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Climate change and energy

If China plans to go carbon neutral by 2060, why is it building so many coal plants?

The world’s largest climate polluter is trying to have it both ways.
September 23, 2020
Chongqing, China.
Chongqing, China.Photo by Ming Chen on Unsplash

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has announced plans for the nation to become carbon neutral by 2060, setting a bold goal for the world’s biggest climate polluter.

But it's hard to reconcile Xi’s pledge, made before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, with the nation’s recent actions. Most notably, China is in the midst of a coal building boom. As of late last year, the country had nearly 150 gigawatts' worth of coal power plants in the development pipeline, roughly equal to the European Union’s total capacity, according to Global Energy Monitor, a nonprofit that tracks coal projects around the world.

The plants can easily operate for 60 years or more, so anything built today could continue pumping out greenhouse gases for decades beyond the 2060 deadline.

China appears to be trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, the nation is asserting itself as a climate leader at a point when President Donald Trump has abdicated any such role the United States might once have played. And his rollbacks of environmental policies are sure to increase should he be reelected.

China also hopes to extend its dominance as the world’s clean-tech manufacturing powerhouse, seizing the lion’s share of revenue from the global shift to low-emissions energy sources. It already produces most of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines and sells the biggest share of electric vehicles.

But China’s $7 trillion economic stimulus package earlier this year poured still more funds into coal plant construction. Meanwhile, the nation’s banks have been financing dozens of coal plants in other countries through its Belt and Road development initiative.

So there are clear discrepancies here between the rhetoric and the action. That said, the statement on Tuesday may still be significant.

It comes as China is developing its next five-year plan, notes Jonas Nahm, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. So it could signal that the nation is preparing to implement stricter emissions policies, even if they’re not enough to meet the 2060 goal.

If China does somehow achieve carbon neutrality—whether by, say, mothballing its many coal plants or installing pricey carbon capture systems in them—it would have a huge global impact. The nation is such a big emitter that those reductions could single-handedly shave as much as 0.3 ˚C off of global warming projections, according to a Climate Action Tracker analysis.

Either way, the announcement itself could place greater pressure on other nations to step up their climate goals as clean technologies and emissions reduction commitments become the currency of emerging trading partnerships, marketplaces, and spheres of influence.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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