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Old and modern China viewed from a tea house in old town, Shanghai
Old and modern China viewed from a tea house in old town, Shanghai. Credit: Rolf_52 / Alamy Stock Photo.
CHINA POLICY
25 October 2021 8:00

Analysis: Nine key moments that changed China’s mind about climate change

Jianqiang Liu

10.25.21

Jianqiang Liu

25.10.2021 | 8:00am
China PolicyAnalysis: Nine key moments that changed China’s mind about climate change

Over the past year, China’s president Xi Jinping has made three key commitments to tackle climate change.

In September 2020, he told the United Nations general assembly: “We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”

Then, last month, he offered a further commitment to the same gathering of world leaders. China “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad”, he said via videolink.

The pledges represent the latest staging posts on China’s long journey towards tackling its carbon emissions, which, currently, are the largest of any nation.

However, China’s attitude to addressing climate change has undergone a significant transformation over the course of this century.

Little over a decade ago, China was strongly arguing against reducing the emissions being caused by its booming, coal-fuelled economic growth. Instead, it said rich, developed nations should be leading the way.

Speaking to a diverse range of experts within China and beyond, Carbon Brief has learned that Xi has personally played “the most important role” in this shift in views. 

Below, Carbon Brief describes nine key moments over the past two decades that have helped to influence China’s attitudinal change.

These moments – many of which have not been widely reported before – do not include the more obvious important incidents, such as Xi becoming China’s leader in 2012, or China ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2016.

But each of them – some of which might appear trivial at first – has impacted and influenced China’s current stance on climate change.

Walking through each one in turn chronologically, this article then concludes with a summary of the three broader reasons why China’s stance on climate change has shifted.

2003: Xi starts a newspaper column called ‘Zhijiang Xinyu’

Many of the China experts interviewed by Carbon Brief for this article say that one of Xi Jinping’s most distinctive characteristics is that he attaches great importance to environmental protection and sustainable development – something that is in stark contrast to previous Chinese leaders.

Furthermore, this characteristic was clear to see years before he became China’s top leader in 2012.

Evidence of this first arises in a series of newspaper articles Xi wrote which show that he was one of the first officials to realise that China’s “energy-intensive and high-polluting” economic model was unsustainable.

From 2002 to 2007, Xi, then in his early 50s, was the secretary of the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee, the region’s highest ranking party official. Zhejiang is a province on the east coast of China. It went through rapid economic development following China’s “reform and opening up” – a national policy devised by Deng Xiaoping, then the nation’s leader, in 1978 with the aim of “opening up” China to the world.

Zhejiang province is located in the Yangtze river delta area in southeast China. The designations employed and the presentation of the material on this map do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of Carbon Brief concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. Credit: Carbon Brief.
Zhejiang province is located in the Yangtze river delta area in southeast China. The designations employed and the presentation of the material on this map do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of Carbon Brief concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. Credit: Carbon Brief.

On 25 February 2003, Zhejiang Daily, the official daily newspaper of the Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee, introduced a new opinion column called “Zhijiang Xinyu.” (The term “Xinyu” is inspired by a 1,600-year-old classic Chinese text called “Shishuo Xinyu“, 世说新语, which, translated, means “a new account of the tales of the world”. Zhijiang is the name of a key river in the region.) The author was listed as “Zhe Xin”, which is Xi’s pseudonym.

Xi wrote this column for four years and, on average, published one article per week. The articles were normally very short – with most of them comprising just 200-300 Chinese characters.

Xi later said: “That was like documenting my daily feelings in a few words.”

Xi Jinping wrote “officials should serve the people, not themselves” in an article published on 12 May 2004 in Zhejiang Daily.
Xi Jinping wrote “officials should serve the people, not themselves” in an article published on 12 May 2004 in Zhejiang Daily.

On 25 March 2007, Xi left Zhejiang to work in Shanghai. On that day, he published his very last piece in the newspaper – after having penned 230 articles in total. Xi’s last column was a special edition containing not one, but two entries – one cautioning officials not to become “bookworms” and the other advising them to regularly check and control their “wants”. 

“Zhijiang Xinyu” covered a wide range of topics. Some articles talked about how to drive the economic and social development of Zhejiang. Others focused on officials’ work ethics and guided them to view power and their interests “correctly”. A few even advised officials to read more, cultivate “delight in life” and improve the writing of their official documents.

