Easily lost in the news of the day, from the NYT:
President Xi Jinping of China pledged on Tuesday that his country would adopt much stronger climate targets and achieve what he called “carbon neutrality before 2060.” If realized, the pledges would be crucial in the global fight against climate change.
This may be mostly PR, but it may signal a significant increase in China’s commitment to decarbonization. We will learn more as details are provided and China’s next 5-year plan is released in 2021.
If this does reflect an increased commitment to decarbonization, it could be as important as the outcome of the U.S. election for the future of the climate, for several reasons:
China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. This is (I believe) the first time it has committed to net zero publicly. A 2050 target would be better than 2060, but a real commitment to hit 2060 would be a huge improvement.
If China moves away from fossil fuels, it may put some pressure on states that participate in its Belt and Road Initiative to scrap plans for new coal fired power plants. These states have their own agendas and other options, but Chinese pressure would help.
A clear Chinese commitment to clean energy may help persuade Americans who see China as both a military and economic threat and as having relatively competent leadership to prioritize climate policy.
Finally, if China is committed to a green energy transition, this opens the door to formation of a “climate club” that includes the United States, Europe, and China. Working together, these countries and others could pressure holdouts to reduce their emissions (by imposing tariffs on their exports, for example). This is critical. There are many countries in the world that will not voluntarily cut back on their use of fossil fuels. Asking nicely will not work. International climate policy needs more stick and less carrot, and switching to a new regime will be much easier if the Chinese are on board.