China, in nudge to U.S., makes a new promise to tackle global warming

By Somini Sengupta

China on Saturday promised incremental new steps to address climate change in the next decade, but signaled that it would not reveal all of its plans before seeing the next moves taken by its main global rival, the United States.

Speaking at an online summit on the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, Xi Jinping, China’s leader, said that by 2030, China would reduce its carbon intensity by over 65%. Carbon intensity is a measure of greenhouse gas emissions relative to economic activity. That goal means that as China’s economy grows, so will its emissions, but at a slower rate than before.

Xi also said China would triple wind and solar power capacity to over 1 billion kilowatts and expand its forests.

Xi has used his recent speeches to international meetings to draw an implicit contrast with the Trump administration’s go-it-alone rhetoric, and Xi’s video speech Saturday also struck that theme.

“In meeting the climate challenge, no one can be aloof and unilateralism will get us nowhere,” Xi said. “Only by upholding multilateralism, unity and cooperation can we deliver shared benefits and win-win for all nations.”

Xi’s statement Saturday came three months after he announced in September that China would reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouses gases that have warmed the planet since the dawn of the industrial era, to net-zero, meaning that China would remove from the atmosphere whatever emissions it could not cut, by 2060.

China, the factory of the world, is the world’s biggest producer of planet-warming gases, and whatever it does to tamp down its emissions is a key to addressing climate change.

China’s greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, and Xi’s statement on Saturday reiterated that they would keep growing and peak only some time “before 2030.” That fell short of the timeline that many climate advocates had hoped for: that China would peak its emissions by 2025.

Xi said nothing about setting an absolute limit on China’s carbon dioxide emissions, nor whether or how he planned to reduce the country’s dependence on coal. China is by far the world’s largest consumer of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, and Xi has continued to expand coal-fired power plants at home and abroad.

The statement was a carefully calibrated move to demonstrate that China intends to move more quickly toward a sustainable economy, without revealing a lot of details before a new administration takes over in Washington. “I think China is waiting to see what the Biden administration will announce and can deliver on,” said Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are trying to signal that they’re going to continue to move forward on climate action domestically but they’re also holding back.”

As China’s economy, global status and greenhouse emissions have risen, Beijing has tried to show that it is committed to reducing emissions. But the government also wants to maintain industrial growth and rapid urbanization.

“We will promote greener economic and social development in all respects while pursuing high-quality development,” Xi said in his speech. He is likely to reveal more about how he intends to balance those goals early next year, when China unveils its next five-year plan that will include climate and energy goals.

With the pandemic having postponed the annual international climate negotiations by a full year, the online summit was intended to nudge countries to announce more ambitious climate plans for the short term. António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations and one of the hosts of the summit, called on every country to redirect coronavirus recovery funds away from fossil fuels and toward climate-friendly sectors. “We cannot use these resources to lock in policies that burden future generations with a mountain of debt on a broken planet,” he said, calling on world leaders to declare “a climate emergency.”

“Can anybody still deny that we are facing a dramatic emergency?” Guterres said in his address.

Scientists have repeatedly said that it is imperative to halve global greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade in order to stave off the most disastrous effects of climate change, including widening wildfires and the inundation of coastal cities. In the days leading up to the summit, a handful of industrialized countries set emissions reductions goals for the next decade. The European Union on Friday reached agreement with its member nations to slash emissions by 55% over the next decade, relative to 1990 levels. Britain earlier said it would cut its emissions by 68% by 2030, and on Friday announced that it would also stop funding fossil fuel projects abroad with its taxpayer money. Canada said it would substantially increase its levy on carbon dioxide to $170 a ton.

Some smaller countries made notable announcements at the summit as well on Saturday.

Pakistan said it would stop building new coal-fired power plants by 2030, noting that it had already shelved plans on some large coal projects. Barbados said it hoped most homes on the island would have rooftop solar panels and electric cars within the next decade, but said that its dangerously high levels of debt in the wake of the pandemic were making its climate goals all the more challenging. Notably, neither France, the host of the Paris Agreement, nor India, a major source of emissions, made new commitments. And there were absences, like Australia, Brazil and the United States.

The departing Trump administration has pulled out of the Paris Agreement altogether. President-elect Joe Biden repeated, in a statement, that he would join the accord on his first day in office and convene an international summit within the first 100 days of his administration.

Environmental advocates had hoped Xi would pledge to reduce carbon intensity more sharply, but the economic downturn spurred by the coronavirus pandemic may have tempered Beijing’s plans. Carbon intensity has traditionally grown with a country’s economy, and so any significant reductions require a major rewiring of the economy.

Li Shuo, a policy analyst at Greenpeace, said China needed to take swift action to implement what it has promised. He noted that China’s post-pandemic recovery package is “anything but green,” as it continues to grow its coal plants and promote infrastructure projects that increase pollution.

“Five years on from Paris, China’s progress remains fragile,” he said. “China’s announcement today is a salute to the Paris Agreement. But there is no time for Champagne. The hard work begins tomorrow.”

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