A screenshot of Zhejiang Daily, dated 20 February, 2006
A screenshot of Zhejiang Daily, dated 20 February, 2006. In the article, Xi quoted five ancient Chinese sayings to warn officials to be “honest”. Source: Zhejiang Daily.

Carbon Brief analysis of Xi’s 232 articles shows that at least 22 – or 9.5% of the total – touched upon environment-related subjects, such as environmental protection, sustainable development, circular economy, conservation-oriented society and reducing resource consumption and pollution.

This was extremely unusual for that time. As Xi was writing “Zhijiang Xinyu”, no other provincial-level official from China’s 30-plus provinces and regions were routinely promoting environmental protection and sustainable development. For them, the most crucial thing was economic growth, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP).

After China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, it underwent an economic boom. Its per-capita GDP rose from US$1,038 in 2001 to US$6,767 in 2013 and its economy jumped from the sixth to second largest in the world. At the same time, China became known as the “world’s factory”.

When Xi worked in Zhejiang, China’s bureaucratic assessment system regarded GDP as the most important indicator. As a result, officials were keen to seek investment in industrial factories to drive their regions’ economic growth and, in turn, boost their own work performance.

Energy, chemical and steel projects quickly became a typical official’s “first choice” because of the considerable investment they required. However, these projects also brought with them high energy consumption, high pollution and high emissions. But most officials simply ignored the environmental consequences.

At the same time, Xi was expressing his opinions in plain, non-bureaucratic language, as seen in this article published on 16 May 2005:

“Since the reform and opening up, the average annual economic growth rate of our province has reached 13%, but it has also paid a heavy environmental price. Now, the problem of environmental pollution is no longer a partial or temporary problem.

The Jiangnan water town is polluted and there is no water to drink, so it is necessary to transfer water from here and buy water from there. The coastal waters are polluted and red tides occur frequently. This is like borrowing money to do business. The money is earned, but it also owes a lot of debts to the environment and at the same time pays high interest rates. Repaying debts is justified. It is better to pay the debts of the ecological environment as early as possible, and take the initiative early, otherwise there will be no way to explain to future generations.

Why should we strive to build a resource-saving and environment-friendly society? You are kind to the environment, and the environment is friendly; if you pollute the environment, the environment will turn around one day, and will retaliate ruthlessly against you.”

Xi later said in 2018:

“I had always taken ecological and environmental work very seriously. During my terms in Zhengding, Xiamen, Ningde, Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai – among other places – I treated [the ecological and environmental] work as an important mission and a major task.”

His enthusiasm for environmental protection was even evident when he was a young man. This is reflected in a letter sent by Xi on 6 January 2020 in reply to student representatives of the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate:

“Over four decades ago, I lived and worked for many years in a small village on the Loess Plateau in western China. Back then, the ecology and environment there was seriously damaged due to over-development and the local people were trapped in poverty as a result. This experience taught me that man and nature are a community of life and that the damage done to nature will, ultimately, hurt mankind. I have since put forward the concept that lucid waters and lush mountains [see below] are invaluable assets in themselves.”

Xi Jinping (second from the left) in 1973, aged 20, posing with his colleagues in Yanchuan county of Northwest China's Shaanxi province during a period known as “up to the mountains and down to the farms”. The period was part of China's decade-long Cultural Revolution and saw millions of “educated youngsters” being sent from their urban homes to the countryside to “learn” from farmers for several years. Xi lived in rural Shaanxi for seven years. Source: Sohu.com
Xi Jinping (second from the left) in 1973, aged 20, posing with his colleagues in Yanchuan county of Northwest China’s Shaanxi province during a period known as “up to the mountains and down to the farms”. The period was part of China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution and saw millions of “educated youngsters” being sent from their urban homes to the countryside to “learn” from farmers for several years. Xi lived in rural Shaanxi for seven years. Source: Sohu.com.

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2004: Concept of ‘Green GDP’ is evoked

On 24 June 2004, a meeting was held by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) – predecessor of today’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) – and the National Bureau of Statistics in the city of Hangzhou, the provincial capital of Zhejiang. It signalled the start of China’s experiment with a concept known as “Green GDP”.

