Last month President Xi Jinping pledged, in remarks to the UN General Assembly, that China would be carbon neutral by 2060.

That is 40 years from now. More than half a human life, on average. So does it actually matter when we see the disastrous effects of climate change all around us today?

The short answer is yes. President Xi’s declaration is a surprisingly important step forward in the global response to climate change. It has the potential to help cut heat-trapping emissions significantly — in China and around the world.

But the commitment must be accompanied by short-term emissions cuts to be meaningful.

China is the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases. Last year its emissions were roughly 27 per cent of the global total — more than the US, Europe and Japan combined. China’s climate policies are a study in contrasts. On the one hand, the country consumes more coal than the rest of the world put together. During the first half of 2020 Chinese authorities approved the development of many new coal-fired power plants.

Yet China also leads the world in deployment of solar power, wind power and electric vehicles. Its energy efficiency policies are ambitious and successful. There are no known climate deniers in the Chinese leadership.

So why is Beijing’s pledge significant?

First, it implies dramatic changes in the country’s energy system. Last year more than 85 per cent of China’s primary energy came from coal, oil and natural gas, all of which produce carbon dioxide. “Carbon neutrality” requires an almost complete transition from those fuels to non-emitting sources, such as solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power. It requires that CO2 from any remaining use of fossil fuels be captured and permanently stored or offset.

Instead of ambition, the next decade looks more like business as usual.

Second, long-term goals are part of China’s political culture. A 2049 goal — which includes being a “prosperous” and “culturally advanced” society — already shapes policymaking. Beijing is currently working on its 14th Five-Year Plan. The country’s capacity for long-term planning far exceeds that of many other nations.

Third, the declarations will shape decisions within the Chinese system for years to come. Any pronouncement by President Xi carries enormous weight with Chinese decision makers at all levels.

His far-reaching consolidation of power is a matter of global concern, particularly when it comes to human rights, but decisions from broad policies to discrete investments will now be evaluated in part based on their contribution to meeting the 2060 goal. In many cases other factors, such as short-term GDP growth, will be more important. But when decisions are being made, the goal of decarbonising the Chinese economy will now be measured and accountable.

Finally, President Xi’s pledge sends a message to countries around the world. The world’s largest emitter has declared that it will achieve carbon neutrality by a certain date. Governments around the world will feel a combination of pressure and inspiration to follow this example.

Almost 70 countries and the EU have already pledged to make their economies “net-zero” greenhouse gas emitters by mid-century, consistent with holding global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

In the US, the voters have a chance to decide the question in this election. President Trump continues to deny the science of climate change. Former vice-president Joe Biden, in sharp contrast, has called for massive investments in clean energy and pledged to put the US economy on a path to net zero, by 2050.

Yet one risk lurks within Beijing’s announcement. In addition to committing that China would achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, President Xi also declared that the country’s emissions would peak before 2030. That was a disappointment to many observers. The Chinese government had already basically made the same pledge in 2014, and leading analyses suggest that China has the capacity to reach peak emissions well before 2030. Instead of ambition, the next decade looks more like business as usual.

The Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In that spirit, the 2060 goal will be seen as meaningless, with damage to his reputation globally, if Beijing does not take steps toward achieving it in the short term. There will be several opportunities to do so in the months ahead, including in the 14th Five-Year Plan (for 2021-25) and national climate action plan the country submits under the Paris Agreement.

Forty years is a long time. But if the Chinese government starts now to set itself on a serious path towards carbon neutrality in 2060 — or well before if global ambition continues to mount — it will make a major contribution to the fight against climate change.

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China must take action now on net zero pledge