China announced new climate goals. But it can’t quit coal just yet.

05:07' PM - Tuesday, 27/10/2020

China’s President Xi Jinping announced new climate targets during his Sept. 22 address to the U.N. General Assembly, including the nation’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

China’s international climate leadership seems to be in direct conflict with Beijing’s continued promotion of fossil fuel projects at home and abroad, however — so why did Xi make this announcement? Here’s what you need to know about its political and scientific implications.

The timing of China’s announcement is strategic

It’s a big year for the 2015 Paris agreement — by year-end 2020, countries are supposed to submit their second round of “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs), as well as their long-term strategies. Current NDCs target the 2025-2030 time frame, while long-term strategies target mid-century goals. Both are self-designed pledges tailored to each country’s circumstances.

Xi’s announcement suggests that, administratively, China expects to fulfill both 2020 requirements on time, a goal few other countries will probably meet. China is also on track to achieve its original Paris goals ahead of schedule. This lends some new credibility to China’s claim to climate leadership.

China is finalizing its 14th Five-Year Plan, which analysts anticipate will include new climate and energy targets for 2021-2025 that build upon those in previous Five-Year Plans. Since the Paris agreement has minimal enforcement mechanisms, it essentially relies on domestic policy to back up the goals pledged internationally. The 2020 Paris agreement deadline coincides with China’s domestic planning horizon, effectively giving the international community a look under the hood to understand how China plans to meet its international goals.

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