 
Ministry of Environment and Ecology: The Ministry of Environment and Ecology, or MEE, is China’s ecological and environmental watchdog. It was established in 2018 by the Chinese parliament to shoulder environmental-protection responsibilities previously spread among several ministries.… Read More

“Green GDP” was devised to be an environmental index that would be added into an area’s GDP, which, at that time in China, was the main way to evaluate an official’s performance. Notably, the proposal had the support of Xi, then Zhejiang’s party committee secretary.

At the time, China’s most famous environmental official was Pan Yue, SEPA’s deputy director. He pushed forward the concept of green GDP. With the support of SEPA director, Xie Zhenhua [who is now Xi’s special envoy for climate change; see below], Pan launched a major campaign, billed as an “environmental storm”, which cracked down on companies with high levels of pollution and emissions. The affected firms included some of China’s most powerful state-owned enterprises such as Huaneng Power, Huadian Energy and Datang International Power Generation.

Pan Yue, one of China's most famous high-level environmental protection officials, was Xie Zhenhua’s deputy when Xie was the director of the State Environmental Protection Administration. Photo by Liu Jianqiang.
Pan Yue, one of China’s most famous high-level environmental protection officials, was Xie Zhenhua’s deputy when Xie was the director of the State Environmental Protection Administration. Photo by Liu Jianqiang.

Pan said at the time that China’s rapid economic rise had come at the cost of its natural resources and the environment. In 2005, he attended a conference which evaluated China’s most profitable and highly taxed enterprises of the year. He discovered that the top-ranked companies all belonged to energy-intensive industries with high levels of pollution, such as steel and cement.

China’s energy consumption per unit of GDP, he revealed, was seven times that of Japan, six times that of the US and 2.8 times that of India. He added that China’s emissions, per the same metric, were more than 10 times the world average, while its labour efficiency was only a few tenths compared to that of developed countries. Pan said:

“One third of China’s land has been polluted with acid rain. Two-fifths of the country’s major water systems have been categorised as ‘poor category five’ quality [the worst of China’s five water pollution categories]. More than 300 million rural residents do not have access to clean water, more than 400 million urban dwellers breathe heavily polluted air and 15 million people get bronchial diseases and respiratory cancers as a result.”

It was a “must”, he believed, that China should establish a set of sustainability frameworks – and the first task should be to establish a “green GDP” accounting system.

The basic concept of “green GDP” was to deduct resource and environmental costs from the GDP of a country. By implementing this framework, Pan hoped to promote the concept of “ecological and green” policymaking, which would improve the “greenness” of economic policies and promote a “harmonious” model of economic development that included “nature”.

However, the biggest resistance to implementing the system came from local officials. For example, Wang Jinnan, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, a research institution affiliated to MEE, which oversaw green GDP research, said that the project had to be suspended due to “certain” local pressure.

But, among provincial officials, Xi was one of the few supporters of this experiment. The fact that the kickoff meeting was held in Zhejiang, where Xi was in charge, was noteworthy.

On 8 February 2004, more than four months prior to this meeting, Xi wrote a piece in his Zhijiang Xinyu column, titled: “To eye GDP, but do not focus solely on GDP.”

On 19 March 2004, he published another article, titled: “We need not only GDP, but also green GDP.”

What Pan wanted to implement was exactly what Xi had also been calling for. The following year, 10 provinces and cities across China began experimenting with green GDP accounting and Xi’s Zhejiang province was among them.

But the experiment was soon resisted by some provinces. For provinces in the pilot, their local GDP would include environmental and ecological costs, thereby lowering their respective GDP when compared to provinces that did not participate in the pilot. Participating provinces felt that this was “unfair”. 

By the end of 2006, only two provinces and cities published the results of their green-GDP accounting research, one of which was Zhejiang. Green-GDP programmes were then halted and, as a result, the way in which the central government assessed provincial officials remained unchanged. 

But Xi’s Zhejiang quietly modified the evaluation criteria of its provincial officials by adding indicators such as the energy consumption and energy reduction rate per 10,000 yuan of GDP, as well as the emission intensity of major pollutants per 10,000 yuan of GDP. 

In 2013, nine years after this meeting in Hangzhou, Xi, who had by that time become the leader of China, spoke at a conference. He said: “We will never use only GDP growth to judge who is doing best.”

