But Xi offered almost no detail, raising doubts about how the Chinese government plans to achieve its new climate targets. In its recent report, London-based climate data provider TransitionZero said China must shut nearly 600 of its coal-fired power plants by the end of the decade to become totally carbon-neutral by 2060.
Combined, those coal-fired plants can generate up to 364 gigawatts (GW) of power. The report also showed that China could save up to $1.6 trillion by switching to renewable power. Overall, independent of climate considerations, China could save money and boost its international reputation by replacing its coal plants with zero-carbon alternatives, said Matthew Gray, co-chief executive of TransitionZero.
But this may be easier said than done given China's reliance on coal. Last year, China alone generated over half of the world's total coal-fired power despite making climate pledges and building wind and solar infrastructures nationwide.
The dissonance between Xi's September pledge and China's continued reliance on coal-fired power has experts scratching their heads. In its five-year plan published last month, China said it plans to reduce its emissions intensity – the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of its gross domestic product (GDP) – by 18 percent from 2021 to 2025. Experts said hitting this goal would do little since it isn't far off from earlier trends.
China also plans to have solar and wind power make up 20 percent of its energy mix. This modest target leaves plenty of room for further expansion of China's massive coal industry. Swithin Lui, a climate policy analyst with the NewClimate Institute, said the plan was "underwhelming." Lui added that the plan showed little to no signs of a concerted effort to abandon coal. "There is little sign of the change needed [to meet net zero]."
China has pledged to reduce its reliance on coal and its greenhouse gas emissions. Yet even as China pledges to do so, it has also ramped up plans to build more coal-fired power plants to stimulate economic growth following the coronavirus pandemic. (Related: China’s economy continues to collapse as domestic car sales plunge a whopping 92% on spread of Wuhan coronavirus.)
Muyi Yang, an electricity policy analyst, said China is like a big ship. "[It] takes time to turn in another direction." And the longer it takes to do so, the worse the world gets. In particular, Gray warned that the rest of the world will fail to contain climate change if China doesn't decisively move away from coal in the near future.
Nonetheless, Gray and other analysts remain hopeful. For instance, the finding that China could save money if it replaces coal plants with zero-carbon ones brightens the prospect of it ditching coal soon. "[The] stars are now somewhat aligning on breaking China's addiction to coal," said Gray.
China has also already made progress in pursuing clean energy technologies. Today, it is the world's biggest manufacturer of electric cars and buses. As such, the country is already in a good position to make the transition from coal to cleaner energy sources, such as wind and solar power.
Therefore, China is actually fully capable of meeting its climate goals. Achieving climate targets also doubles as an economic opportunity for China with regards to its electric vehicle industry.
China is preparing to submit new climate plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Countries that adopted the 2015 Paris Agreement must submit NDCs because they will form the key part of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) scheduled to take place in Glasgow, Scotland this November.
ClimateScienceNews.com has more stories about China's ambitious climate targets.