China’s agenda setting climate targets creates an opening for humanity in battle to save the planet

By Elspeth Findlay

International impact of China’s new carbon emission targets

China’s new ambitious climate targets – of peaking carbon emissions before 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions before 2060 – has already started to change the global political dynamics on climate change.

The UN Climate change talks have been largely stalled for four years, since under Donald Trump’s leadership the US announced its intention to leave the Paris Agreement and sought to block progress internationally. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, countries are required to increase their climate targets by the end of this year, but no G20 country had yet done so. Xi Jinping’s announcement to the UN General Assembly, on 22 September 2020 changed this trend. As Adam Tooze wrote in Foreign Policy magazine “with those two short sentences China’s leader may have redefined the future prospects for humanity.” According to Climate Action Tracker, China’s announcement would lower global warming projections by around 0.2 to 0.3°C, which is calculated to be “the biggest single reduction ever estimated by the Climate Action Tracker”. Moreover, following China’s announcement, South Korea and Japan made similar commitments. There is now a serious struggle underway in the EU over whether the bloc should significantly increase their climate targets. The election of Biden in November is a defeat for Trump’s global axis of climate change denial and creates the possibility of significant steps forward in the West. It is hugely significant, however, that China’s announcement took place before the US election, signalling that China is willing to lead on climate without waiting for equivalent commitments from the US.

China’s leadership on climate change comes at a critical time for humanity: to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown that would be triggered by exceeding a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees, emissions must fall globally from this year, and then decrease by at least half by 2030.

The window to constrain temperatures to 1.5 degrees is closing fast, and critically, global economic stimulus packages to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic are overwhelmingly supporting high-carbon projects and fossil fuel energy. If this trend is not reversed as more stimulus funding is released, carbon emissions will be locked in that would put the target of keeping global temperatures rises below 1.5 degrees out of reach. However, a green and just recovery could halve global emissions by 2030 and provide significant economic and social benefits.

It is in this context that Chinese policymakers are focusing on how to bring China’s targets to life in concrete, detailed plans as they work towards completing China’s next Five Year Plan, due to be completed this month (November 2020) and published in March 2021. How China implements its goals of green development and establishing an ecological civilisation while seeking to deliver high-quality growth in the wake of the pandemic will have significance for the whole world.

How the West responds will be crucial. The key tests will be three-fold. First, whether the enormous public subsidies for fossil fuels are reduced, and whether additional economic stimulus measures support a green and just recovery or lock in more carbon emissions. Second, whether developed countries increase their climate targets for the next 5-10 years to align with 1.5 degrees. Thirdly, whether they are willing to work collaboratively with China to counter this shared threat to humanity.

China’s game-changing pledges: why they are so significant

China is a continental size country of 1.4 billion people. With almost a fifth of the planet’s population, China moving to a net-zero economy will impact the whole world. Much is made of the fact China is now the world’s largest carbon emitter in terms of annual emissions, especially by the US, but this is to disguise the fact that China’s per capita emissions are still less than half of the US. With a population of 331 million, each person in the US emits 16.2 tonnes of carbon every year, compared to 6.9 in China. But even this is an underestimate of the impact of US emissions – if emissions are counted where they are consumed rather than where they are produced then the US’s per capita emissions are almost 3 times that of China’s. This way of accounting for emissions is arguably much more representative of how carbon resources are being used, as it counts a product made in China but ultimately destined to be used by a US consumer as part of US emissions rather than China’s.

It should also be noted that China’s emissions only started to increase rapidly in the 1970s, whereas the US’s have been on an exponential curve since 1850. Consequently, the US has emitted 400 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere cumulatively, twice as much as China despite having only a quarter of the population. This is important as carbon emissions stay in the atmosphere accumulating for between 300 and 1000 years.

Developing countries, China among them, have long (correctly) argued for the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” in the UN climate talks – recognising that countries that developed in the wake of the 19th century industrial revolution and benefitted from unlimited use of fossil fuels bear historic responsibility for climate change, should cut their emissions first and fastest, as well as financing a green transition for developing nations. China’s commitment to net-zero in the absence of any such commitment from the US, the world’s largest cumulative emitter and largest current emitter per person, is therefore hugely significant and demonstrates willingness of China to play a world leading role.  

