China vows carbon neutrality by 2060 in major climate pledge

China is the world's most populous nation and top energy user, but Beijing has been trying to limit the use of the dirtiest fossil fuel in recent years while scaling up renewable energy production. PHOTO: REUTERS
China is the world's most populous nation and top energy user, but Beijing has been trying to limit the use of the dirtiest fossil fuel in recent years while scaling up renewable energy production. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060 - tightening its target to cut greenhouse gases - and has signalled higher spending on green technologies in the next five years, a major pledge in the fight against climate change by the world's worst polluter.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking during a virtual United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, also reiterated his goal for emissions to peak before 2030 and urged all nations to work towards a greener economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

While he did not lay out details, Mr Xi's announcement implies that China's emissions will have to sharply decline to reach net zero in less than 30 years after peaking in 2030.

"Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature and go down the beaten path of extracting resources without investing in conservation, pursuing development at the expense of protection and exploiting resources without restoration," Mr Xi said in a speech by video link.

The remarks suggest that China, the world's most populous nation and top energy user, is willing to take on more responsibility for tackling climate change.

It marks a contrast with US President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, which called for limits on fossil fuel emissions everywhere.

Mr Xi did not give any further details on what carbon neutrality means or set out further information about how Beijing's pledges under the Paris accord will evolve.

His announcement is evidence that the Chinese government's next five-year plan will seek to accelerate the spread of clean energy.

The plan for 2021-2025, due to be published in March, will likely seek to balance economic growth that has been fuelled by coal with the need to rein in pollutants damaging the atmosphere.

Beijing has been trying to limit the use of the dirtiest fossil fuel in recent years while scaling up renewable energy production.

As a result, it is on track to meet its pledge for power sector emissions to peak by 2030, according to Bloomberg's research service.

"Although details are scarce at the moment, this looks like a very significant step forward," said Mr Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

"China isn't just the world's biggest emitter, but the biggest energy financier and biggest market."

Reaching net zero carbon emissions would require enormous investments. By one estimate, published this week by analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein, the nation would need to spend US$5.5 trillion (S$7.5 trillion), or about US$180 billion annually, to reach that goal by 2050. It would require drastically cutting the use of fossil fuels and scaling up frontier technologies to offset its remaining emissions, including carbon capture.

European officials were expected to press Beijing to toughen its climate goals at a high-level meeting last week, according to two officials who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity.

The European Union wanted Chinese greenhouse gas emissions to peak by 2025 instead of the country's target date of 2030.

The bloc also wanted the country to stop building coal-fired power plants at home and financing them abroad, the officials said.

"Six years ago, the secret US-China climate deal caught the world by a nice surprise," said Mr Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia.

"Xi Jinping's climate pledge is a bold diplomatic move that demonstrates clear political will and the maximum desire to contrast China's climate stance with the US'."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2020, with the headline China vows carbon neutrality by 2060 in major climate pledge. Subscribe