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Researchers unveil roadmap for a carbon neutral China by 2060

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Chinese president Xi Jinping told the UN general assembly on 22 September that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The announcement sparked a huge response and gave rise to speculation as to how this would be achieved.

On 12 October, research into a possible route to that target was published by Tsinghua University’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD) – the most authoritative roadmap to emerge since the commitment was made. If China follows the recommendations of the report, it could mean tougher energy-saving and emissions-reductions targets for the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP), a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2030, with yet faster and deeper decarbonisation to come from 2030 onwards.  

Decarbonising for the 1.5C target

The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit climate warming to 2C (compared to pre-industrial levels) at the end of the century, while pursing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C. That 1.5C target has been controversial because it requires greater emissions cuts and it was only added to the text of the agreement at the last minute.

Professor He Jiankun, project leader of the new study and chair of the ICCSD’s academic committee, said at a press briefing on the research that “achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 essentially means a long-term deep decarbonisation process oriented at the 1.5C target”. The director of the ICCSD is Xie Zhenhua, formerly China’s special climate envoy. Xie was also overall supervisor of this research project.

According to the roadmap presented in the study, by 2050 China must achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions, with emissions of all greenhouse gases down 90% on 2020 levels, if it is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The authors did not offer a specific roadmap for reducing emissions between 2050 and 2060, but said that emissions cuts should be increased, with negative emissions growth in the energy sector and more capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide using carbon sinks and carbon removal technologies.

The roadmap implies that all greenhouse gases are included in China’s 2060 pledge – something that observers had wondered about. But one expert close to China’s policy on non-CO2 greenhouse gases told China Dialogue that for now it remains an academic assumption, and official documents would be needed to confirm the government position.

Although the recommended roadmap is ultimately closing in on the 1.5C target, this does not mean China will immediately fast-track deep decarbonisation. The roadmap has two stages: before 2030 China will cut emissions according to an “enhanced mitigation scenario”, with a tougher 2030 NDC target and increasing efforts to reduce emissions. But that alone would leave China far from even the 2C target. However, the researchers propose much tougher measures after 2030, which will bring China into line with the 1.5C target. Assuming these recommendations are adopted, China will see a later, but steeper decline in emissions than it would if it set out to hit the 1.5C target immediately, with a carbon peak by 2030, an energy consumption peak around 2035, and carbon emissions approaching zero by 2050.

At the launch, He Jiankun explained that “the economy and the energy sector are hugely complicated systems, with a lot of inertia, so a transition will take time”. Rapid implementation of the absolute carbon cuts needed for the 2C or even 1.5C target would be very difficult, and China still needs to develop. So in the first stage, staving off additional emissions rather than cutting existing emissions should be the priority to bring about a carbon peak. But after 2030, the speed with which China reduces emissions will “far outstrip the developed nations”.

Implications for near-term policy

There is a great deal of interest in how China’s 2060 carbon neutrality target will affect the 14th Five Year Plan (for 2021-2025), which is currently being drafted, with this being seen as a test of China’s level of commitment.

The researchers also make suggestions for energy-saving and emissions-reduction targets in the 14th FYP, such as a 20% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption by 2025, and a carbon emissions cap of under 10.5 billion tonnes (2020 figures for these are expected to be 16% and 10.3 billion tonnes respectively).

“We have to control any rebound in coal use during the 14th FYP and work towards peak coal, or even negative growth,” said He.

The researchers also recommend China toughens and updates its NDC for 2030, lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65% on 2005 levels and reaching a 25% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption.

Speaking at the launch, Wang Yi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s top legislative body) and vice director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Science and Development, said that 14th FYP targets should remain tough and be expanded: for example, by including overall caps – in particular a carbon cap – alongside existing efficiency targets (such as carbon and energy intensity). Other experts have also called for a carbon cap in the 14th FYP.

Wang also pointed out that a package of legislation will be needed to ensure 14th FYP climate targets are met. This includes an Energy Law currently being drafted, an ongoing revision to the Energy-Saving Law, and a Law on Combating Climate Change being prepared. “The Law on Combating Climate Change will only reach the statute books if a carbon cap is at its core – if not, it loses a raison d’etre as other laws can replace it,” Wang said. Lower level regulations, such as for carbon markets, must also keep up, he said.

