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China pledges to be completely carbon neutral by 2060. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Experts at a Perry World House event on Tuesday afternoon discussed China’s newly announced initiative to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and what it means for the future of environmental policy.

As a part of The World Today seminar series, Director of the Penn Global China Program Scott Moore hosted a conversation with Senior Strategic Director for Asia at the Natural Resources Defense Council Barbara Finamore. Finamore, who published the 2018 book "Will China Save the Planet?," said that although there are barriers China will have to overcome to achieve carbon neutrality, the pledge is a step in the right direction. 

China's President Xi Jinping announced last month at the United Nations General Assembly that China pledged to be completely carbon neutral by 2060 to fight climate change. Carbon neutrality means that all carbon emissions are offset by removing equal amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. In the same address, he highlighted the importance of multilateralism and international cooperation to stop climate change. 

China’s announcement took the world by storm, Finamore said. Not only has China created an ambitious climate target, but the fact that it is “the first absolute carbon target by China by itself, not in collaboration with other countries” sets a precedent, she said.

Moore, who is also the former Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer for China in the U.S. Department of State, asked Finamore about the history of China’s environmental policy.  In 1996, Finamore founded the first clean energy program at an NGO, the China Program, which aids the nation in drafting climate change policy and actionable energy plans.

Finamore said that although many cite the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 or the Paris Agreement in 2016 as the start of a global effort to mitigate climate change, China’s scientists have been concerned about the effects of global warming since as early as 1991.

Barbara Finamore (left) and Scott Moore (right).

Finamore said China’s coastal cities are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions such as typhoons and torrential rains as a result of climate change. Air pollution in China's cities is harmful to the health of the people living there, she said. In 2013, Beijing endured a period of intense smog called Airpocalypse.

“The incredibly high levels of air pollution made living in cities like Beijing equal to living in airports’ smoking lounges,” Finamore said.

Although China is a leading manufacturer of solar panels and electrical vehicles, Finamore said that most of what it produces has historically been exported to Europe and the United States. Chinese citizens only embraced solar power as a result of the 2008 economic recession, which forced China to develop a growing domestic market for solar panels, Finamore said.

“Coal is on its way out,” she said. “And the question is only how fast.”

Finamore said she does, however, see barriers to fulfilling the pledge. China's Belt and Road Initiative, a project to create infrastructure connecting China to more than 60 other countries, could make reaching carbon neutrality difficult because of the project's reliance on fossil fuels that create carbon emissions, Finamore said. 

There is reason for hope, though, Finamore said. China is investing more in renewable energy than coal in 2020, which she said indicates a trend in the right direction. She added that because the United States is a leader in grid integration, the process of delivering renewable energy efficiently, it can play a role in developing the infrastructure needed in China for renewable energy.

The presidency of 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump represents a “retreat from international climate issues,” Finamore said, most noticeably when he withdrew the country from the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. She said that it will take time to rebuild America's credibility on climate change, but many individuals, organizations, counties, and states have been proactive in creating sustainability goals that will aid international efforts to stop climate change.

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