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Carbon Neutrality with Chinese Characteristics

Having committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, China seemingly must pull off a miracle. But, on closer inspection, the target is well within striking distance, thanks to recent technological advances and the government's ability to impose its preferences on Chinese society.

EVANSTON – China’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, now enshrined in its 14th Five-Year Plan (5YP), has been met with international enthusiasm. If China succeeds, it could singlehandedly reduce global temperatures by 0.25° Celsius, relative to their expected rise. But is its plan realistic?

Getting to carbon neutrality is a formidable challenge for any country, especially one with a large and developing economy. There are two dimensions to the problem: reducing economic activities that produce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, and producing fewer emissions either through offsets such as reforestation or by substituting renewable energy sources for fossil fuels.

In China’s case, GHG-emitting economic activities are unlikely to decline. China is a middle-income country with 1.4 billion people, around half of whom live on incomes equal to or lower than those of Sub-Saharan Africa. Even if China can develop its high-tech sectors (as the new 5YP aims to do), there will still be hundreds of millions of people who will need jobs in energy-intensive sectors like manufacturing.

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