President Xi Jinping’s address at the United Nations General Assembly this week included a historic pledge to cut China’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that drives climate change, to net-zero by 2060.

He said: “China will scale up its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions by adopting more vigorous policies and measures. We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”

This is an extremely important pledge by China, the world’s largest single emitter of greenhouse gases. China has been seeking a new form of high-quality development for some years now, and this commitment will be a major boost in that direction, promoting economic growth that is more sustainable, inclusive and resilient.

As China and the rest of the world face the challenge of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, we can now see that investments in sustainable physical and natural capital yield results that can be realised quickly, and create plenty of job opportunities. Sustainable investments are the route to a strong economic recovery.

Many countries are now recognising that the transition to a net-zero economy will help to deliver economic development and growth that is more robust, sustainable and resilient. Several other world leaders, including the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pointed this out during their contributions to the High-Level Roundtable on Climate Action that was organised this week by the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres.

President Xi’s announcement should help to increase momentum ahead of the 26th session of the Conference of Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is due to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow between 1 and 12 November 2021.

COP26 was due to take place in November 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The landmark Paris Agreement emerged from COP21 in 2015, and countries are due to submit updated and more ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) ahead of COP26.

The NDCs that were submitted around COP21 are collectively insufficient to deliver the goal of the Paris Agreement to hold the rise in global mean temperature to well below 2˚C. The Agreement also commits Parties to achieving net-zero emissions globally in the second half of this century.

The Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Patricia Espinosa, has asked countries to submit their revised NDCs by the end of this year.

President Xi’s ground-breaking announcement provides a clear signal to other countries that the pandemic should not prevent more ambitious action to tackle climate change. China’s existing NDC includes a commitment to “achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early”.

There have been signs that China’s annual emissions may be close to peaking, but its output of carbon dioxide was projected to have increased by 2.6 per cent between 2018 and 2019, according to the Global Carbon Project.

While President Xi’s announcement that China will seek to reach net-zero emissions, or carbon neutrality, by 2060, is extremely welcome, China would face a very great challenge in achieving this target if its emissions do not peak earlier than 2030.

There is much research and analysis being carried out, both within and outside China, on how China might peak its emissions during the 14th Five-Year Plan, for 2021–2025, which is being finalised at the moment. The indications are that peaking emissions during the 14th Five-Year Plan would be a key step along the road to high-quality development.

For instance, the Grantham Research Institute is currently undertaking a project on ‘Challenges for China in a new era of economic growth’, funded by the Energy Foundation China. Earlier this month, the Institute published a report by Chunping Xie and me on ‘China’s 14th Five-Year Plan in the context of COVID-19: Rescue, recovery and sustainable growth for China and the world’.

Our report concludes: “Hesitation and inaction on sustainability could take the world to a climate catastrophe that would be both very destructive and long lasting. The world may revert towards the old dirty technologies of the 20th century. China’s leadership in the COVID-19 recovery phase is crucial. Bringing forward the peak in China’s greenhouse gas emissions to no later than 2025, and within the 14th Five-Year Plan, could change climate commitments across the world. China can lead the world across all these dimensions and establish itself as a true global leader for the 21st century.”

A world-class research group at Tsinghua University has also been analysing ways in which China can reduce its emissions most effectively. This work has been led by Professor He Jiankun, who is Dean of the Institute of Low Carbon Economy at the University, and Minister Xie Zhenhua, President of the University’s Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development, who was formerly Vice-Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission and Special Representative for Climate Change Affairs of China.

Minister Xie provided a keynote address earlier this month, ahead of President Xi’s announcement at the United Nations General Assembly, at an international meeting on ‘Pathways to Net Zero Emissions’, which was organised by the Global Alliance of Universities and Climate. The Alliance, which was launched in January 2019, is co-chaired by Tsinghua University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, and now has 13 member institutions from nine countries.

However, those researchers and analysts who are making the case for accelerating the transition to a net zero economy face opponents who argue that China should try to recover from the pandemic and boost its economic growth through the consumption of more coal.

These arguments have grown even more important as China formulates its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is a compelling economic case for China to accelerate its transition to low-carbon growth and development. A strong recovery will only be sustainable if it is driven by investments in the economy of the future, not the economy of the past.

If China leads by example with a sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic, it will not only provide an important political signal to the rest of the world, but it could also trigger a wave of new investments in clean technologies and infrastructure across the world, particularly in countries that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

This is a critical moment for China and the world. President Xi’s historic announcement could prove to be a key milestone on the path to a healthier, safer and more prosperous future.

Professor Lord Stern of Brentford is Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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