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China's carbon target moves big economies into radical climate consensus

By Akshat Rathi, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

LONDON - After a week of far-reaching climate promises measured over decades, four of the world's six largest economies have now proposed ending dates for their carbon emissions.

President Xi Jinping's surprise announcement at the annual United Nations climate meeting this week committed China to reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. That brings the third-biggest economy by nominal GDP into a loose but vitally important consensus with the second largest (EU), fourth largest (Japan) and fifth largest (California). The end of emissions has been set even if the target dates remain varied - and at least a generation into the future.

Every new country that joins this carbon-neutral group puts more pressure on holdouts to align their policies with global goals. Two of the biggest economies remain outside of the consensus: India, at No. 6, and the national U.S. economy that remains the largest by size and historical contribution to warming.

"We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060," Xi declared by video conference last week at the U.N. General Assembly, without providing details on what neutrality will mean in practice. But the mere fact of the pledge by China keeps alive the chance that the world may be able to hit the most ambitious target set under the 2015 Paris climate agreement: holding warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. Current global average is around 1 degree C of warming.

"If China's emissions didn't go to zero, then 1.5 would not have been an option," said Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research. The fact remains that China, as the world's biggest emitter and energy consumer currently, exerts enormous pull on the prospects for limiting future warming. And falling short of the 1.5 degree C target by just half a degree would cost the world $20 trillion by 2100, according to an analysis published in the journal Nature.

For all of the economies now linked in aspirations to end emissions, reaching net zero will mean a fundamental rewiring that accelerates clean-energy investments and dials back fossil fuels. In China's case, sweeping reforms will have to be carried out across dozens of regions run by local governments that may not share the zeal for reaching the 2060 goal. Beijing has long struggled with implementing grand plans from the center in a continent-sized country of 1.4 billion people. Local officials often have more to gain by appeasing interest groups than listening to the national leaders, especially when those policies could affect local industries such as coal mining.

 

"Announcing a carbon neutrality target is just the first step on a long road," wrote analysts from Bloomberg NEF, in a note detailing the "arduous" and "challenging" route ahead. To reach this goal, China requires new technologies such as carbon-free hydrogen, BNEF concluded, "and it will need to make its economy much more efficient."

Implementation of long-range goals is going to be a challenge everywhere. California became one of the earliest large economies to set a carbon neutrality goal, resolving two years ago to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Recent wildfires that have devastated much of the Western U.S. injected a new level of urgency, and last week California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order banning the sale of new gasoline-fueled cars after 2035.

That decision makes California the first U.S. state to join the U.K., France, Canada and several other nations in putting an end date on the sale of internal combustion engine cars. It also marks a big global shift since California consumes about 1% of global oil production - roughly 1 million barrels per day. Even after years of policy incentives to encourage the sale of zero-emission vehicles, however, less than 8% of cars registered in the state are electric.

Just how California will bring about this 15-year shift away from gasoline cars and what opposition it might face from the federal government remains unspecified, but the state is large enough to be a significant trendsetter for the U.S. as a whole.

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