This article titled “China’s five-year plan for economy is crucial to meeting net zero by 2060” was written by Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 4th March 2021 10.11 UTC
China is to publish a new blueprint for its economy on Friday, with vast implications for the future of the planet – including whether the goals of the Paris climate agreement are likely to be met.
The five-year plan, of which this will be the 14th since 1953, forms the cornerstone of economic governance for the one-party state, and sets out social and environmental aspirations as well as GDP and industrial targets.
China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, as well as the second biggest economy after the US. Global carbon emissions must halve by the end of this decade to have a chance of holding global heating well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, as set out in the Paris accord, so China’s role will be decisive.
Lord Stern of Brentford, the climate economist, told the Guardian: “The investments of this decade, particularly in infrastructure, will determine whether we have any chance of keeping to the Paris targets. China will be a focal point for economic growth in this crucial decade … [the plan] is of absolutely central importance to the world’s future.”
Xi Jinping, president of China, surprised the world last September when at the UN general assembly, held virtually for the first time, he announced that China would seek to cut its emissions to net zero by 2060.
That target is in line with scientific advice – the whole world must reach net zero emissions around mid-century to stay within 2C – but politically it was seismic. China’s previous position at climate talks was that the developed countries of the west, with their long history of industrialisation, must take on tough obligations to cut their emissions first, while emerging economies, such as China, India and Brazil, could continue to increase theirs.
If China’s net zero target is met, along with those of other nations – the US, the EU, the UK, Japan, South Korea and many smaller countries also plan to reach net zero by 2050 – then the world has a good chance of keeping to 2C, according to Climate Action Tracker.
But though China’s net zero target is essential, it is four decades away. What happens now is crucial, because carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere today will still be there, overheating the planet, in a century. That means countries must stop adding to the stock of carbon in the air as soon as possible, and stop building high-carbon infrastructure such as coal-fired power plants that will have an operating life of decades.
“To achieve the Paris targets, emissions must turn down in the next couple of years,” said Stern. “Realistically, that cannot happen unless emissions in China start to fall.”
Xi said in September that China’s emissions would peak before 2030. Most experts regard that as too late to have a realistic chance of meeting the Paris goals, however, and allowing emissions to carry on rising for a decade would encourage the continued building of fossil fuel infrastructure. They want to see China set a tougher target, and many regard a peak date of 2025 as within China’s power to achieve.
Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation, and the French diplomat who led the Paris negotiations, said: “[Peaking in] 2025 seems possible, all the modelling by Chinese teams points to that, and it’s not too late. But 2030 or around 2030 would be too late, there is no ambiguity about that.”
The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic may make an early peak harder to achieve, however. China’s emissions dropped suddenly last year, as lockdowns took hold, then swiftly climbed again as restrictions eased. In its efforts to restart the economy after the Covid-19 shock, China turned to an old standby: the country brought forward stalled investments in coal-fired power plants. China approved more new coal-fired power generation in the first half of last year than in the whole of the previous two years, according to Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
Bernice Lee, research director for futures at the Chatham House thinktank, said the rest of the world must understand that China’s dependence on coal for energy, industry and millions of jobs runs deep, and try to find ways of engaging rather than admonishing China. “People always ask why can’t China move faster away from coal. It is hard in China, like it is hard in many other places: it is about real people on the ground, industries, powerful lobbies, bureaucratic fights, and inertia,” she said. “But a better question for us to ask ourselves is: what can the rest of the world do to encourage China – and others, like India – to move faster away from coal?”
The question of China’s peak year for emissions is unlikely to be resolved in Friday’s five-year plan. Instead, the government is likely to set out its economic blueprint, including targets for GDP growth, and gesture towards environmental, social and climate aims without setting them out in detail.
However, Beijing faces another deadline. This November, world governments will meet in Glasgow for vital UN climate talks, called Cop26. Under the Paris agreement, nations were supposed to set out in 2020 fresh commitments on cutting or curbing greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2030. That timetable slipped because of the Covid-19 pandemic but the UN has made it clear it wants new national plans for 2030 – called nationally determined contributions, or NDCs – from all major countries ahead of Cop26.
The EU, the UK, Japan and about 70 others have set out their NDCs, though some are under pressure to revise them. All eyes are now on the US and China, as the world’s biggest emitters and biggest economies. Joe Biden, the US president, has called a summit of world leaders for 22 April to discuss climate action ahead of Cop26, and he is expected there to set out his country’s NDC.
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