Why China Will Achieve Net-Zero Sooner Than Expected

Jack Roycroft-Sherry (1st year Economics)

China’s “net-zero by 2060” promise in September of 2020 was unexpected. It baffled many commentators and had heads turning around the world. The claim does, at a glance, appear audacious. For one, China contributes almost a third of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. Remarkably, the growth of global emissions in 2019 was almost entirely due to China. A response, then, of shock and surprise was not necessarily undeserved. Yet, everyone should certainly hope that China succeeds; the new target (if achieved) could lower global warming projections by up to 0.4°C compared to the current disastrous course. And there’s reason to believe they will.

To achieve net-zero by 2060 and have CO2 emissions peak by 2030, would require enormous, and seemingly insurmountable, structural and strategic realignment. A view of cautious optimism can, however, be explained by appreciating what China is capable of. The Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest hydroelectric power facility – is testament to China’s manufacturing prowess and sheer audacity, as well as highlighting China’s strength in renewables. Impressive infrastructure projects both at home and overseas, as well as a burgeoning space program, demonstrate how China’s power is continuing to grow.

China does what few nations can do. That means their ambitions often appear radical and idealistic. However, China’s divergence from global norms seems to be something which could facilitate the achievement of its lofty aims rather than hinder them. Coal, for example, still accounted for 57.7% of China’s energy use in 2019, and grew by 40 gigawatts in 2019. Europe and the US on the other hand, regions that are increasingly being compared to China as economic and political equals, have significantly reduced their use of coal. Bizarrely then, whilst many of its peers ditch the infamous fossil fuel China does the opposite. For some, this is concerning; sceptics maintain that the continued approval of new coal projects is incompatible with decarbonisation. However, China might be able to justify these developments.

Indeed, China’s capacity for generating electricity from coal is expanding. So is its population and its energy needs. Yet, “In reality, what happens in the 2020s will not significantly impact the 2060 target, as coal plants can operate for a 30-year lifetime and then retire before 2060” says Alex Whitworth, research director at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “In the meantime, the more efficient new plants can offset some of the emissions from older, less efficient plants that can be shut down.” China’s quickly rising coal capacity is, in fact, a logical solution to ballooning energy demand which will help to dampen pollution in the short-term – easing the transition to a sustainable future.

Moreover, China already stands as the world’s largest producer of solar and wind power; state-backed firms are increasing renewable energy investments both overseas and at home. Global improvements in technical knowledge should also accelerate China’s progression to carbon neutrality. If we expect technological advances to continue to snowball in the field of renewable energy, China’s net-zero target could be appreciated as both realistic and achievable. 

Structurally and politically, China is also well positioned to secure results. China’s communist party is capable of stirring massive systemic change. The halting of the Ant IPO last November sent a clear message: Billionaires must also defer to the Party. The Chinese government’s ability to coerce is more uncompromising than most. That means all sectors of the economy may be forced to evolve green habits, and that is no bad thing. 

It is no secret that China is concerned about its reputation overseas. Since 2017, a branch of its Communist Party, titled the International Department – designed with the sole purpose of winning foreign political support – have been busy orchestrating elaborate seminars and meetings glorifying, and spreading Chinese methodologies. During the COVID pandemic, foreign leaders of mainly emerging economies sat through online workshops that praised the Chinese response to the pandemic. In short, China is seeking acclaim and attempting to build trust.

To maintain all it has built, China must stick to its promises. Failing to prove it is progressing towards its net-zero emissions target would decimate that trust. That will not do. Arguably China has morally one-upped the US too, by proclaiming a net-zero promise first, and therefore may be further obliged to defend its reputation – requiring them to change their ways.

There is mounting evidence that China will be able to decarbonise the mainland. Yet even so, many are convinced China will ramp up its energy production overseas as sly compensation, undermining all benefits. It might be an unfounded concern. A study by China’s environmental ministry has discouraged banks from supporting projects that harm the environment as part of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure Initiative. Whilst it remains unclear what projects exactly the ministry is discouraging, it should act as a deterrent to damaging investment because the study was from a government organisation. Foreign governments are also losing their tolerance for dirty energy sources. In a landmark case last June, a court in Kenya ruled on environmental grounds to halt construction of the country’s first coal-fired power station — a $2bn project that had been recognised by China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

China must begin to initiate tangible change soon if we are to trust their promises. But just as China has mounted massive investment overseas and domestically in the past, they are also capable of a seismic lurch towards renewables and away from coal.

For a leviathan like China to achieve net-zero emissions, investment and consistent innovation will be required on a huge scale as will an ethos of sustainability and accountability. But, with a powerful government and a colossal population, it is perhaps well-suited to overcome such hefty obstacles. Enormous nations are capable of tackling enormous challenges.

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