From our partner Chinadialogue

Ma Tianjie is China Dialogue managing editor in Beijing. Before joining China Dialogue, he was Greenpeace's Program Director for Mainland China where he was a regular commentator on China's environmental challenges contributing to a range of media organisations. He holds a master’s degree in environmental policy from American University, Washington D.C.

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Oil, acid, plastic: Inside the shipping disaster gripping Sri Lanka

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Fires crews attempt to put out the fire onboard the X-Press Pearl. The ship would burn for two weeks before finally sinking. Photo: Unsplash/Nilantha Ilangamuwa

It’s visible in satellite images from just off Sri Lanka’s coast: a thin grey film that snakes three kilometres out to sea before disappearing into the waves.

This, experts say, is fuel oil leaking from the X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-flagged cargo ship that caught fire and sank off Sri Lanka’s western coast last month.

The slick is a visceral reminder of what observers say is a slow-motion environmental disaster – one of the worst in the country’s history – and of the mammoth effort that will be needed to clean it up.

“This is the biggest environmental catastrophe to hit Sri Lanka since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami,” said Thummarukudyil Muraleedharan, the acting head of the disasters and conflicts branch with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Thummarukudyil is among more than a half-dozen UNEP experts advising Sri Lanka’s government on how to contain the toxic fallout from the X-Press Pearl, which was carrying 81 containers of dangerous goods when it sank in June, according to its owner, X-Press Feeders. The ship’s cargo included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, 348 tonnes of oil and, according to independent estimates, up to 75 billion small plastic pellets known as nurdles that has created a pollution crisis—one that could plague Sri Lanka for years.

“This is a toxic ship,” said Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group. “This will be a long-running disaster.”

Fire down below

Crew members first noticed smoke coming from the X-Press Pearl’s hold on 20 May while the ship was anchored off Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. Over the next two weeks, fire crews battled a raging inferno punctuated by at least two major explosions. As the ship slowly sunk—it would be 17 June before it settled on the seabed—strong currents scooped up shipping containers and sprinkled them along Sri Lanka’s coast.

One container surfaced more than 100 kilometres south of the wreck, coating prime tourist beaches near the southwestern resort town of Galle with nurdles.

“It was like a cluster bomb,” said Hassan Partow, part of UNEP’s disaster response team.

Plastic pollution

For Sri Lankans, the small plastic pellets, which are about the size of a lentil, have been the most visible sign of the X-Press Pearl sinking.

Using publicly available data, Withanage estimates the ship contained 70-75 billion individual pellets. Partow said the disaster is the single-largest release of nurdles into the ocean ever reported.

The plastic has flooded onto beaches around Colombo. One, Sarukkuwa, was blanketed in meter-deep piles of plastic. The nurdles also turned up in the gills and guts of fish. Local fishers, who have been barred from the rich fishing grounds around Colombo, have blamed the nurdles for killing sea life, though that claim is still being investigated by Sri Lanka scientists. Withanage said pellets have also been found in a turtle sanctuary 300km north of Colombo.

Over time the pellets, which will take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate, may build up in the food chain, sickening fish and potentially humans, Withanage said. “When it comes to the environment, every plastic nurdle is a disaster.”

Making matters worse, many of the pellets were charred, causing them to crumble into a potentially toxic powder when disturbed.

“These weren’t just virgin pellets,” said Partow. “Around half were combusted, so the jury is out about their toxicity.”

In the immediate aftermath of the X-Press Pearl sinking, hundreds of Sri Lankan navy, air force and coast guard members were deployed in a massive clean-up operation overseen by the Marine Environment Protection Authority.  Working around the clock under strict COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, they have so far collected more than 53,000 bags of pellets, burnt plastic and other debris mixed with sand. The small size of the plastic pellets means that many had to be hand sieved.

There is no way, though, to clean plastic pellets still in the ocean.

“What is in the sea could be there for a long time,” said Thummarukudyil.

A toxic brew

It also appears likely that at least some of the highly corrosive nitric acid aboard the X-Press Pearl seeped into the ocean. Experts are worried it may have scalded sea life at a nearby coral reef. Sri Lanka’s government has recovered turtle carcases that show signs of burns, though Partow said scientists are still examining the animals and that it was too early to determine what had killed them.

While the nitric acid has likely dissipated into the ocean, concerns have now turned to another toxic chemical carried by the X-Press Pearl: epoxy resin. Around 9,800 metric tonnes of epoxy was aboard and experts worry that if it was in toxic liquid form—as opposed to solid form—that it could spread along the Sri Lankan coast.

