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China's Secret to Reaching Carbon-Neutral Goal Raises Questions

China estimates that "carbon sinks" could wipe one-third of the emissions it wants to cut. But the approach has serious challenges.

China will use natural carbon sinks such as vegetation, soil and oceans.

China will use natural carbon sinks such as vegetation, soil and oceans.

Photographer: TPG/Getty Images

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China’s announcement last month that it aims to become carbon neutral by 2060 set off a flurry of discussion among climate watchers about how it would do that. If the world’s largest emitter realizes the goal, it would go a long way in helping keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C by the end of the century. President Xi Jinping’s commitment will require a massive overhaul of China’s energy mix, but officials have also indicated that strategies to absorb and capture carbon dioxide will be a significant part of the plan.

According to Chai Qimin, a government researcher affiliated with the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, on top of shifting away from fossil fuels and boosting renewable energy, China will also use natural carbon sinks such as vegetation, soil and oceans that absorb more carbon than they release, as well as large-scale carbon capture, utilization and storage.

In the case of the latter, technologies are still relatively immature and little-used today because of high costs and virtually no economic benefits. However, using natural carbon sinks is an area where China has been eager to tout its efforts, which include massive tree-planting campaigns and restoration of large wetlands. The term “Nature-Based Solutions” (NBS)  has become increasingly popular in China over the last few years in tackling all sorts of problems, not just climate change. According to the United Nations, NBS could contribute over a third of the measures needed to stabilize global warming below 2°C between now and 2030.

China didn’t invent the concept of NBS, but it has become one of the strongest advocates of the approach. Beijing is proud of its numerous projects, including planting billions of trees, restoring hundreds of thousands of hectares of wetlands, foresting mangroves and seagrass along its coastlines and setting ecological limits that protect a quarter of its total landmass.

Ahead of last year’s UN Climate Action Summit in New York, China said it would embrace NBS to mitigate climate change and urged other countries at the meeting to “consider the potential of the natural system to alleviate climate change and promote adaptation.” Xie Zhenhua, who was China’s special representative for climate change affairs at the time, said that China’s calculations showed NBS could remove one third of the total carbon emissions it had to eliminate.

In a country where breakneck industrialization over the last four decades has caused widespread pollution, environmental protection is an important political issue and China’s leaders have emphasized measures they’ve taken to improve air and water quality. Beijing has also tried to connect its work on restoring ecosystems to the larger issue of climate change. As Xi has sought to position the country as a global leader on climate, he has also emphasized China’s role in protecting biodiversity, although that image was tarnished by the coronavirus outbreak that some scientists argue is linked to China’s mismanagement of its wildlife trading industry.

China is due to host the next UN Biodiversity Conference, which was originally planned for October but postponed because of the pandemic. Environmentalists expect the country to push for NBS to be included among the measures the participating countries will commit to undertake.

Still, despite the government’s narrative, how much carbon dioxide can really be absorbed by China’s carbon sink approach is an open question. For example, experts point out that the monoculture forests created in China’s 40-year reforestation campaign are not as effective carbon sinks as naturally occurring greenery. A 2018 paper published in Science found that a biodiverse forest accumulated an average of 32 tons of carbon per hectare while monocultures were only capable of storing an average of 12 tons of carbon on plots the same size.