He also stressed that China should promote indicators and achievements which improve conditions – such as people’s livelihoods, social progress and ecological benefits – as assessment criteria. This led to a major change in the “assessment measures” of Chinese provincial officials. 

Two years later, in 2015, “green GDP” research, which had been placed on the backburner for a decade, was restarted by the MEE.

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2005: Xi gives ‘lucid water and lush mountains’ speech

On 15 August 2005, Xi Jinping, then the party secretary of Zhejiang province, visited a village in the county of Anji.

The village, known as Yu, was at a crossroads in its development due to the environmental issues caused by its economic model. 

During the 1990s, Yu was the richest village in the region. The locals, as a whole collectively, could earn 3m yuan (worth the equivalent of $467,000 today) every year, by running cement factories and demolishing the sides of mountains to build quarries.

However, as a result, the village was shrouded in thick dust all year round. The locals dared not open their windows or dry their laundry outside. Furthermore, the village’s hundred-year-old ginko tree was said to not be able to bear fruit anymore. Yu village’s environmental fate was typical of many economically developed regions across China at the time.

So Yu village decided to shut its polluting companies and start a “green transition”. However, the closure of the cement factories and quarries also meant that the community lost its main sources of income. Many locals became unemployed. The village’s collective income dropped to just 210,000 yuan a year (worth the equivalent of $32,600 today). 

Cement factories in Yu village, Zhejiang province, in the 1980s.
Cement factories in Yu village, Zhejiang province, in the 1980s. Source: Xinhua News Agency.

According to his schedule for 15 August 2005, Xi was meant to spend just 20 minutes in Yu village receiving reports from local officials. He was not scheduled to give a speech.

While submitting his report to Xi, Bao Xinmin, the then secretary of the village’s branch of the Communist party, said that the village had closed polluting quarries and allowed the locals to start “ecological tourism businesses”.

According to a CCTV report, upon hearing this, Xi felt so happy he began to praise the local officials’ decisions. Xi gave an in-promptu 20-minute speech:

“Make sure you don’t turn back to your old road to be obsessed with those old development models. Therefore, when you just said that you had decided to shut down some quarries, this was a wise move.

Lucid waters and lush mountains are gold mountains and silver mountains. [A Chinese way of saying something is invaluable.] We used to say we wanted lucid waters and lush mountains, as well as gold mountains and silver mountains. As a matter of fact, lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets themselves.”

Xi Jinping inspecting Anji county, Zhejiang province, on 15 August 2005. Source: Xinhua News Agency.

Nine days later, Xi published an opinion piece in his “Zhijiang Xinyu” column, titled: “Lucid waters and lush mountains are also invaluable assets.”

Writing under his pseudonym, “Xin Zhe”, Xi said:

“If [we] can turn these ecological and environmental advantages into the advantages of ecological agriculture, ecological industry, ecological tourism and ecological economy, then lucid waters and lush mountains can be turned into invaluable assets. Lucid waters and lush mountains can bring invaluable assets, but invaluable assets cannot buy lucid waters and lush mountains. Lucid waters and lush mountains and invaluable assets can produce not only contradictions, but also dialectical unity.”

A photo of Xi’s newspaper column on 24 August 2005, titled: “Lucid waters and lush mountains are also invaluable assets.”
A photo of Xi’s newspaper column on 24 August 2005, titled: “Lucid waters and lush mountains are also invaluable assets.” Source: Hangzhou Foreign Languages School.

Today, the expression “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” has become Xi’s most famous environmental quote.

 
Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilisation: Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilisation is a “significant part” of Xi Jinping Thought and the “scientific guideline” for building what Xi calls a “beautiful China” with the “ecological civilisation”, according to… Read More

Xi would later incorporate the phrase “ecological civilisation” into his “Xi Jinping Thought” – a series of key ideas and policies derived from Xi’s speeches and writings. Many observers in China view his 2005 phrase about “lucid waters and lush mountains” as a key inspiration for “ecological civilisation”, which is a significant part of “Xi Jinping Thought”. 

Group photo in front of the stone monument marking Xis 2005 Lucid waters and lush mountains speech
Tourists visiting Yu village on 6 July 2019 take a group photo in front of the stone monument marking Xi’s 2005 “Lucid waters and lush mountains” speech. Source: Oriental Image.