China’s strong record of climate action

This step up in China’s climate ambition builds on the significant success it has already achieved in the past decade towards decarbonising its economy and supporting the development of green technology globally. China’s investment in renewable energy and battery technology has been so extensive as to push prices down globally. Due to the economies of scale achieved (China accounts for around 70 percent of solar panel production), solar panels are now in many places the cheapest source of electricity. China is already by far the world leader in electric vehicles for public transport. The Chinese city Shenzhen is the world’s first city to have a 100% electric bus fleet of almost 16,000 vehicles. The next nine cities in the electric bus global top ten are all in China and they all have thousands of vehicles. To show the scale of China’s lead, the next highest cities in the world after China are London and Santiago in Chile with roughly 200 electric buses each.

Crucially, China has a track record of meeting the climate (and other) targets it sets. For example, China met its 2020 Paris Climate Agreement commitment to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy three years early. By 2017 it had cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 46 percent from the 2005 level, fulfilling its commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 40 to 45 percent from the 2005 level by 2020. China also exceeded by 200% its 2020 target to increase forest stock five years early, by 2015. China has been able to double its forest coverage from 12 percent in 1980 to 23 percent in 2018, producing a crucial carbon sink for the country and also meaning that overall Asia is being reforested as a result, despite deforestation elsewhere on the continent.  

How will China deliver its new climate goals?

It is this record of meeting the targets it sets – and meeting them ahead of schedule – that has produced such optimism about Beijing’s latest pledges. Xi Jinping’s announcement that peaking of emissions will happen before 2030 is aligned with analysis that China’s emissions could peak between 2021 and 2025

The 14th Five Year Plan, due to be completed later in November and published next year, will be crucial to determining whether there will be an early or a late peak in this decade, and how much China’s emissions rise before peaking and declining. Critical to this will be whether new coal capacity will be constrained. China has had some success over the last decade in reducing its reliance on coal though it remains high, reducing coal from 80 percent of the power mix to 60 percent. The decrease in the carbon intensity of each unit of GPD has also had a significant impact on constraining demand. In 2019, energy consumption per unit of value-added industrial output by major firms dropped by more than 15 percent from 2015 – equivalent to saving 480 million tonnes of standard coal.

However, preventing new, often economically inefficient coal power stations being constructed will be central to any strategy towards net-zero emissions.  There has been some concern that, after a significant decline in recent years, 2020 has seen an increase in the number of new coal plants being permitted by regional governments in the wake of the pandemic. The central government has already issued a strong statement seeking to discourage excessive coal permitting and emphasising China’s cap on coal capacity. Critically, there are signs that longer term solutions to constrain coal are now being seriously considered. A recent major report from 18 Chinese government think tanks to inform the 14th FYP and China’s NDC update suggested that coal consumption and expansion should be “strictly controlled” and a goal set to “achieve peak and even a reduction of coal consumption in the coming 5 years.” An early peak and decline of coal capacity would be an extremely positive move that would support delivery of China’s targets and send an important signal to the world about the seriousness of China’s intentions. 

The report also recommended setting a goal for the level at which China’s carbon emissions would peak at 10.5 billion tonnes. This is close to the current level of annual emissions, if adopted this would mean despite having until 2030 to peak, China’s emissions would stay roughly at the current level before declining. Further recommendations include China adopting targets to further reduce its carbon intensity per unit of GDP and to increase afforestation targets due to the fact that the country has already exceeded its current Paris Agreement goals in these areas.

China’s new model of sustainable development

China’s environmental plans reflect the growing emphasis by China’s government over recent years to ensure China’s model of ‘people-centered development’ is also sustainable development. A key speech by China’s President Xi Jinping in 2018 stated that:

“Green development is an integral component of the new development philosophy alongside innovation, coordination, openness, and sharing, and is essential for achieving comprehensive transformation and establishing a modern and high-quality economic system… The objective of green development is to transform traditional wasteful models of production and consumption and make factors such as resources, production, and consumption match up and adapt to each other so that we may achieve coordination and integration between socioeconomic development and environmental protection and ensure harmony between people and nature”.

