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TED Talk: Can China achieve its ambitious climate pledges?

This talk was presented at the TED Countdown Summit 2021, an official TED conference.


Last year, China’s leader Xi Jinping made a historic pledge to fight global warming. China will strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. But what do those commitments actually mean?

First, let’s consider the magnitude of these pledges. They call for domestic climate actions at an unprecedented speed and scale. Due to the size of China, they will also matter globally. China is as large as the US, with four times the population. With double-digit annual economic growth in the past 40 years, China has become the world’s second-largest economy in 2010. 

And the story of China being the world’s largest emitter is a fairly recent one. When I was born, the emissions in China were only half those of the US. It only became the largest about 15 years ago. 

In 2019, China represents 28 percent of global CO2 emissions. Its emissions are so significant today that going net-zero before 2060 could prevent 0.2 to 0.3-degrees of global warming and bring down 215 billion tons of CO2 emissions in the next 40 years. And that is equivalent to its cumulative emissions in the past half-century.

So why does China emit so much? The phenomenal economic growth in China, like in many developed countries, was primarily driven by fossil fuels. 

In 2020, 84 percent of China’s primary energy consumption came from fossil fuels. The thirst for energy has made it the world’s largest coal consumer, the second-largest oil consumer, and the single largest contributor to the growth in demand for gas.

But there’s another side to the story. In the past decade, China has also seen the world’s fastest and the largest deployment of almost anything clean, green, and low-carbon. 

And that includes a long list of number ones in the field of non-fossil energy, low-carbon transportation, green buildings and you just name it. 

In July 2021, China launched the world’s largest emissions trading scheme. The single act has now put a carbon price to 12 percent of global CO2 emissions. 

China is also the largest producer and the processor of a few critical minerals used for clean-energy technologies. It also manufactures the world’s most wind turbines and solar panels. 

According to Cambridge Econometrics, a UK-based consultancy, the huge scale of investment required for a net-zero China before 2060 could create a “positive spillover effect” on other countries, bringing down the cost of clean energy all around the world. And such an effect has already been observed in the cost of solar panels.

But the road to net-zero will not be an easy one. As China’s leader Xi Jinping said himself, China must make “extraordinarily hard efforts.” 

One of the reasons is the “much shorter time span,” as Xi put it. China has pledged to peak its emissions in the next nine years. It’s worth noting, however, this is considered“highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis, for the consistency of a three- to four-degree warmer planet.

China should also bring down 10 to 11 billion tons of annual CO2 emissions at its peak level to net-zero in about 30 years. That would take the nations of the EU about 60-70 years. 

However, unlike the EU, China faces a dual challenge. In 2020, there were 600 million people living in China with a monthly income of about 140 US dollars or less. 

China wants to become a “great socialist modern country,” which translates to continuous urbanization and modernization. Any tiny improvement that lifts up the living standard of an average Chinese person must be multiplied by 1.4 billion. And that could mean a lot more emissions.

Another challenge is transforming the economic structure. In 2020, 38 percent of China’s GDP came from the secondary industry. Many of them are considered as “liang gao” industries in China, which means “dual high.” That’s “high energy consumption” and “high emissions”. 

These industries include coal power and the manufacturing of iron and steel, cement, aluminum, chemicals, petrochemicals, which are also called the “hard-to-abate industries”. According to the International Energy Agency, the power and industry combined add up to 84 percent of the nation’s total CO2 emissions. 

For decades, China has been the so-called “factory of the world.” The emissions generated from such production, known as “embedded carbon,” are calculated as domestic emissions in China rather than being ascribed to countries that import Chinese-made products.

But regardless of all those challenges, China has made its pledge. So how can China get there? 

China has pledged that it will not build any more coal power plants abroad, and it will start to phase out coal consumption starting from the 15th Five-Year period. That’s 2026 and onwards. 

It’s greening up the energy structure and ramping up electrification. According to experts from Tsinghua University, electricity can meet 79 percent of China’s final energy consumption by 2060, if net-zero is achieved. And that’s almost triple today’s level.

The industry sectors we just talked about are also going through structural reform, fuel switching and technology upgrades, including starting pilots such as hydrogen-fueled steelmaking and the so-called negative emissions technologies, such as carbon capture or storage.

And while China already has the world’s largest installed capacity for wind and solar, it has committed to double it over the next nine years. 

A high-level review compiled by Energy Foundation China on China’s pathway to two-degree and 1.5-degree concludes that most of the scenarios project China to peak its emissions before the pledge deadline of 2030. It could be even before 2025. The city of Beijing has already done that about 10 years ago, and many high-emission provinces have also shown a sign of a slowdown. 

Experts such as Zou Ji, a veteran environmental economist, believe that, compared to “Western countries,” China can achieve its climate pledges at a lower per-capita income and more crucially, a shorter plateau to its emissions peak once it is achieved.

China’s leadership holds a clear view that the country must move away from the “GDP-oriented” pattern that “pollutes, then treats,” to what it calls an “ecological civilization.” Since 2010, China almost doubled its GDP per capita while largely maintaining a steady level of emissions per capita.

And finally, let me give you just one example of how this vision is implemented. In June 2021, China decided to clamp down hard on the power-hungry mining of cryptocurrencies. Half of the world’s capacity disappeared almost overnight.

Of course, to peak emissions before 2030 at a lower level, China must limit the unconstrained development of the “liang gao” industries. Recently, hundreds of such new projects have been put on pause, waiting for new assessments on their impact on carbon emissions. 

And the hope is that this type of change will not be linear but instead follow a more exponential path. As Zou Ji noted, transformation might seem slow in the beginning, like turning around a giant ship. But once the head is turned, actions can accelerate in the right direction at an unprecedented speed.

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