The ship also contained a witches’ brew of other chemicals, including methanol, gear oil, brake fluid and urea, along with lead, copper and lithium batteries, according to Withanage.

The question of oil

Exactly how much toxic material remains in the ship’s hold or in containers on the ocean floor remains unknown. Sri Lanka’s annual monsoon, coupled with a country-wide COVID-19 lockdown, has hampered salvage efforts.

The ship’s owner, X-Press Feeders, said much of the cargo could have been incinerated in the fire, including the black, molasses-like fuel that powered the X-Press Pearl. But the UN team thinks that even if the oil was burnt it is unlikely to have evaporated. Instead, it would probably be transformed into a more viscous mixture.

“We should assume the oil is still there,” said Thummarukudyil. The ship, he added, was carrying enough oil to blanket Sri Lanka’s entire western coast. “The potential is there for this to be a lot worse than what we’ve already seen.”

Disaster response 

The UNEP staff working on the X-Press Pearl sinking are part of a disaster response unit jointly run by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  The unit has helped broker an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the X-Press Pearl’s owner to contain a potential offshore oil spill as well as clean-up the shoreline. Specialized equipment, including inflatable booms designed to trap oil, arrived in Colombo on 2 July.

“The United Nations is supporting the Government of Sri Lanka to address the disaster of the MV X-Press Pearl,” said UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy. “We are coordinating international efforts and mobilizing partners to ensure a cohesive and coherent response to the crisis (and) ensure prevention of such disasters in the future.”

UNEP has called for the ship’s owner and insurer to hash out what Partow called a “peer-reviewed, government-approved” road map for removing the X-Press Pearl and the stray containers on the ocean floor, saying they constitute the most immediate risk of pollution.

“This plan needs to be developed now so that when the conditions allow, the ship can be removed and properly decommissioned,” said Partow.

Sri Lanka’s government is also pushing the ship’s owners and insurers to refloat the X-Press Pearl.

“The Sri Lankan government is deeply concerned about its environment and the livelihood of the vulnerable fishing communities,” said Dharshani Lahandapura, Chairperson of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority. “The foremost thing that the owners and salvors, caretakers and wreck removers have to do is remove the wreckage, underwater containers and debris as soon as possible.”

For Withanage, time is of the essence. “It is a business for them,” he said of the salvage company hired to raise the ship and the vessel’s owners. “But it is our environment. As long as the ship is there contamination is there.”

UNEP will deliver a final report on the disaster to Sri Lanka’s government next week. It will contain recommendations for the clean-up and suggestions for how Sri Lanka, a country vying to become a major shipping hub, can handle future maritime disasters. Partow said UNEP will also stand by to advise Sri Lanka on longer-term environmental monitoring.

Ghostly scene

Today, the ship sits largely submerged in 21 metres of water, its castle and a few charred cranes poking up over the waves. A caretaker ship circles it 24 hours a day, keeping tabs on the oil leak.

Partow, who toured the wreck by boat and in a helicopter, saw plastic pellets mixed with oil bobbing in the waves around the vessel. Brown patches of oil surrounded by a grey sheen stretched two to three kilometres out into the sea.

He described the 186-metre-long ship, which entered service in February, as a “write off.”

Thummarukudyil has spent 18 years responding to oil spills around the world. When asked if the X-Press Pearl was the worst maritime ecological disaster he’d seen, he paused.

“There are lots of chemicals still sitting there,” he said. “This story is not yet over.”

UN Environment

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Reusing 10% Will Stop Almost Half of Plastic Waste From Entering the Ocean

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It is possible to prevent almost half of annual plastic ocean waste by reusing just 10% of our plastics products. This is just one of the key findings of The Future of Reusable Consumption Models Report.

The report is a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and Kearney and suggests that shifting from single use towards a ‘reuse’ model of consumption can help society regain ground in the fight against plastic waste. Currently, 50% of global plastic production is for single use and only 14% of global plastic packaging is collected for recycling. The report outlines the urgent need to drive a systemic shift towards reuse models as an integral part of the reduce-reuse-recycle agenda.

‘Reuse’ is a production and consumption model gaining ground around the world as an alternative to single-use. In this model, consumer items are designed to be used several times, generating added value across the economy.

The findings are based on proposals by governments and NGOs around the world and research conducted with senior leaders from private and public sectors. The team conducted in-depth interviews, data analysis and scenario modelling to create first of its kind framework that can be applied across consumer product categories and geographies.

