‘Disappointing but not unexpected’: China climate goal leaves experts unsatisfied

China has published its long-awaited national plan on greenhouse gas emissions, just days before the opening of the Cop26 UN climate summit.

But the plan revealed on Thursday represents little progress on China’s previously announced ambitions, disappointing observers of the vital climate talks.

Emissions would peak by 2030 and be reduced to net zero three decades later, according to the nationally determined contribution (NDC) submitted to the UN.

This is widely regarded as too late to ensure the world limits global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, which is the key aim of the talks.

It is also far less than many analysts say China could easily manage. With its huge investments in renewable energy in recent years, China has already made substantial changes to its high-carbon economy, and the plunging price of low-carbon technology should make the transition even easier, leading many analysts to conclude that China could, with not much extra effort, cause its emissions to peak around 2025.

Senior sources at the talks have previously said “China likes to underpromise and overdeliver”, but the conservative estimate of future emissions reduction efforts will not cheer diplomats hoping for a breakthrough from the world’s biggest emitter.

The UK hosts and the other big nations at the talks who want a deal at Glasgow will now be left with the problem of how to bridge the substantial gap between the likely emissions reductions arising from all the NDCs so far and the and the 45% cuts scientists say are needed in emissions by 2030, compared with 2010 levels, to hold heating within the 1.5C limit.

One way, mooted by the UN secretary-general earlier this week, is to force countries back to the negotiating table every year to reconsider their pledges, which would be unpopular with many.

China could also soften its stance by making commitments on reducing its reliance on coal, increasing its low-carbon investments overseas or enhancing other plans such as fostering carbon sinks.

Belinda Schäfe, from the E3G thinktank, said: “China’s updated NDC reflects the targets announced by Xi Jinping at the Climate Action Summit in December 2020. While these targets are not new, they are a step up from China’s 2015 targets.

“However, things have changed since a year ago. The recent ‘code red warning’ by the IPCC puts China’s targets into a different light and increased ambition from China is crucial to keeping global warming below dangerous levels. China could still bring large contributions to the table at G20 and Cop26 by supporting a political commitment to keep 1.5C within reach and clarifying the role of coal in its power system.”

Yan Qin, lead analyst at financial analyst group Refinitiv, said: “The updated NDC is disappointing, but not unexpected … The current energy crunch in Chinese provinces is also shadowing climate policy in China, with top leadership occupied with measures ensuring energy security.

“After the formal submission of the NDC, we may not see China announce further strengthened climate goals during Cop26, but we can anticipate the details, roadmaps or policy approaches to achieve emissions peak and carbon neutrality being published before or during Cop26. And it remains to be seen how China reacts to other key issues that remain to be resolved during Cop26, including among others, transparency requirements, carbon offsetting in carbon markets and climate finance.”

Li Shuo of Greenpeace said: “China’s decision on its NDC casts a shadow on the global climate effort. In light of the domestic economic uncertainties, the country appears hesitant to embrace stronger near-term targets, and missed an opportunity to demonstrate ambition.

“The planet cannot afford this being the last word. Beijing needs to come up with stronger implementation plans to ensure an emission peak before 2025.”

Bernice Lee, research director for futures at Chatham House, said: “We cannot sugarcoat it. It is disappointing and off the mark and not befitting of the world’s largest emitter. It is symptomatic of a broader trend/shortfall where major economies are not making the kind of cuts need to get 1.5C within reach just yet. China has lowballed its target and missed a chance to be recognised as a global leader. The plan says emissions will peak before 2030 – for all our sakes we need that date to be far sooner.”


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