Workers install turbines at Yuxia wind farm in Ji’an, Jiangxi Province. © Chen Fuping/VCG via Getty Images

President Xi Jinping’s announcement in September that China will cut its carbon emissions to zero by 2060 was as welcome as it was surprising.

It signalled a clear intention that the country would take on the mantle of leading the world into the clean energy era, just as the US was vacating the position.

The pledge was greeted with praise by world leaders. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called it an “important step in our global fight against climate change”, while the UN saw it as progress “for . . . the world”. 

If successful, it will represent the biggest reduction in emissions of any country. The new target, if achieved, will lower global warming projections by 0.2C-0.3 degrees centigrade, according to Climate Action Tracker, a non-profit research group.

But the public commitment has also provoked scepticism. Today, China contributes nearly a third of the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. Roughly 60 per cent of its energy use is derived from coal and it is the world’s second largest consumer of oil

A Chinese labourer loads coal into a furnace as smoke and steam rises from an unauthorised steel factory in Inner Mongolia, China, in 2016 © Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Some observers question whether it is possible to reconcile being carbon neutral with the country’s current expansion of coal and whether Beijing has the political will to deliver the clean energy revolution that is required to fulfil its promise.

“Achieving carbon neutrality will require China to phase out virtually all fossil fuels and dramatically accelerate zero-carbon electricity sources, such as solar and wind,” says Barbara Finamore, senior strategic director, Asia, at the National Resources Defense Council, a US advocacy group. 

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Several analysts claim the decisive shift to renewables must happen within the next decade for the target to be met. This is the period of time China has allocated for its carbon emissions to peak. 

“You can't get to 2060 without going through 2030,” David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, has said

Notably, the pledge turns China’s 2030 carbon peak into a hard target. But sceptics hold that the continued approval of new coal projects is incompatible with decarbonisation. Others believe the acceleration towards expanding green power will ultimately balance out the short-term coal pipeline.

“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.” 

Immediate attention has turned to how the target affects China’s 14th Five-Year Plan that is currently being drafted. This road map for economic development, to be released next year, will be read as a test of Beijing’s commitment. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said in September that the details of next plan “will tell us how serious the China government is”.

Employees cleaning up solar panels destined for export at a factory on October in Ji’an, Jiangxi Province, last month. © Deng Heping/VCG via Getty Images

In October, Tsinghua University’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development published recommendations for tougher energy-saving and emissions-reductions targets in the five-year plan.

According to analysis by Professor He Jiankun, one of the report authors, for China to meet its ultimate net zero ambitions, the share of non-fossil fuels in its primary energy consumption must increase from 16 per cent (forecast for this year) to 20 per cent by 2025. He also suggests that a carbon emissions cap should be included in the five-year plan for the first time, with a limit of 10.5bn tonnes a year by 2025 (only a fraction above China’s current output of 10.3bn tonnes of emissions, based on 2020 projections).

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The cost of such a transition could reach $5tn, according to Wood Mackenzie. While China’s economy is rebounding faster than most other countries in the wake of the coronavirus crisis (with 4.9 per cent year-on-year growth recorded in the third quarter), the scale of the financial challenge is substantial. 

“Much more financing needs to be provided to green and low carbon economic sectors, and much less to polluting and high-emission sectors,” says Professor Wang Yao, director-general of the International Institute of Green Finance, a Chinese think-tank. 

Last month, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment released new guidance on how the pledge will affect China’s financial system. 

“The [guidelines dictate] that China must actively work to attract and facilitate flows of international capital into the country. This includes participation of foreign investors in Chinese events, green bond issuance, buying green renminbi assets, and encouraging the use of the renminbi for such exchanges,” says Prof Wang. 

A hydrogen-powered bus in Binzhou city, in east China’s Shandong province © Alamy

“The economy, as such, does not have to fundamentally change to become low carbon, it is rather that the sources of the energy that go into the economy will change,” she says. 

Once such source is green hydrogen. According to Li Shuo, senior policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia, this, along with large-scale energy storage, has yet to be embraced by Beijing. However, this is changing. 

Wan Gang, China’s minister of science and technology and a leading policy adviser, has called on China to develop a comprehensive “hydrogen society.”

The Energy Transitions Commission and the Rocky Mountain Institute calculate that hydrogen use will need to rise from today’s 25m tonnes a year to more than 81m tonnes, to help reach “net zero”. Meanwhile, China's battery storage capacity could increase to 510 GW in 2050, roughly half of Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected global total, with unit costs likely to fall dramatically over time.

The use of biofuels, ammonia in shipping, and tackling industrial waste heat in buildings will also play a role. But the fate of provinces where people still rely heavily on the coal sector for their livelihoods remains uncertain.

“None of this will be easy. The good news is the technologies are there, the cost of clean energy is declining, and the political will is building,” says Mr Shuo.

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