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China and the UK increase their commitment to a carbon-neutral future

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
October 16, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 40


The beginning of autumn has brought good news for the environment. Actually, I’m projecting here, so let me rephrase: the beginning of autumn has brought good news relating to reductions in some countries’ reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources, which in turn may be good for the future of the environment. Specifically, in recent weeks the leaders of China and the UK have pledged to make their countries carbon neutral by 2060 and “the world leader in clean wind energy” by 2030, respectively.

At the end of September, President Xi Jinping of China addressed the United Nations General Assembly by video, and among many other topics, he talked about the energy future of his country. During his address he pledged to make China carbon neutral by 2060. It was a surprising commitment by the leader of the world’s second-largest economy, in part because China still heavily relies on coal. Recent figures suggest China is the largest consumer of coal, accounting for half the world’s consumption. China is also the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, accounting for 28% of global emissions, according to a Science article. In Xi’s statement of intent, he also confirmed that his country would adopt policies to hit peak CO2 emissions before 2030.

His speech lacked details and did not go into implementation plans. But what is clear is that such a move would require a major reshaping of China’s economy, because, as I mentioned, coal is still a major fuel source, accounting for 58% of the country’s energy consumption in 2019, according to Science. Achieving carbon neutrality will be a huge undertaking and require a combination of strategies, including a drastic increase in energy generated through other means, such as renewables and nuclear power, as well as a significant reduction in coal consumption coupled with large investments in technologies for carbon capture and storage. Xi’s pledge brings China closer in line with the other countries and regions around the world that are strengthening their climate commitments. For example, the UK and the European Union had pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, while Austria and California are committed to achieving that goal by 2040 and 2045, respectively.

Only a few days after Xi’s speech, UK prime minister Boris Johnson pledged to make the UK a “world leader” in wind energy by 2030. To help the UK achieve net zero emissions by 2050, Johnson announced an investment plan to upgrade and build infrastructure, including factories and seaports, for building and transporting the turbines and their giant blades. Initially, the goal is to increase offshore wind capacity in the north of England and locations in Scotland and Wales and would result in the creation of more than 2,000 jobs.

But becoming the “Saudi Arabia of wind power,” as Johnson described it, is only the first part of a multistage plan to bring about a “green industrial revolution” to the UK. Precisely what this revolution entails is unknown. More information, he promised, will become available before the end of the year.

Despite the lack of detail, these pledges are welcome and certainly represent an important, proactive step in the right direction. China faces what at a glance looks like a far greater challenge to achieve its goals because the country still relies heavily on coal for electricity generation, while in the UK, renewable energy already makes up almost half the country’s electricity generation, according to the Guardian.

Of course there’s always that small detail that any commitments made by politicians to shifting toward more environmentally friendly forms of energy or to goals that limit the impact of more traditional energy-generation methods are just pledges at this stage and subject to change depending on political headwinds. I remain hopeful.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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