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China Pledges Carbon-Neutrality

President Xi Jinping of China announced at an annual United Nations General Assembly meeting that the country would be carbon-neutral by 2060. “Humankind can no longer afford to ignore the repeated warnings of nature,” Xi said in a speech to the General Assembly on September 22. For a country that produces about 28% of the Earth’s carbon emissions, it’s an important pledge that could have a huge impact on climate change. However, questions remain about China’s commitment to the pledge, as well as its feasibility, with most details about the plan remaining unclear.

What is carbon neutrality? Carbon neutrality is when a region absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits. Carbon emissions can be offset by either reducing carbon emissions in another area — like adopting renewable energy sources that decrease reliance on carbon-emitting fossil fuels — or by growing billions of trees and other plants that absorb carbon dioxide naturally.

Are any countries already carbon-neutral? Have any countries besides China pledged to reach that goal? Bhutan and Suriname, both with populations under one million, are the only countries that have reached carbon neutrality already. According to a September 2019 New York Times analysis, over 60 other countries have pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, a long-recognized goal of climate experts to avert the worst of climate change. Besides Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, these countries are mostly small and don’t have a significant carbon footprint; in total, they account for only 11% of global carbon emissions. China’s 28% share makes its pledge far more significant.

What climate promises had China already made before this pledge? Under the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, China promised that its carbon emissions would peak by 2030. That schedule will be accelerated according to Xi, who said that China “aim[s] to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”

How realistic is China’s pledge? It’s still unclear. After declining for four years, the use of coal power in China started increasing again in 2017, and that isn’t the only trend China would have to combat in order to meet its new goal. China’s next Five-Year Plan, an important governing document to be publicly released in March, is expected to lay out a roadmap to reduce emissions, but notably, Xi didn’t mention any specific policies in his speech to the General Assembly.

If fulfilled, what impact could the pledge have on climate change? According to “very rough estimates” by MIT management professor John Sterman, China’s pledge could prevent global temperatures from increasing an additional 0.2 to 0.4 degrees Celsius, the professor told the Associated Press. “That’s a lot,” Sterman told the AP. “China’s by far the world’s big emitter. They’re emitting more than the [European Union] and [the] U.S. together.’’

What political ramifications could the pledge have? The pledge leaves the United States as the country with the highest carbon emissions not to have set such a goal. President Donald Trump has previously called climate change a “hoax” and in 2017 pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement - a move heavily criticized by climate experts, who hope that China’s announcement will put pressure on the incoming Biden administration to take action. India, the third-highest carbon emitter after China and the United States, has not issued such a promise either, but is still a signatory to the Paris Agreement.