China’s carbon target moves big economies into radical climate consensus

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

After a week of far-reaching climate promises measured over decades, four of the world’s six largest economies have now proposed ending dates for their carbon emissions.

President Xi Jinping’s surprise announcement at the annual United Nations climate meeting this week committed China to reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. That brings the third-biggest economy by nominal GDP into a loose but vitally important consensus with the second largest (EU), fourth largest (Japan) and fifth largest (California). The end of emissions has been set even if the target dates remain varied—and at least a generation into the future.

Every new country that joins this carbon-neutral group puts more pressure on holdouts to align their policies with global goals. Two of the biggest economies remain outside of the consensus: India, at No. 6, and the national U.S. economy that remains the largest by size and historical contribution to warming.

“We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060,” Xi declared by video conference last week at the U.N. General Assembly, without providing details on what neutrality will mean in practice. But the mere fact of the pledge by China keeps alive the chance that the world may be able to hit the most ambitious target set under the 2015 Paris climate agreement: holding warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. Current global average is around 1 degree C of warming.

“If China’s emissions didn’t go to zero, then 1.5 would not have been an option,” said Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research. The fact remains that China, as the world’s biggest emitter and energy consumer currently, exerts enormous pull on the prospects for limiting future warming. And falling short of the 1.5 degree C target