I didn’t realise how big China was until 2015, when I took my first bus journey in the south. It was seven hours from limitless Dongguan to walkable Yangshuo, the kind of place you see printed on tea towels, and I’d barely traversed my thumbnail on a map of the country.
But in its impact on the pale blue orb we inhabit, China punches even beyond its huge landmass. It comprises around a fifth of the world’s population, but pumped out 30 per cent of its total emissions in 2018. It was almost entirely responsible for the 0.6 per cent rise in emissions in 2019, a year when the rest of the world collectively reduced them. So, what it chooses to do to the world is central to the future of our species.
What is it choosing to do? There have been signs this year of a change of policy on China’s part – and one for the better. In September, while the US was on indefinite leave from the world stage, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, made a surprise announcement over videolink to the UN General Assembly: his country will aim to hit peak emissions in 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
It’s worth spending a moment to wrap your head around the enormity of that goal: a country responsible for 28 per cent of global greenhouse emissions could reduce that to zero within 40 years. If China meets this target, it will, according to estimates, single-handedly lower global warming projections by 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius, notwithstanding the global precedent it might set.
And just a couple of weeks ago, Xi offered another sliver of hope. Speaking at a summit for the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, Xi vowed to nearly triple China’s wind and solar capacity during the next decade, and reduce its carbon intensity by 65 per cent by 2030.
Some caveats. There hasn’t yet been real detail on how China will reach net zero – for this, we await its 14th Five Year Plan in March of next year – and its target date of 2060 is 16 years later than the IPCC recommends. The country wants to keep growing, and its growth is still coupled to carbon emissions, particularly coal: it issued more construction permits for coal-fired power plants in the first half of 2020 than in 2018 and 2019.
But there is no doubt that China’s call for a green revolution is a beacon of hope in a torrid environmental landscape, and the country’s top scientists have a road map if Xi chooses to follow it. Nor would China be taking off from a standing start. Where the US has two established electric car makers, China has 400, including start ups. China made more than 45 per cent of the world’s total renewable energy investments in 2017. Its mass production of solar cells a decade or so ago was easily the biggest factor in creating an affordable global market for solar power.
The pandemic might also mean that China has inadvertently made a start on its net-zero target. It had been building coal-fired power stations at pace abroad, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. However, the coronavirus has slammed the brakes on that scheme, not least because it is funded by loans to developing countries that now all face debt crises.
Of course, nature continues to scream stage left. 2020 saw a possible global heat record in California. Wildfires devastated Australia, the US west coast, Siberia and South America. There was a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season. Byron Bay’s main beach has all but disappeared. China itself suffered huge floods. Feedback loops are starting to reduce our own power to halt the warming of the planet.
But take heart. Joe Biden, a man serious about the climate, is about to take office and replace someone who was serious about destroying it. In advance of this, China might have fired the starting pistol on a global race to decarbonise, which financially has become increasingly attainable. We could all end up winners, planet and all.