Xi Jinping was widely praised on Tuesday after he told the United Nations General Assembly via videolink that China would ‘achieve carbon neutrality before 2060’. Environmental activists, academics and government leaders in the West hailed the move as a big deal, a significant step toward addressing climate change. The New York Times couldn’t resist framing this story as a ‘pointed message to the US’ which under Trump has increasingly diverged from the growing scientific and political consensus on climate change. President Trump, famously, initiated the process of withdrawing the country from the 2015 Paris Climate Accords.
Let’s ignore for a moment one of the most important questions about Xi’s announcement — exactly how is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases going to achieve this goal — and focus on another: why are so many taking this new climate pledge at face value?
For starters, the list of broken promises and reneged agreements by the Chinese Communist party runs long. Whether it’s abrogating the joint Sino-British declaration that guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy till 2047, violating promises to reign in military expansionism and aggression in the South China Sea, failing to meet its WTO ascension commitments, and explicitly breaching the anti-commercial hacking agreement established by the Obama administration to prohibit corporate espionage and intellectual property theft via cyberhacking, you have to wonder why skepticism toward China’s pledge seems to be in such short supply.
It’s hard to ignore that Xi’s announcement has come in the short run-up to a crunch US election in which there’s a marked contrast between the climate agendas of the two campaigns. Trump’s challenger, Joe Biden, has pledged to rejoin the Paris Accords and released a plan to spend $2 trillion on new Green New Deal. This comes at a time when the Trump administration has shirked away from working with global partners to deal with the challenges of climate change and even downplayed the urgency of the problem, thus angering allies in Europe and elsewhere. Xi’s administration has seized upon this unique opportunity to indulge in a soft power play, presenting itself as the future climate leader and earning brownie points with the European powers.
Such moves certainly help alleviate much Western cognitive dissonance regarding China’s abject record of human rights. Sure it’s not a democracy and is by many accounts already a totalitarian techno-surveillance state, but it’s a carbon neutral totalitarian techno-surveillance state. Can a strong leadership role in international politics to mitigate climate change whitewash critical perceptions of say, China’s repression of Uighur Muslims or the disappearance of dissidents and journalists?
As with all agreements, the devil’s always in the details. In this case, Xi has offered almost no details. According to the official translation of his UN speech, Xi laid out that the aim is to have carbon dioxide emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. That means a nebulous target for the world’s biggest polluter to continue to produce greenhouse gases for another decade or so before (maybe) ratcheting down fossil fuel emissions — not to zero, but to neutrality (which could still be at a high absolute level). And further, the CCP’s militarization of the islands in the South China Sea and massive infrastructure projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative both will result in massive environmental degradation. And yet, just this one declaration by Xi is being treated by the media as a climate victory? In the words of Greta Thunberg, ‘how dare you!’
There is one reason to be hopeful. China has staked its future on renewable energy and technology. As it is, they are already worldwide leaders in solar panel manufacturing, electric vehicles, and wind energy. But the country is still expanding and supporting its coal industry by building new plants, expanding plant capacity and building railways to the tune of $30 billion to facilitate transportation of coal from mines in inner Mongolia and Shanxi.
The goal, even if not achieved exactly as pledged, is a worthy one. But leaders and activists should be aware of the possibility that this gesture is mere opportunistic virtue-signaling. Just as how the Chinese Communist party recently declared that the joint Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong was just a ‘historical document that no longer had any practical significance’, it’s quite possible that come 2060, the same party could very well say that the ‘carbon neutrality pledge’ was just a historical agreement with no practical significance.
Given what I know about China, I won’t be holding my breath. Or maybe I should.