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China 'could reach carbon emissions peak by 2023'

AFP, The city of Beijing issued a 'red alert' over massive pollution on December 8, 2015

The “red alert” issued by the city of Beijing on Tuesday over mass pollution has made many wonder if China can keep its pledge to curb its carbon emissions by the year 2030, but scientists say hitting the target is still possible.

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special correspondent at the COP 21 climate conference

It was the first time the smog-shrouded capital declared the highest pollution level on the four-tier system it adopted three years ago, and came while world leaders were hammering out a new global agreement to fight climate change in Paris.

The pollution peak, which forced authorities to shut schools and construction sites in the city of 21 million people, also highlighted China’s unflattering status as the world’s top polluter.

Asia’s economic powerhouse is being closely scrutinised at the COP 21 climate conference in the French capital, with many using Beijing’s “red alert” to argue it has to do more to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2030 revolution

China, like India, faces the daunting task of establishing clear environmental objectives, while pursuing economic development targets that will raise the standard of living of millions of its citizens.

“The problems in Beijing are important, but the rest of the country must grow economically, which will result in an increase in carbon emissions,” Zhiyao Tang, an associate professor of environment at the University of Beijing, told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday.

Zhiyao is not part of the official delegation, but few know more about the quantities and rate of Chinese CO2 emissions than him. And one of the central commitments China adopted ahead of the COP 21 is a timetable for reducing gases that are responsible for global warming.

Indeed, Chinese leaders garnered worldwide praise by announcing last year that the country’s CO2 emissions would peak by 2030.

Zhiyao denies his studies are directly responsible for the historic emissions deadline.

“The group I work with on this issue is independent, but the government has been aware of our studies for the past several years” he said, insisting he did not know to what extent the Chinese government had drawn on his research to set the target.

2030 or 2023?

Zhiyao himself began studying the subject in the wake of the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen that failed to produce a comprehensive international climate agreement. Since then, he and other colleagues have developed six emissions peak scenarios, grouping them in a study that was published in November of last year.

He contends that the government’s 2030 target is entirely realistic. In fact, a peak in emissions could even come sooner.

“If China receives financial and technological support from developed countries, the emissions peak could be reached before 2030,” the scientist said. One scenario published in the study calculated that China could reach its highest levels of CO2 output by 2026, and another as early as 2023.

While Zhiyao’s estimates may be heartening for the leaders gathered at the COP 21 and environmentalists around the world, he himself is careful about not crying victory too soon.

He pointed out that CO2 emissions will not plunge the year after the emissions peak is reached, be that 2031 or sooner. Instead, Zhiyao predicts they “will be stable for several years before they start to fall”.

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