The centrally of this approach to China’s development model is demonstrated by the pronouncement made by Xi Jinping in 2017 that the principal contradiction in Chinese society had changed. Xi stated that, following four decades of reform and opening up that lifted 850 million people out of poverty China had moved from the previous principal contradiction of “the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people versus backward social production” to the “contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life”

Explaining what was meant by the  “needs of people for a better life”, Xi stated that not only have their [the people’s] material and cultural needs grown; their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment are increasing”. To deliver this a focus on “high quality growth”, rather than the quantity is needed, in order to “hasten the creation of an ecological civilisation.”

The 14th Five Year Plan is a crucial opportunity for China to provide an example for the world in how environmental, economic, and social goals can be achieved together. By setting out an ambitious 1.5 degree aligned path towards peaking emissions early, and measures to constrain coal and decarbonise key sectors of the economy, while delivering people centered development and high quality growth, China can demonstrate how to create an ‘ecological civilisation’. This would not only inspire the world but have a concrete impact in supporting a global green economic shift with transformative investment that could change global industries from construction to agriculture. Further reading on China’s plans for green growth can be found here.

It is therefore critical that the West works with China – collaborating to take advantage of the increasing availability and lower cost of environmental technologies made available by Chinese innovation and investment, avoiding economic nationalism and trade tariffs that would undermine their access to these green technologies, and ending the propping up of fossil fuel industries with the large public subsides currently in place that are pushing the world towards climate catastrophe.  This cooperation would be a ‘win-win’ development for the whole planet.

Confronting fossil fuels barons and anti-China cold war mentality in the West is crucial

The key struggle in the West is to on the one hand to confront the fossil fuel barons whose continued expansion is supported by at least 100 billion dollars a year of public subsidies by G7 countries and who consistency lobby against the climate targets and actions necessary to deliver 1.5 degrees and shift to a green economy;  and on the other to reject the argument that China is the enemy, and push for global cooperation to defeat the shared threat to humanity that climate change represents.

Only 3-5% of stimulus funds dispersed in the initial economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic have been directed at green projects – lower even than the level following the 2008 recession. If this trend continues, the high carbon infrastructure and projects associated with this spending may put the 1.5 degree permanently out of reach. G20 countries have in 2020 pledged $249 billion to fossil fuels, 54% of all public money committed to the energy sector. However, if China is removed the percentage going to fossil fuels would increase.  China has spent 86.7% of their $40.5 billion supporting the energy sector on clean energy and building upgrades including home energy efficiency renovations.


The first and biggest test of a Biden administration will be whether he can reverse Trump’s enormous state support for the expansion of fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas, and high carbon industries and instead support a green recovery. Biden has proposed a 1.7 trillion dollar clean energy investment plan over four years, however his continued support for fracking points to an inability to break with fossil fuel interests that the US left must fight against. During the course of the campaign Biden sought to distance himself from the ‘Green New Deal’ and often moved right-wards following attacks from Trump that he wanted to clamp down on the fracking industry. Trump has overseen a massive expansion of fossil fuel production in the US, led by fracking, a method that scientists believe is more polluting than coal. The US is now the largest producer of fossil fuels in the world, and in 2019 set another new record level for its oil and gas production, surpassing their previous highs set in 2018. In 2019, 80% of domestic energy production was from fossil fuels, and 80% of domestic energy consumption originated from fossil fuels.

In a Presidential debate Biden said that there needed to be a transition away from oil because of the pollution it causes – but following attacks from the Trump campaign Kamala Harris clarified that he had meant he wanted to address public oil subsides, and that fossil fuels would remain in use up to 2050. Removing US subsides for the fossil fuel industry however would be a huge step forward and must be vigorously campaigned for. In most parts of the world renewable energy, largely thanks to investment from China, can now compete with fossil fuels if there is a level playing field. This must however be teamed with support for a Green New Deal and a just transition to decent new green jobs for workers in the fossil fuel industry.

