Commentary: The troubling truth behind China’s carbon neutrality pledge

CANBERRA: In 2009 China was blamed for destroying the Copenhagen conference on climate change, leaving the world with no successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2015, along with France and the United States, its leadership helped make the Paris Agreement a reality.

And in 2020, China is the first major greenhouse emitter to commit to a goal of carbon neutrality this century – by 2060, with emissions peaking in 2030.

READ: China’s carbon neutral pledge could curb global warming by 0.3 degrees Celsius: Researchers

Commentary about President Xi Jinping’s announcement to the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September 2020 has been almost uniformly optimistic.

It has been hailed for keeping the dream of 1.5 degrees Celsius alive, outflanking Donald Trump’s United States geopolitically, and cutting 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming from our future.

While it is an exciting and hopeful development, it is also gravely inadequate. A dose of climate realism is required.

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HARD TRUTHS BEHIND CHINA’S CLIMATE AMBITIONS

If China’s ambition were matched by the rest of the world, the Earth could still experience a catastrophic level of global heating by 2100 – around 3 degrees Celsius.

And if business as usual continues, we may still hit the 4 to 5 degrees Celsius of unthinkable and truly devastating heating that is our current trajectory.

Thailand drought
Effect of drought in Thailand. (Photo: Jack Board)

This situation contradicts the goal of the Paris agreement to hold global heating well below 2 degrees Celsius, but it is also entirely consistent with its voluntary approach.

This is why a range of important new initiatives – a Coal Elimination Treaty, a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP), and a Coalition on Managed Decline – are appearing and deserve wider publicity and consideration.

Xi’s announcement comes as modelling suggests that there remain at worst zero and at best six-to-eight years of current greenhouse emissions left before more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of heating is inevitable.

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THE NEED TO RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK

In its 2019 report on the climatic impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommended that nations reduce all greenhouse emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and reach net zero around 2050.

China intends to peak its emissions by 2030, and only reach carbon neutral (which does not include deforestation or agriculture) before 2060.

However, major climate scientists are questioning the IPCC’s analysis and urging a faster timetable.

READ: Explainer: What is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

A 2018 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) paper expresses concern that climate modelling must take more note of nonlinear interaction between the climate system and sources such as methane and nitrous oxide.

As global heating approaches 2 degrees Celsius the worry is that feedbacks such as ice loss, Amazon rainforest dieback and permafrost melting will trigger an uncontrollable slide into a hothouse earth scenario.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Fires in the Amazon: a barrier to climate change up in smoke
FILE PHOTO: Smoke billows from a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil, September 10, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

One of its authors, Will Steffen of the Australian National University, argues that net zero must be reached by the early 2040s – not 2050.

This analysis makes the 1.5 degrees Celsius guardrail extraordinarily important.

Assumptions that the Paris Agreement can be met by emissions pathways that lead to 2 degrees Celsius of global heating are grossly irresponsible.

READ: Commentary: Why Singapore’s new ‘absolute’ climate mitigation targets could be an absolute game changer

READ: Commentary: Reaching net-zero emissions will be ‘very challenging’. But watch Singapore try anyway

THE CHALLENGING POLITICS OF GLOBAL CLIMATE ACTION

The global climate action picture now is a mix of hope and chaos.

The US is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, and along with Japan and Russia – all among the world’s largest emitters – will not strengthen their Paris commitments.

READ: Commentary: Why we need the opposite of a carbon tax to reduce emissions

The European Commission has proposed that Europe raise its reductions from 40 per cent by 2030 to 55 per cent but this is not yet European Union policy.

China is effectively aiming for net zero sometime in the 2070s. 

India’s commitments track towards a 2 degrees Celsius world, and there is no sign of it moving out of coal.

FILE PHOTO: Chimneys of a coal-fired power plant are pictures in New Delhi
FILE PHOTO: Chimneys of a coal-fired power plant are pictures in New Delhi, India, July 20, 2017. Picture taken July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

To get beyond the Paris stalemate, creative new proposals are being advanced to use global “supply-side” agreements to accelerate reductions.

The Fossil Fuel NPT would be a comprehensive new treaty that achieves a staggered phase out of fossil fuel production and use across sectors and countries.

The Coal Elimination Treaty is modelled on the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer and proposes to use the General Assembly to negotiate, as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons did in 2017.

It would empower climate-vulnerable states to lead and create a powerful new norm against fossil fuels.

READ: Commentary: Singapore’s dreams of becoming a solar-powered nation have almost arrived

Most interesting is Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s climate plan, which proposes a “coalition on managed decline” in which a Biden administration would call a 2021 summit of major emitters to begin planning a cooperative phase down of fossil fuels consistent with the 1.5 degrees Celsius guardrail.

While it is unclear that a Biden administration would adopt the policy, it exemplifies the kind of high-level cooperation that will be crucial to solving the climate crisis.

READ: Commentary: Choice for US voters concerned about economic prospects could not be clearer

SPECULATION ABOUT THE MOMENTUM OF CHANGE

What then does China’s announcement mean?

When China speaks, it is always tempting to speculate about geopolitics.

In future, serious tensions may arise because states are dragging their feet on emissions reduction, but for now the blame among major powers can be spread equally.

The real security impact of climate change is already happening and comes in the form of increasingly destructive fires and cyclones, rising sea levels and floods, and the drought and food insecurity that helped spark conflict in Syria and the Sudan.

California Wildfires
A firefighter passes flames while battling the Glass Fire in a Calistoga, Calif., vineyard Thursday, Oct 1, 2020. (Photo: AP/Noah Berger)

And while we are rightly appalled that the COVID-19 death toll has passed one million, every year there are six million lives lost to ambient air pollution, also known as PM2.5 pollution, that results from the burning of fossil fuels.

We can hope that Xi’s announcement will help trigger new global momentum, but that has to be actively made. 

In climate terms, the biggest geopolitical event of this century will happen in another country on Nov 3. 

Anthony Burke is Professor of International Relations at UNSW, Canberra, and convenor of its Environment & Governance Research Group. This commentary first appeared on the Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.