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Why Carbon Neutral by 2060? Assessing the Motivations Behind China’s Emissions Target

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Louis Devine

China rarely receives positive news coverage these days. But when President Xi Jinping announced that China would become carbon neutral by 2060, the mood changed. “Did Xi just save the world?” asked Adam Tooze in Foreign Policy magazine. Laudatory news coverage certainly differed from headlines regarding Uyghurs or the coronavirus. No doubt Xi prefers the image of an environmentalist to that of an autocrat. Still, cynicism shouldn’t blind us to genuinely good news. If we are to have any hope of keeping global warming below 2ºC by 2100, China’s climate pledge should be cautiously welcomed. And yet, there is more than just climate concern motivating Xi’s carbon neutrality pledge. But before we can assess Beijing’s motivations, a brief summary of the Paris Agreement is in order.

“Well below 2ºC” – Understanding the UN Paris Agreement

Signed in January 2016, the Paris Agreement – part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – aims to limit global temperature increases “well below 2ºC”, and where possible “pursue efforts” towards limiting warming to 1.5ºC. These goals are built on the scientific understanding that temperature increases above 2ºC will have catastrophic and irreversible consequences, including the permanent loss of ecosystems, sea level rises, and extreme weather events with increasing frequency. Changes in the biosphere will inevitably affect human civilisation. Food and water scarcity will trigger violent conflicts, while mass migration will profoundly disrupt political order. Driven by civil war, one million Syrian refugees seeking to enter the EU was seen by many as unsustainable and arguably contributed to a far-right populist backlash. Climate change will make this figure seem small in comparison. Estimates vary, but as many as 630 million people could become displaced due to climate change by 2100. The stakes are, to put it mildly, incredibly high.

To avert catastrophe, the globe must reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Japan and South Korea both recently joined the small but growing group of countries which formally pledge to reach net zero by 2050. China, on the other hand, announced ‘carbon neutrality’ by 2060. While net-zero emissions relate to all greenhouse gases (GHG), carbon neutrality refers only to emissions of carbon dioxide. Even if China achieves carbon neutrality, methane emissions from agriculture could cause it to remain a net polluter. Still, if achieved, China’s carbon targets could reduce average global warming by 0.3ºC. At present, one quarter of global emissions originate from China. Furthermore, China’s emissions intensity (volume of GHG per unit of GDP) is the second highest globally. In short, China’s economy is very large and very dirty. Reaching carbon neutrality will be notoriously difficult. Why would China embark on such a monumental task, especially at a time when global climate action is stalling? Acting on climate change is central to Xi’s long-term ideological vision for China.

Environmentalism with Chinese Characteristics

Shortly after ascending to power, Xi gave a speech to the Party Central Committee in 2013 in which he expounded on his ideological views. Xi vehemently rejected the label of “state capitalism” sometimes used to describe China, claiming that China must stay on the socialist road by building an “ecological socialist civilisation”. Ecological civilisation is another Xi Jinping neologism which has been added to the Chinese constitution. It suggests that the Communist Party increasingly views climate action as essential if it wishes to remain in power. Environment-related protests are increasing year on year, much to the anxiety of the Chinese leadership. Residents of Beijing are increasingly frustrated by the city’s poor air quality, and the unreliability of government reporting on the issue. In 2008, the US embassy in Beijing installed an air-quality monitor that tweets hourly updates. Very often, the data tweeted by the US embassy is far less optimistic than official Chinese government accounts. Residents have come to see the US data as far more accurate and reliable. This is just one small example of how environmental issues can undercut the Communist Party’s legitimacy.

China’s dependency on fossil fuels is also a huge geostrategic weakness. China is the world’s largest importer of oil. Without oil imports, the Chinese economy grinds to a halt. Further complicating this overseas dependency is the fact that 81% of China’s oil is imported via the Strait of Malacca, a small yet critical waterway located between Sumatra and Malaysia. In the event of conflicts or escalating tensions within the South China Sea, the US Navy could easily blockade the Strait, effectively putting China’s economy in a chokehold. Chinese strategists refer to this fact as their “Malacca Dilemma”. Renewable energy helps alleviate this dilemma, giving China a freer hand internationally.


Writing in ‘The Dawn of Eurasia’, Bruno Maçães contends that geopolitical analysis is like a form of “psychoanalysis” that reveals underlying forces and trends which are “largely outside consciousness” but nonetheless shape the world around us. World leaders rarely state their real intentions or motivations explicitly, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Maçães’ understanding of geopolitics is particularly useful when it comes to China, whose leaders use phrases and references that hide meaning from an uninitiated Western audience. Xi could very well be genuinely concerned about climate change, and yet deeper motivations still exist. As the planet warms, climate change will become another forum for great power competition. Xi’s climate pledge came at a time when the US had completely abandoned global climate leadership, and his message could not have been clearer: the game has begun.

This article was originally published in YDS' end of year Special Edition, '2020'. The Special Edition can be accessed here.

Louis Devine is currently studying a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. He also has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Philosophy. You can find him on instagram posting about philosophy and geopolitics @ideas_matter

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