China lays out steps towards climate targets at UN summit

China vowed to nearly triple its wind and solar capacity during the next decade, as President Xi Jinping joined other world leaders at a UN climate summit focused on new emissions targets.

Mr Xi’s statement was the most consequential at a virtual summit that included more than 70 heads of state, hosted by Boris Johnson of the UK and Emmanuel Macron of France, to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate accord.

UN secretary-general António Guterres called on all countries to declare a “climate emergency”, saying the world needed to cut emissions 45 per cent by 2030, relative to 2010 levels, to limit global warming.

He noted G20 countries were spending 50 per cent more in their coronavirus stimulus packages linked to fossil fuels than
on low-carbon energy, calling it “unacceptable”.

“The trillions of dollars needed for COVID recovery is money that we are
borrowing from future generations. This is a moral test,” he said.

New climate targets from all 189 countries that signed the Paris climate accord are technically due for submission to the UN by the year’s end; more than 40 countries have already made their submissions, while others have been delayed by coronavirus. 

Mr Johnson warned that “humanity has been quilting our planet in a toxic tea cosy of greenhouse gases”.

In recent weeks the UK prime minister has announced a series of green policies, including a ban on the sale of new petrol cars from 2030. “Today we are putting our foot to the accelerator, in a carbon friendly way,” he said at the summit.

The US, the world’s second-largest emitter, did not have a federal representative at the summit. Under Donald Trump as president the US has pulled out of the Paris climate accord.

But President-elect Joe Biden has said that he will rejoin the Paris agreement on his first day in office on January 20, and tweeted during the Saturday summit: “We’re going to rally the world to push our progress further and faster and tackle the climate crisis head-on.”

Missing from the event were Australia, whose climate pledges were deemed too weak, and Brazil, which has said it wants to be paid $10bn a year to protect the Amazon, as well as Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Among the corporate testimonials was Apple chief executive Tim Cook.

President Xi’s appearance at the summit was the most anticipated, as he pledged that China would cut its carbon intensity, which measures emissions relative to gross domestic product, by more than 65 per cent by 2030. This was an increase from its previous goal of 60-65 per cent.

It would also increase wind and solar installed capacity to 1200GW by 2030, Mr Xi said, up from 415GW at the end of 2019.

“China always honours its commitments,” he said. “We will promote greener economic and social development in all aspects.”

China is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2060, a target it announced in September, and Mr Xi’s comments on Saturday were the first indication of what paths the country will take to reach that goal.

However climate campaigners were quick to point out that China’s new targets were only a slight improvement from earlier targets, and that the country continued to build new coal power plants.

Li Shuo, energy policy officer at Greenpeace, said the announcement was an “incremental step forward” and that a 75 per cent target for reducing carbon intensity would have been more in line with China’s long term goal.

“There is no decisive break away from coal,” he said. “There is still potential for China to do more.”

One point of contention at the summit was the issue of climate finance — funding from rich countries to help developing countries address climate change — which is supposed to reach $100bn annually by 2020.

Climate finance was “lagging badly”, said the UN’s Mr Guterres, and had been hit hard by the pandemic’s economic impact in 2020.

Italy’s Giuseppe Conti and Germany’s Angela Merkel both announced new contributions to climate adaptation programs, with the latter committing to double its climate finance budget to $4.8bn annually. The UK reiterated a funding pledge made last year.

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