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2009: Professor Hu Angang calls for a ‘green revolution’

On 6 April 2009, a leading economist called Professor Hu Angang published a three-part opinion piece on China Dialogue, a bilingual website specialising in climate and environmental issues. He suggested that China should promise to reduce its emissions at the upcoming UN climate talks, which were to be held in Copenhagen in December of that year.

(Prof Hu’s three-part article for China Dialogue can be read in Chinese here, here and here, or in English here, here and here).

Prof-Hu-Angang-in-2009
Prof Hu Angang in 2009. Credit: Oriental Image.

Prof Hu, who was the director of the Center for China Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing, also encouraged Chinese leaders to lead the “green revolution”. 

At that time in China, these types of recommendations were extremely rare.

Up until this moment, China had been stressing constantly and consistently that the US and other developed countries which had, historically, emitted the most CO2 emissions should reduce their own emissions first. Until that happened, China would not promise to reduce its own emissions.

“Some people in China, including government officials, believed that limiting China’s carbon emissions was a trap set up by developed countries in order to hinder China’s development,” Dr Yang Fuqiang, a distinguished researcher of the Institute of Energy at Peking University, tells Carbon Brief.

Dr Yang says that China always stood “by the side” of the developing countries and argued in favour of these countries against the demands of wealthy, developed countries. It constantly said “no” to claiming responsibility over its own emissions, eventually earning the name of “Mr No” from other participating countries.

At the time, China’s officials, researchers and public mainly just wanted the right to develop. “I was China’s only scholar who publicly asked for emissions reduction,” Prof Hu told China Dialogue in a two-part interview in 2009, which was a followup to his opinion piece. 

Echoing the “differentiated responsibilities” underpinning the earlier UN climate agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Road Map (as enshrined in the 1992 UNFCCC treaty), in Prof Hu’s point of view, the world could generally be divided into two categories: developing countries and developed countries.

“This classification gives Chinese leaders the illusion that China will always be a developing country while, in reality, China is not a typical developing country – it is a country that is constantly progressing,” Prof Hu said at the time.

There were two major factors which, ultimately, indicated that China must take responsibility for reducing its own emissions, Prof Hu wrote.

First, he believed that a majority of the country’s population had reached a status of  “upper-middle level human development”. Though China’s per-capita income was still low compared to richer countries, Chinese living standards had generally improved relative to the rest of the world. Therefore, he argued, China was more than capable of taking on responsibility for emissions reduction.

Second, China was already the second-largest CO2 emitter in the world and, therefore, had a responsibility to reduce its emissions.

In his article, Prof Hu used the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s projections, which said that emissions from China would make up 27.32% of global emissions by 2030 and that the country would become the world’s largest emitter by the same year.

In reality, however, a few years after the publication of prof Hu’s article, retrospective statistics showed that China’s annual CO2 emissions had actually exceeded that of the US by around 2006, making China the world’s top emitter more than 20 years earlier than the IEA forecast.

Prof Hu’s article drew fierce criticism from members of the Chinese delegation who were preparing for the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. One delegate sent comments straight from Bonn, where preparatory negotiations were taking place: 

“Hu Angang’s standpoint lacks intrinsic knowledge about how climate-change problems have appeared and lacks any common sense of history or knowledge of the current situation of international politics.”

Su Wei, deputy head of the Chinese delegation at COP15 in Copenhagen
Su Wei, deputy head of the Chinese delegation at COP15 in Copenhagen, reading a draft of the Copenhagen Accord on 19 December 2009. Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo.

However, at the same venue, an anonymous observer at the Bonn negotiations, who was a representative of a Chinese NGO, expressed support for Prof Hu online. The representative said:

“If China keeps repeating the hackneyed refrain of ‘equality and justice’ in the few months left before [the] Copenhagen round of talks, rather than putting forward its own views and propositions on this issue, it will find itself stuck in an ever-unfavourable position. I believe Prof Hu has made a good motion by airing his viewpoint and sparking a popular discussion. The sooner we do this the better.” 

Dr Yang from Peking University tells Carbon Brief that China’s delegation was not unaware of the dangers of climate change and the importance of reducing emissions. But, when the global climate negotiations started in the 1990s, China thought that it was still a long way from needing to tackle the issue itself.

