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Making sense of China's very vague new plan to reach "carbon neutrality"

Major climate news arrived on Tuesday when Chinese President Xi Jinping said China would aim for "carbon neutrality" by 2060 and a CO2 emissions peak before 2030.

Why it matters: China is by far the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter. So its success or failure at reining in planet-warming gases affects everyone's future.


The big picture: Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate Research said the 2060 goalif it happens — keeps alive the prospect of holding global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

  • That's the most ambitious and moonshot goal of the Paris climate deal and it's fast slipping out of reach.
  • And here's Wood Mackenzie analyst Alex Whitworth in a note this morning: "The world’s largest carbon emitter finally shifted from its long-term position of having limited responsibility to reduce global emissions as a developing country, to assuming clearer leadership in tackling climate change."

Catch up fast: Xi made the pledge in video remarks Tuesday before the UN General Assembly.

  • He also said China will slightly toughen its nearer-term pledge under the Paris deal by aiming for the emissions peak before 2030. Their current pledge said they'll do this "around" 2030.

Reality check: The new commitment is very brief and super vague and there's no guarantee they will make good.

  • China watchers are now looking to see how the country will define "carbon neutrality" and what concrete steps it's planning to transform the targets into action.
  • "China’s upcoming 14th five-year plan has the potential to be the most important document in global energy market history," Gavin Thompson, another Woodmac analyst, said in their note.
  • And, here's just one of many challenges: China's fleet of coal-fired power plants is very young and they're still building new ones.

The intrigue: Xi's speech came after President Trump's remarks hit China for "rampant" pollution, touted his decision to abandon Paris, and noted the U.S. has reduced CO2 emissions.

  • "Xi Jinping’s climate pledge at the UNGA, minutes after Trump’s speech, is clearly a bold and well calculated move. It demonstrates Xi’s consistent interest in leveraging the climate agenda for geopolitical purposes," says Greenpeace's Li Shuo.
Reproduced from IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

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