Three scenarios show how much plastic waste could be reduced from ocean and landfills if a reuse model is used.

Scenario One: Between 10 and 20% of plastic packaging could be reusable by 2030. This equates to 7-13 million tonnes of plastic packaging, representing 45-90% of annual plastic ocean waste.

Scenario Two Reusables make up between 20% and 40% of packaging, equivalent to 90–185% of annual plastic ocean waste or 25–50% of plastic landfill waste.

Scenario Three If between 40-70% of all packaging is reusable, it would equal anywhere from 185% to 320% of annual plastic ocean waste or 50–85% of plastic landfill waste.

Zara Ingilizian, Head of Consumer Industries and Consumption at World Economic Forum, said: “The shift from disposable consumer goods to reusables is still in its early stages, but there are already signs of progress. Just as recycling and composting were once considered eccentric and electric cars were written off as science fiction, when it comes to sustainability, attitudes about just what is viable are changing rapidly. Reuse may well prove to be among the most potent manifestations of that shift.”

Beth Bovis, Project Leader, Partner, Leader of Global Social Impact & Sustainability at Kearney, said: “We need to shift from merely “treating” or “handling” waste to simply never creating it in the first place. But any shift towards reusable consumer goods will depend on the choices and actions of the three driving forces of our economy: consumers, the private sector and the public sector. Each of these groups has a unique role to play in making reuse a reality. The need for a more reuse-centred economic model is urgent and grows more so with each passing year. It is up to all stakeholders to answer the call.”

Mayuri Ghosh, Head of Consumers Beyond Disposability initiative, Future of Consumption Platform at World Economic Forum, said: “When we talk of the three scenarios, it is worth emphasizing that any of these scenarios would represent extremely valuable progress over the present status quo. The plastic waste challenge has grown too large for us to simply recycle our way out of. With no global agreement over an ambition level to target plastic waste, the sooner we can make systemic and meaningful advance towards reuse, the better.”

The report goes into these scenarios in depth and provides detailed information on the methodology. It addresses some of the key challenges businesses and the public sector have faced about reuse, namely, how to make reuse scalable and viable.

The report aims to give leaders in business, government, civil society a clear picture of an alternative plastic waste-reduction model. The first half of the report discusses the three primary actors of systems change required. The second half presents the Reuse Viability Framework to help leaders make reuse scaleable and viable.

It calls for the public and the private sectors to collaborate on the development of reuse systems to meet the needs of our economy and the environment. It is part of the World Economic Forum‘s Consumers Beyond Disposability initiative, which focuses on innovative reuse solutions, and has been working to test and scale such solutions.

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Pandemic and climate change: The search for new models of sustainable development

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Is there a correlation between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change?

Apparently not. The virus is supposed to weaken with high temperatures and – unlike winter months when people stay indoors more (a situation that favours infections) – in the summer people tend to stay more outdoors or in constantly ventilated rooms and therefore be less exposed to viral aggression.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that a mild climate should inhibit the virus vitality, but the spread of cases in the southern hemisphere shows that this pathogen is more resistant to heat than “traditional” influenza viruses.

Now, with the so-called “Delta variant”, the number of infections seems to be rising throughout Europe, a sign that the virus maintains its aggressiveness even at high temperatures.

In fact, according to many experts and scholars, the pandemic that has caused a global crisis can be related to climate change insofar as the latter is connected to the increase in pollution rates caused by the disproportionate use of non-renewable energy sources (first and foremost, oil and coal).

Air pollution, in turn, causes damage to the respiratory system, especially in the weakest subjects who account for 90% of Covid-19 victims. The said damage can be considered co-responsible for the lethal consequences of the flu syndrome.

In August 2020, the scholars who participated in the Congress on the relationship between “climate, weather and environmental factors and the Covid-19 pandemic”, organized by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), came to the conclusion that the pandemic “reflects the state of tension between man and nature”.

According to many of the researchers who participated in the WMO Congress, the most severe consequences of the Covid-19 infection occurred in patients exposed more frequently to the air polluted by carbon dioxide.

Although unanimous scientific consensus has not been reached on the possible interrelations between the pandemic and climate change, authoritative studies show that the average rise in global temperatures increases the ability of the virus to spread, also due to the increase in rainfall and the average humidity rate since  the latter factors stimulate virus viability and resistance.