Then China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 and it rapidly began to develop. Dr Yang says:

“It was running out of power supply in many places and, [therefore,] was desperately trying to expand its coal capacity, going from 10m kilowatts a year to 30m kilowatts and, finally, more than 100m a year. It scared the world.”

Though many middle- and lower-level officials still did not know much about climate change at the time, according to Yang, Chinese leaders understood the risks of climate change much more as they were facing a global challenge. He says:

“They also knew they couldn’t stop the trend of committing to emissions reductions. They just didn’t want to take the lead in reducing emissions and wanted to try to keep the economy going for a few more years, so they resorted to delaying tactics.”

A month after the publication of Prof Hu’s article in August 2009, the Chinese government published a statement titled: “Chinese Government’s Position on the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference”. It showed that China was sticking to its previous position.

Three months later, Prof Hu said in the two-part interview with China Dialogue: 

“Many [Chinese] people don’t recognise that this is the core interest of China and the core interest of mankind. We have found a core interest that benefits both China and global humanity. If our leaders can recognise this, China will not say ‘no’, but ‘yes’ to emission reduction.”

Prof Hu believed that China’s commitment to reduce emissions was both an obligation and an opportunity for China to lead the world through a “green revolution”. He said in the interview:

“I am very aware that we need to launch a fourth industrial revolution. The first two industrial revolutions were led by developed nations, with China nowhere to be seen. In the information revolution, China was originally left behind – but now it is in hot pursuit. This time round, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with developed nations on the starting line of the green revolution. Mastery of green technologies will be vital, and the development of green industries will provide core competitiveness. If we fail to see that, we let down our descendants.”

Prof Hu also wrote in his earlier opinion piece: 

“We can expect climate change to form the domestic and international backdrop for China’s future development. Against this backdrop, Chinese leadership faces two pressing questions: how to transform China’s economy into a low-carbon economy; and how to participate in global governance, moving from national to regional and worldwide governance.”

His suggestions were not taken up by Chinese leaders. A few months later in December 2009, the Copenhagen climate conference ended in acrimony and without a global deal. This had been predicted in Prof Hu’s article. He wrote:

“China’s stance is that it wants developed nations, who represent less than 20% of the world’s population, to cover the costs for the rest of the world. It basically says: if developed countries won’t pay for it, we won’t reduce our emissions. That position might garner political support from some developing nations, but there are different kinds of developing countries – many island nations and ecologically impoverished countries are in opposition. If this is the position, the Copenhagen talks will fail – with no consensus or agreement.”

When Hu’s article was published in 2009, Xi Jinping had already joined the inner circle of China’s political leadership, but he was not in charge of affairs relating to climate change. But, within a few years, he would be the top leader and many of Prof Hu’s ideas about China needing to transition to a low-carbon economy and leading the world in a “green revolution” would become politically normalised.

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2012: Zou Ji plots a ‘Kuznets curve’ for China

In January 2012, Zou Ji, who was the China director of the global research NGO World Resources Institute (WRI), was appointed by Xie Zhenhua to be the deputy director of the National Centre for Climate Strategy and International Cooperation of China (NCSC). The NCSC had been established as a new climate-focused thinktank under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). Xie Zhenhua was then the deputy director of NDRC and China’s top climate negotiator.

 
National Development and Reform Commission: The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is China’s macroeconomic planner directly managed by the State Council, the nation’s chief administrative authority. It has broad administrative and planning control over the Chinese… Read More

Zou was asked by Xie to map out the relationship between the historical CO2 emissions and income of major economies in a chart. Xie needed the information ahead of the upcoming COP21 UN climate talks to be held in Paris at the end of 2015.

What Zou ended up producing became the theoretical basis for China’s pledge ahead of COP21 to commit to peaking its carbon emissions.

Zou tells Carbon Brief that he was tasked with showcasing a “Kuznets curve” of major economies to help improve understanding of the relationship between per-capita GDP and per-capita emissions. A Kuznets curve (named after the Nobel-winning American economist Simon Kuznets) is an inverted U-shaped curve used by environmental economists to describe the relationship between the economy and the environment.

Zou and his colleagues summarised the relationship between population, income and carbon emissions using data up to 2012. In the graph below, an image of which has been provided to Carbon Brief by Zou, the vertical y-axis shows per-capita CO2 emissions (tonnes) and the horizontal x-axis shows per-capita GDP (US$).

