What China does matters, they are the worlds largest emitter of carbon

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China is responsible for nearly 30 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. What it does to curb those will be crucial in the battle to stop global heating. Last week the economic powerhouse moved ahead with a national carbon trading scheme as part of efforts to see emissions peak by 2030, and for the country to be carbon-neutral by 2060.

What is the current situation?

China is home to around 18 per cent of the world’s population and responsible for 28 per cent of global manufacturing. Its huge manufacturing sector, coal-fired power plants and steel and concrete production all emit gases that contribute to climate change.

But in September last year, China’s President Xi Jinping announced that China will boost its efforts to tackle climate change; that carbon dioxide emissions will peak before 2030; and the country will reach carbon neutrality before 2060.

In 2020, China produced an estimated 14,400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), which is equal to the total annual emissions of nearly 180 of the world’s lowest-emitting countries combined, according to US-based independent research and analysis firm Rhodium Group. CO2e is the standard unit for measuring a country’s climate footprint and includes all the various types of greenhouse gases.

This matters because carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere, trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature. Climate change is causing sporadic extreme conditions such as severe winter storms and summer heat waves, and melting ice.

But how much blame should China get?

There is no doubt that China is a huge contributor to the gases that are responsible for changing climate conditions, but per capita they are still tracking below many in the developed world. Rhodium Group says China’s per capita emissions were 10.1 tonnes in 2019, which is slightly below the average levels of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and significantly below the per capita level of the US.

China, along with other developing countries that signed on to the Paris Agreement, does not face as stringent requirements to curb emissions as developed countries. The agreement asks that developed countries take the lead by undertaking absolute, economy-wide reduction targets, while developing countries just need to enhance their greenhouse gas-cutting efforts and are encouraged to move towards economy-wide targets.

Beijing, for its part, argues that rich developed countries need to take more responsibility and spend more to help developing countries reduce their emissions. This argument is based in part on the fact that developed countries have had relatively higher greenhouse gas emissions over the last two centuries. Since 1750, members of the OECD have emitted four times more CO2 on a cumulative basis than China, according to Rhodium Group.

What is China’s plan?

President Xi announced China would aim to be carbon-neutral by 2060. This means that the country will either reduce its carbon dioxide emissions or offset those to a neutral level by that year.

In 2020, China’s carbon dioxide emissions made up around 70 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas tally and totalled an estimated 10,190 million tonnes, according to Rhodium Group. It is this gas that China is targetting, not other gases such as methane.
To reach carbon neutrality by 2060, China will need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 85 per cent of its 2020 levels, according to a report authored by Betty Wang, senior China economist at ANZ in Hong Kong. The report says that technology for carbon capture, utilisation and storage will also be needed if the country wants to meet its goal.

Xi also added in that same speech that China would lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65 per cent from the 2005 level; increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25 per cent; increase the forest stock by roughly 40 per cent from 2005 levels; and bring its total installed capacity of wind and solar power to over 1.2 billion kilowatts.

How’s it doing?

It is estimated that China’s carbon emissions rose in 2020. This is in contrast to many countries, which saw their emissions fall due to the impact of Covid-19 on the transport and production sectors.

However, Rhodium Group says China met its Copenhagen Accord pledges of reducing its carbon intensity as a proportion of GDP by 40-45 per cent of 2005 levels and increasing the share of non-fossil energy in its primary energy consumption to around 15 per cent. But it notes that the country’s continued emissions growth jeopardises its long-term Paris Agreement goals.

Jorrit Gosens, a research fellow at the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at the Australian National University, says that China’s target of having emissions peak before 2030 is not particularly ambitious given efficiency improvements already seen in its energy sector.
“And the 2060 goal doesn’t say much about what they’re going to do in the next five years,” he says. But he notes that the 2060 goal is very ambitious.

China’s Carbon Trading Market
China last Wednesday announced details of its new carbon trading market. The first stage of the national emissions trading scheme will cover more than 2000 power plants, before being expanded to cover other sectors such as cement, steel and aluminium, said Zhao Yingmin, China’s vice-minister for ecology and the environment, in a press conference that day.

As in similar schemes globally, the companies will be allocated carbon credits that they can either use to cover their own emissions or sell on the market. If their emissions are higher than those allocated then they will have to buy credits to cover those.
Gosens says China’s slow introduction is similar to how countries such as in Europe brought their trading schemes in, allowing companies to adjust.

“The Chinese government is somewhat hesitant to ratchet up the ambition level with its system because they’re not completely sure how it will affect profitability,” he adds.
How does China’s plan measure up with other pledges?

China’s plan to be carbon neutral by 2060 is less ambitious than many other countries, although not relative to its wealth. The US, the world’s second largest emitter, the UK, and Japan, along with more than 110 countries, have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050.
However, the United Nations notes that this is not enough, as there have been no bold commitments yet to mobilise the finance necessary to achieve the net zero commitment by 2050, nor, more broadly, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Furthermore, India, one of the world’s largest emitters, has yet to pledge to go carbon neutral. Although India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi did say at the end of 2019 at the Climate Ambition Summit that: “We must accept that if we have to overcome a serious challenge like climate change, then what we are doing at the moment is just not enough.”
This statement is true for most countries.

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