Unpacking China’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge

On 22 September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that China would aim to peak its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. While taking on a global leadership role in the energy transition offers China economic and diplomatic opportunities, the challenges are equally tremendous. As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions—with an energy system heavily reliant on coal—reaching carbon neutrality would require a fundamental change in China’s energy supply systems and in the way energy is consumed. This also implies a profound transformation in China’s economic structure and a shake-up of the fossil fuels industry, a politically powerful lobby, raising questions about the drivers behind this announcement and the next steps. Is the pledge a diplomatic ruse that China’s leadership has no intention to keep? If it is not, and Beijing is contemplating it in earnest, how will China reach carbon neutrality? Such a massive structural shift would require rapid action to get China onto this new trajectory  and therefore raises the question of how will the upcoming 14th Five Year Plan (FYP, 2021-2025) reflect this new ambition.

This comment draws on preliminary government drafts and proposals for the upcoming five-year plan as well as on some of the feasibility studies conducted by Chinese research institutions to offer pathways for the 2060 carbon neutrality pledge. It argues that while the net zero commitment has not yet been fleshed out into a clear policy pathway, it is by no means an empty pledge. But even with the long term direction of travel set, it would be unrealistic to expect the upcoming five-year plan to fully reflect the renewed level of ambition. Indeed, the path to carbon neutrality will likely play out in two speeds: a swift acceleration of renewable energy and an ambitious focus on technological innovation that will be visible in the upcoming five-year plan, alongside a longer buffer period until around 2030 to help fossil fuels adapt to the transition.

By: Michal Meidan