China’s president Xi Jinping has announced plans for the nation to become carbon neutral by 2060, setting a bold goal for the world’s biggest climate polluter.

But it’s hard to reconcile Xi’s pledge, made before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, with the nation’s recent actions. Most notably, China is in the midst of a coal power plant building boom. As of late last year, the country had nearly 150 gigawatts of plants in the development pipeline, roughly equal to the European Union’s total capacity, according to Global Energy Monitor, a nonprofit that tracks coal projects around the world.

The plants can easily operate for 60 years or more, so anything built today could continue pumping out greenhouse gas emissions for decades beyond the 2060 deadline.

China appears to be trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, the nation is asserting itself as a climate leader at a point when President Donald Trump has abdicated any such role the United States may once have played. And his rollbacks of environmental policies are sure to increase should he be re-elected.

China also hopes to extend its dominance as the world’s clean tech manufacturing powerhouse, seizing the lion’s share of revenue from the global shift to low-emissions energy sources. It already produces most of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, solar panels and wind turbines, and sells the biggest share of electric vehicles.

But China’s $7 trillion economic stimulus package earlier this year poured still more funds into coal plant construction. Meanwhile, the nation’s banks have been financing dozens of coal plants in other countries through its Belt-and-Road development initiative.

So there are clear discrepancies here between the rhetoric and the action. That said, the statement on Tuesday may still be significant.

It comes as China is developing its next five-year plan, notes Jonas Nahm, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. So it could signal that the nation is preparing to implement stricter emissions cutting policies, even if they’re not enough to meet the 2060 goal.

If China does somehow achieve them – whether by, say, mothballing coal plants or installing pricy carbon capture systems on them – it would have a huge global impact. The nation is such a big emitter that those emissions reductions could singlehandedly shave as much as 0.3 ˚C off of global warming projections, according to a Climate Action Tracker analysis.

Either way, the announcement itself from the rising superpower could place greater pressure on other nations to step up their climate goals, as clean technologies and emission commitments become the currency of emerging trading partnerships, marketplaces and spheres of influence.



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