• Recently, China made an unexpected announcement that ensured that there was no lack of climate change excitement this season. Speaking at the UN General Assembly, Chinese President Xi Jinping made two promises that came as a welcome surprise to climate change watchers.

What has China announced?

  • First, Xi said, China would become carbon net-zero by the year 2060. Net-zero is a state in which a country’s emissions are compensated by absorptions and removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Absorption can be increased by creating more carbon sinks such as forests, while removal involves application of technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
  • Second, the Chinese President announced a small but important change in China’s already committed target for letting its emissions “peak”, from “by 2030” to “before 2030”. That means China would not allow its greenhouse gas emissions to grow beyond that point. Xi did not specify how soon “before 2030” means, but even this much is being seen as a very positive move from the world’s largest emitter.

Why is net-zero an important target?

  • For the last couple of years, there has been a concerted campaign to get countries, especially the big emitters, to commit themselves to achieve “climate neutrality” by 2050. This is sometimes referred to as the state of net-zero emissions that would require countries to significantly reduce their emissions, while increasing land or forest sinks that would absorb the emissions that do take place. If the sinks are not adequate, countries can commit themselves to deploying technologies that physically remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Most of such carbon dioxide removal technologies are still unproven and extremely expensive.
  • Scientists and climate change campaign groups say global carbon neutrality by 2050 is the only way to achieve the Paris Agreement target of keeping global temperatures from rising beyond 2°C compared to pre-industrial times. At the current rate of emissions, the world is headed for a 3° to 4°C rise in temperatures by 2100.

How significant is China’s commitment?

  • China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It accounts for almost 30% of global emissions, more than the combined emissions in the United States, the European Union and India, the three next biggest emitters. Getting China to commit itself to a net-zero target, even if it is 10 years later than what everyone has in mind, is a big breakthrough, especially since countries have been reluctant to pledge themselves to such long term commitments.
  • So far, the European Union was the only big emitter to have committed itself to a net-zero emission status by 2050. More than 70 other countries have also made similar commitments but most of them have relatively low emissions because of which their net-zero status would not help the planet’s cause in a big way. The real heavyweights whose climate actions are crucial to achieving the Paris Agreement targets are the Big Four — China, the US, the European Union and India — who together account for more than half the global emissions, followed by countries such as Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Japan and Australia.
  • A week earlier, South Africa declared its intention to become carbon-neutral by 2050, but other countries have been holding back. The United States, under the Donald Trump administration, has walked out of the Paris Agreement, and does not even believe in these targets.

What is India’s commitment?

  • India has resisted pressure to make a long-term commitment, citing the fact that developed countries had utterly failed in keeping their past promises, and never delivered on the commitments they made earlier. India has also been arguing that the climate change actions it has been taking are, in relative terms, far more robust than those of the developed countries.
  • Until now, China had been making more or less similar arguments as India. The two countries have historically played together at the climate change negotiations, even though vast differences have emerged in their emissions and development status in the last couple of decades.
  • Therefore, China’s decision is a big shot in the arm for the success of Paris Agreement. According to Climate Action Tracker, a global group that offers scientific analysis on actions being taken by countries, the Chinese goal, if realised, would lower global warming projections for 2100 by about 0.2° to 0.3°C, the most impactful single action ever taken by any country.