As the world’s largest annual carbon emitter, China’s carbon peak and carbon neutrality commitments have the potential of helping move the international community closer to achieving the Paris Agreement target, which is keeping global warming to below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. Should China be successful, it could set a blueprint for other high emitting countries to follow and replicate. 

In tackling the climate crisis on the global stage, the responsibilities of reducing carbon dioxide emissions has been markedly different between developed and developing countries. Developed and high-income countries emphasise on taking practical responsibilities whereas developing and low-income countries pay more attention to historical responsibilities. Although the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” has become a universally accepted principle in the world, it is not ideal in practice. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, established a “bottom-up” governance model based on the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) and set the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. More and more countries have been translating climate goals in their domestic strategies, and adopted individual carbon peak and carbon neutrality goals.

Notable Carbon Peak and Carbon Neutrality Goals

Carbon peak refers to the point in time in which greenhouse gas emissions will shrink in each following year, until it reaches emissions levels we deem to be safe. About 50 countries have reached a carbon peak, accounting for about 36% of global carbon emissions. The European Union reached its carbon peak in the 1990s at 4.5 billion tons while the US reached its carbon peak in 2007 at 5.9 billion tons. According to the Climate Change News, there are currently about 30 countries and territories that have set targets for net zero emissions or carbon neutrality by 2050. Higher income countries like Canada and the UK have adopted legally-binding policies to achieve the target while other nations like Argentina and Singapore have made formal submission to the UN on their climate action. China, however, has simply made a statement of intent.

China’s Commitment to Reach a Carbon Peak and Carbon Neutrality

China is one of the first major developing countries in the world to submit INDCs, which determines how they fulfil their climate action commitments under the Paris Agreement. At a UN General Assembly in September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping had put forward the country’s carbon peak and carbon neutral goals. The country has stated their commitment to reduce CO2 emissions progressively after they peak in 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, in which carbon emissions can be completely offset by  planting trees, saving energy and reducing fossil fuel output.

china carbon peak

Image 1: China’s carbon peak and neutrality goals. Photo by China Dialogue.

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China’s Road to Carbon Peaking and Carbon Neutrality 

In 2019, China’s carbon emissions were reduced by 48.1% compared with 2005 levels, achieving ahead of schedule the country’s 2020 target of a 40%- 45% reduction. 

Clean energy currently accounts for 23.4% of China’s total energy consumption. During the 13th Five-Year Plan period, greenhouse gas emissions have been controlled accordingly and energy conservation in key areas seemed to be effective (see image 2). 

china carbon intensity targets

Image 2: China’s carbon intensity levels since 2006. Photo by World Resources Institute

In a  report published by the Chinese government, “doing a good job in achieving carbon peak and carbon neutrality” was listed as one of the key tasks in 2021, and policies from the 14th Five-Year Plan will also contribute to achieving them. 

As the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, China’s pledge to be carbon neutral by the middle of the century can be achievable by speeding up reductions in emissions.  It will take significant and enforceable efforts but experts have recommended that the fundamental way to reach carbon peak and go carbon neutral in China is to optimise the energy structure, improve energy efficiency, strictly control the total amount of energy generated from fossil fuels, and to build a modern energy system dominated by clean energy, as well as the electrification of energy consumption. 

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons