China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060. Its new 5-year plan won’t cut it.

“China released a draft summary of its 14th Five-Year Plan, the all-important document that not only guides the country’s economic development but also has huge consequences for global carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.

The new plan’s 2025 emissions goals reflect an ongoing contradiction between China’s short-term and long-term climate goals.

In the long run, China has expressed a strong commitment to climate action. President Xi Jinping surprised the world last September when he announced that China would aim to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Climate scientists have called for countries to hit that goal by 2050, but it was still a significant step forward for China — the first time the country made any formal commitment to zeroing out its emissions.

And yet, even as Xi made that announcement, CO2 emissions in China were soaring. Like the rest of the world, the pandemic had initially caused economic activity to plummet in China in early 2020. But after swiftly bringing the pandemic under control within its borders, the Chinese government funneled stimulus dollars into the heavily polluting construction and manufacturing sectors, stoking steel and cement production. As a result, China’s emissions rose an estimated 1.5 percent in 2020, even accounting for the initial drop.”

“What does this mean for global climate goals? According to a joint study published by the Asia Society Policy Institute and Climate Analytics in November, China needs to peak its emissions as soon as possible, and certainly by 2025, to be in line with the Paris agreement. Currently, China has only committed to peaking its emissions before 2030.

The other main climate target from the 14th Five-Year Plan is slightly more hopeful. China has set a slightly bolder renewable energy goal: 20 percent of its energy should come from non-fossil sources by 2025. This is a slight acceleration over the non-fossil energy buildout in the last five-year plan period, during which the share rose from12.3 to 15.9 percent.

However, once again, it doesn’t fully align with China’s long-term climate goals and the Paris agreement. According to analysis from CREA, China needs to get 25 percent of its energy from non-fossil sourcesby 2025 to be on a straight path to meeting its 2060 goal.

So on the whole, these targets suggest modest progress from the world’s top emitter in the years to come. It is worth noting, though, that historically, environmental goals in five-year plans have been set to be overachieved. All ofthe climate targets in the 13th Five-Year Plan were surpassed.” 

“The biggest question remains whether China will reverse its coal consumption, which increased slightly last year even during the pandemic. Environmentalists grew increasingly concerned as China built 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plant capacity in 2020 alone — three-quarters of new coal construction globally.

What happens internationally may also play a role in shaping China’s emissions. The Biden administration has pledged to reassert US global leadership on climate change and is planning to host a global climate summit on Earth Day in April. In the lead-up, the administration has saidit will release a new, more ambitious 2030 target for the US.

That could potentially free up China to also increase its 2030 goals.”

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