero emissions in less than three decades, the country will have to double down on them. That, in turn, will make them cheaper and enable other countries to set even more ambitious climate goals.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, like Trump, used his UN speech to push back on international criticism of his country’s handling of the environment, as the number of fires in the Amazon stands at a 10-year high, while blazes in the Pantanal wetlands are the worst on record.
Environmental advocates blame Bolsonaro for emboldening illegal farmers and land speculators who set fire to land to increase its value for agricultural use, but the president said Brazilian agriculture feeds one billion people in the world and has strong environmental protections.
“And yet we are the victims of one of the most brutal campaigns of misinformation about the Amazon and the Pantanal,” he said, without specifying what information was false.