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China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide by volume, responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. The country is expected to come under intense scrutiny at the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) summit in November 2021 over its commitments to reduce these. Significantly, China’s President Xi Jinping has said his country will aim for its emissions to reach their highest point before 2030 and for carbon neutrality to be achieved by 2060. He also pledged the country will cease building coal-fired power overseas.

Yet Beijing is hedging. China’s 2030 peak-year pledge is widely regarded as a target that could be brought forward; domestic coal plants are still being built; and a global warming limit of 1.5°C is still not in reach. While the country is known to 'under-promise and over-deliver', the lack of ambition in the near term is a response to domestic threats of social instability and economic stagnation, and a more challenging global macro and geopolitical environment. These pose major challenges for China’s energy transition.

Key findings:

  • There is no credible emissions pathway towards limiting global warming to 1.5°C without significant movements from China over the next decade to accelerate its energy transition and decarbonisation.
  • China aims to become carbon-neutral by 2060. Yet Beijing is hedging in the near term, in part due to an uncertain global macro and geopolitical environment, and in part due to domestic threats of social instability and economic stagnation.
  • China’s negotiating position at COP26 in Glasgow stands to benefit from support from many developing countries — unless the United States and other rich countries make an effective alternative appeal to the Global South with respect to climate finance, mitigation and adaptation.


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