China, the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases, has said it will cut its carbon dioxide emissions to nearly zero by 2060, in a surprise move announced at the virtual UN General Assembly in New York.

President Xi Jinping told the UN meeting that China planned to be “carbon neutral” before 2060, adding that the coronavirus pandemic had showed the world needed a “revolution” that would speed up “green development”.

“The human race cannot ignore the warnings of nature over and over again,” he said, adding that the 2015 Paris climate agreement was the “minimum” that was needed to protect the earth.

The new target will require a radical reshaping of the world’s second-largest economy, and could push coal demand in China — which accounts for half the world’s consumption of the fuel — to close to zero.

China, which emits about 28 per cent of global carbon dioxide, previously promised its emissions would peak by 2030, but had refused to set a date to begin cutting back on the grounds that it was a developing country.

Beijing’s announcement will raise the pressure on the US, which is now the biggest emitter in the world that does not have a carbon-neutral target. Several other major economies, including the EU and the UK, have targeted zero emissions by 2050.

President Donald Trump will officially withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement in November and has refused to honour any emissions’ targets for the US. Speaking before Mr Xi, Mr Trump said the US had cut its carbon emissions despite leaving the Paris accord.

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“Those who attack America’s exceptional environmental record while ignoring China’s rapid pollution, are not interested in the environment,” he said, adding that critics sought only to “punish” America.

For China to achieve a net-zero target will require dramatic cuts in emissions, with any remaining pollution offset by green projects such as reforesting.

Some analysts highlighted that China had not yet clarified what “carbon-neutral” would mean, and what types of offsets it would include in its definition.

Chinese president Xi Jinping addresses the UN general assembly on-screen © Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo/dpa

 “Xi’s pledge will need to be backed up with more details and concrete implementation. How much earlier can China peak its emissions? How can we reconcile carbon neutrality with China’s ongoing coal expansion?” said Li Shuo, an energy policy officer at Greenpeace in Beijing.

“We would need to completely transform every single aspect of our economy and our life in this country [to meet the target].”

China’s emissions fell dramatically during its Covid-19 lockdown earlier this year, but local emissions in many cities have returned to normal levels.

As the country struggles to stimulate a sluggish economy, the number of proposed coal plants has risen in 2020 at the fastest rate in five years, prompting concerns that China’s recovery measures will favour polluting industries.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement pledges to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Centigrade, but allows countries to set their own targets for emissions reduction. Countries that signed the deal — a list that included China and most of the countries in the world — were expected to announce new climate pledges at the UN climate summit this November. That meeting, known as COP26, has been delayed to next year.

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Additional reporting Katrina Manson in Washington

Via Financial Times