According to the “Fifth Assessment Report” of the (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the average increase in temperature and rainfall has altered the distribution and spread of pathogenic vectors. These factors, connected to the increased mobility of the population and to changes in the habitat of some animal species (such as bats) caused by man, can be considered co-responsible for the speed with which the Covid-19 virus has spread in all continents, particularly in areas where there are higher levels of industrialization and air pollution by CO2.

Due to the impact of the pandemic on industrial production and on the global economy, the pollution rate has, in general, decreased, also because the abrupt slowdown imposed on production and consumption has actually contributed to the decrease of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere which, in China alone, in the first four months of 2020 decreased by 10.3%, while worldwide the decrease was 5.8%.

Now, thanks to the success of the vaccination campaign that in Europe is reaching acceptable levels for collective security, many countries, including Italy, are preparing – with a new productive impetus – the recovery of the economy, disrupted by the pandemic effects. As highlighted in the works of the recent G20 in Venice, this recovery shall start from a new commitment to energy production with renewable sources and with the progressive and marked decrease in the use of polluting sources, such as oil and coal.

As seen above, the pandemic has caused at least one positive side-effect, i.e. the decrease in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This may be the opportunity for a new “energy renaissance”, destined to last over time and to make production models more consistent with the environment and, as a result, with public health.

The protagonists of this paradigm shift in industrial production will be renewable energy sources, including marine energy and hydrogen.

In August last year, as part of the ambitious development program called “European Green Deal”, the European Union launched a real “Hydrogen Strategy” in which it is stressed that “clean” hydrogen (i.e. the one extracted from water through electrolysis) must be an integral part of the ecological transition envisaged and funded by the “Recovery Plan”, with the aim – in the very short term – to produce, by 2024, 6 GW per year of “green” energy from hydrogen electrolysis.

China is also moving concretely in this direction, thanks not only to the commitment made by President Xi Jinping, also at the G20, to drastically reduce carbon emissions by 2030 in compliance with the Paris Agreement of 2012, but also to the work of the very young Minister, Lu Hao, who heads a Department that includes six previous Ministries and is at the forefront in the strategy of ecological conversion of the entire Chinese production system.

This strategy envisages the widest use of energy produced by wave motion and sea currents. It is in this context that Minister Lu Hao has ordered the creation, in Shenzhen, of the “National Ocean Technology Centre” (NOTC), a centre for the study and development of advanced technologies for the production of “green” energy from tides – abundant and clean energy that can be widely used for hydrogen production. The latter, in fact, requires large amounts of electricity that, when produced with the use of traditional systems, such as oil or coal, does not contribute to improve environmental conditions.

With the use of marine energy to activate the electrolytic cells necessary to “separate” hydrogen from oxygen, a “virtuous” production cycle can be created by extracting hydrogen from water with energy supplied “at zero kilometre” from water itself.

Electrical currents from the sea can be produced with energy converters; with energy extractors from the tides; with thermal converters that exploit the differences in temperature at various depths, as well as with tools that can exploit even the differences in salinity.

With these technology and equipment huge amounts of energy can be extracted without causing any damage to the environment or to sea flora and fauna and CO2 emissions into the atmosphere will be reduced by billions of tons.

This is not science fiction but a tangible reality: every ocean has a stable potential overabundance of energy that can be extracted from waves, currents and tides – energy at lower costs than those of the other renewables.

Even the Mediterranean is to be considered an excellent potential source of marine energy.

In Ravenna ENI has already put into operation the “Inertial Wave Converter”, a wave energy converter designed to extract 50 Gigawatts from the cyclic motion of waves, currents and tides.

Together with Scandinavia, Italy is the European leader in the research and practical application of these technologies and their use in the production of hydrogen through electrolysis, with a pilot project in the Strait of Messina.

Worldwide, with China in the forefront, there are currently over fifty active projects for research and production of clean energy from sea water, part of which is dedicated to the future production of green hydrogen. In short, these projects are all dedicated to rebuild a relationship between man and nature that, far from dreaming of a “pleasurable degrowth”, i.e. a sustainable negative growth, aims to achieve a development model that is consistent with the needs of production, but also with the inescapable need for “turning green”.

We are coming out of a very severe health and economic crisis caused by a pandemic which – as authoritative scientific research and studies claim – has been made more widespread and lethal by climate change and environmental pollution.

If, as we can foresee, a new pandemic breaks out in a few years, it will be good for the world to be prepared, having made the ecosystem healthier and cleaner in view of hindering the spread of new viruses with a global prevention strategy, also at environmental and climate levels.

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