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How Staying Curious Can Help China Achieve a Carbon Neutral Future

China has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060. However, China’s coal production and consumption reached record highs’ last year. Earlier this year, the country also gave the green light to several coal mining projects.

These trends, which may hinder global efforts to stay below the 1.5°C tipping point, deeply concern me. However, as the Institute for Sustainable Communities’ China Program Director, I remain steadfast in assisting Chinese cities and subnational communities in taking positive action on climate change. Despite the challenges, I believe that harnessing our curiosity will be the (carbon-neutral) engine for driving innovative solutions and mobilizing communities to meet the ambitions of climate change goals.

Since 2010, the ISC team and I have worked on the ground with stakeholders in the public and private sectors to build the capacity of cities in China to advance low-carbon initiatives and reduce carbon emissions. Building on the foundation and success of the US-China Partnership for Climate Action (PCA), Climate Smart Low Carbon Cities and Low Emissions Cities Alliance (LECA) programs (2016-2021), I am proud to be able to extend our work to supporting cities to reduce emissions through the China Deep Decarbonization and Equitable Long-term Strategies Alliance (China DELTA).

China DELTA not only has an audacious goal to work with three cities–Changsha, Guangzhou, and Tianjin–to develop carbon-neutral roadmaps but has also been carried out at the height of COVID-19. While China instituted lockdowns, especially in Shanghai, where I reside, the work on China DELTA would not be contained. The urgency to develop carbon-neutral roadmaps for the project cities at a time of crisis invigorated the curiosity of all stakeholders to move forward in new ways to achieve a common mission. In-person meetings with local counterparts and visits to the cities were replaced by frequent virtual meetings.

Tackling climate change, particularly during these arduous times, required us to hold on to our curiosity and optimism about the future. Most Chinese cities are still working on emission peaking plans that look at 2020-30. We urged and convinced our project cities to think (be curious!) beyond carbon peaking and, instead, develop carbon neutrality plans that look at the next 40 years. By providing technical assistance to cities, China DELTA sets the foundation for cities to meet China’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2060.  

Beyond carbon neutrality, China DELTA is working to ensure that disinvested groups (low-income households, climate disaster-sensitive residents, women, etc.) will benefit from new climate approaches by embedding social equity into cities' long-term climate strategies and action plans.

Beyond carbon neutrality, China DELTA is working to ensure that disinvested groups (low-income households, climate disaster-sensitive residents, women, etc.) will benefit from new climate approaches by embedding social equity into cities’ long-term climate strategies and action plans. However, discourse around climate equity is new in China and requires everyone to stay curious when engaging in this space. Working with local counterparts, we asked many questions, consulted with experts, and connected dots in new ways. We formalized our curiosity by inventing the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) tool that enables cities to evaluate their climate action plans against key social dimensions to ensure equitable outcomes. I am proud that, even during lockdowns, we teamed up to successfully apply this tool, the first of its kind in China, within the three cities. We will be presenting the results and lessons learned from the SIA tool this September.  

What we do in the next 10-40 years will be critical in reversing the impact of climate change. I remain curious and ever-determined about working with cities on science-based and climate-equitable approaches to achieve carbon neutrality. ISC is at the forefront of this work in China, and we remain committed to supporting innovation at all levels to reach net zero by 2060.

Learn more about the China DELTA Program

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