Nonetheless, both Biden’s stimulus plan and the EU’s recently announced ‘Next Generation EU’ recovery package present a progressive shift in the West’s approach, with much greater public support proposed for research development and innovation in clean energy and high-tech industries including digital, 5G and AI. The EU has announced a target that 30% of its budget should be spent on measures that support climate action. This represents a significant increase in planned spending in the West on clean energy after a decade of austerity that saw support for climate projects slashed, as the world relied on China to bring forward the majority of investment that has made many clean technologies competitive with fossil fuels. Biden is clear in his recovery plan that he wishes for the US to not be outstripped by China in these areas and sought to compete with Trump throughout the election campaign on who can be more anti-China – which may also damage chances of cooperation between the world’s two biggest economies on climate change. Increased investment in clean industries and technology is to be welcomed, but it must be paired with an ending of the enormous fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks in the West as simply adding clean industries to fossil fuel ones, rather than transitioning, will not reduce emissions. 

It is crucial for the West to work together with China on climate change. China has already revolutionised the global renewables and electric vehicles industries with its investments and is the biggest investor in renewable energy globally. It’s new goal of net-zero is set to bring a global economic transformation to all sectors of the economy, from construction to agriculture.

The West must raise its ambition on climate change

Continued large-scale fossil fuel pollution by the West, particularly over the last 40 years, has left little room in the global carbon budget, meaning steep cuts in annual emissions are now immediately needed. Developed nations need to deliver their fair share of halving emissions by 2030, which translates into at least 70-80% cuts in emissions in the next decade. Most developed countries have nowhere near these kinds of targets.

The election of Joe Biden as President will put the US back in framework of the Paris Agreement and create the conditions for a serious fight for the US to change direction.  Biden’s election is a defeat for Trump’s axis of climate change denial and represents a step forward in this regard. Biden has committed to bring in a net-zero target for 2050. What will be crucial is whether he will increase the US’s target for 2025 from the previous weak level under the Obama administration.  Under Obama the US committed to cut emissions by just 26-28 per cent below its 2005 level by 2025. This is equivalent to roughly one fifth’s of the US’s fair share according to an analysis by a group of global NGOs.  Targets alone are, however, not enough – in addition to spending plans, policies must also be consistent, and unlike China, the West does not have a track record of delivering on its climate promises. Biden has made some significant policy commitments, including pledging in his transition plan to move to zero carbon power by 2035, but is weak in areas such as upgrading buildings and does not mention fossil fuels at all.

The EU is not on track to meet its current weak 2030 target of a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. This target is not even strong enough to constrain temperatures to 2 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees. The EU is considering raising this to 55%, but following China’s announcement the pressure has increased and European Parliament has called for a higher, but still insufficient, target of 60%.

The majority of countries that have already submitted updated targets under the Paris Agreement are from the global south, including Cuba and Vietnam. It is essential that maximum pressure is placed upon developed countries to increase their commitments to action by 2030 consistent with delivering the 1.5 degree goal by the time of the UN Climate Summit (COP 26) to be held in Glasgow in November 2021.

The next year is critical in the fight against climate change

The next year is critical in the fight against climate change. A united movement for a Green New Deal and to remove fossil fuel subsidies – including as part of current economic stimulus and recovery packages to address the ongoing impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic – will be crucial to deliver early pressure on Biden in advance of next year’s UN climate talks. Given the close result of the US Presidential election, Trump and his allies will likely remain a significant force in US politics. It will be crucial for a united movement of the working class and its allies to both pressure Biden to turn commitments into action, oppose a new cold war against China, and provide a counter-weight to Trumpism. A similar approach is needed in Europe and Britain where the desire of European leaders to show leadership on climate change on the global stage can be used to elevate demands to support green industries instead of fossil fuels, argi-business and high carbon industries, and to increase ambition.

In this context, China’s climate pledges and its forthcoming 14th five year plan bring hope that an alternative model of development is both possible and already underway. China’s actions on climate change show that China is not the enemy but a crucial part of the solution. The West must follow suit in raising its own ambition and action.