It reveals the relationship between historical CO2 emissions and income in major developed and developing countries, with per-capita emissions initially rising with increasing wealth and then, beyond a certain point, starting to fall.

A photograph of Zou Ji’s Kuznet graph from 2012 showing the relationship between historical CO2 emissions and income in major developed and developing countries, including the US, Australia, Canada, EU, Germany, Japan, China, Brazil, India and South Africa. Source: Zou Ji
A photograph of Zou Ji’s Kuznet graph from 2012 showing the relationship between historical CO2 emissions and income in major developed and developing countries, including the US, Australia, Canada, EU, Germany, Japan, China, Brazil, India and South Africa. Source: Zou Ji.

In his book Global Governance for Climate published in 2015, Zou explained his chart:

“Judging from historical trends, the GDP per capita corresponding to the peak domestic CO2 emissions per capita in the United States was $25,000 (based on 2010 prices). The EU peak per capita corresponded to a GDP per capita of $23,000, with economies such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy having GDP per capita levels of $24,000, $23,000, $17,000 and $35,000 in their respective peak years. Australia and Japan were around $42,000.

“The Environmental Kuznets Curve trendline uses the emissions peak as a baseline to separate the left and right portions. The left is the “growth period” as income increases along with emissions. Countries located on the left side generally are still going through industrialisation and urbanisation. They tend to have lower income, face challenges in development, such as poverty alleviation and need large-scale infrastructural development. Therefore, they rely more on energy resources for their economic development. These countries, for example, have not yet achieved the decoupling of their emissions from economic development.

“On the right side, countries that have exceeded the peak emissions per capita point are generally post-industrial nations and have complete basic infrastructure. The share of the manufacturing sector in the economy is relatively small whilst the services sector makes up most of the economy. Their economic development relies less on energy consumption and emissions and there is successful decoupling of carbon emissions from development.”

Zou said in his book that, looking back at global CO2 emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution, there had not yet been an economy that had avoided the inverted U-shaped Kuznets curve for their emissions. In other words, all economies have seen their per-capita CO2 emissions “rise and then fall” as their per capita GDP and human development grew. Today, this is often referred to as the “decoupling” of emissions to economic growth.

But developing countries did not have the option of following the same pathways of the developed countries, he penned. They needed to create a different development pathway from those of, say, North America and Europe, and it needed to be one that could lead to a lower emissions peak earlier.

Zou and his colleagues proposed an “innovative development pathway”. Under the pathway, the emission trajectory of developing countries, such as China, could be affected through increased energy intensity per unit of GDP and a low-carbon energy transition in the energy structure. Such a method could help a country reach a lower emissions peak with a lower income threshold, they argued. 

Xie Zhenhua wrote the epilogue of Zou’s book. He complimented Zou and his colleagues’ for proposing a theory for the “innovation on human development pathway”. He added that it “contributed great progress” towards finding a solution to aid the UN climate negotiations.

Glossary
CO2 equivalent: Greenhouse gases can be expressed in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2eq. For a given amount, different greenhouse gases trap different amounts of heat in the atmosphere, a quantity known as… Read More

Zou wrote in his book that China hoped to achieve a peak when per-capita GDP reached $14,000 and that the peak per-capita emissions should be a relatively low 8.3 tonnes of  CO2 equivalent (tCO2e). The peak per-capita emissions of the US, Canada and Australia was relatively high at around, or above, 20tCO2e. The peak per-capita emissions of the European Union and Japan was roughly 10tCO2e.

According to WRI, China’s per-capita emissions were 6.8 tonnes in 2018. National Business Daily reported that China’s per-capita GDP was $10,500 in 2020, making it the second consecutive year that the country had exceeded $10,000.

China’s historical per-capita GDP, US$, from 2002 to 2020. Source: World Bank.

In 2015, Zou’s team updated their 2013 graph, shown below. It predicts the relationship between per-capita CO2 emissions and per-capita GDP of major advanced economies (US, Japan, EU, Germany and the UK) up to 2030.

It also predicts the relationship between China’s per-capita CO2 emissions and per-capita GDP from 2013 to 2050 (the dotted line in the lower left corner). This suggests that China would reach its peak per-capita carbon emissions when its per-capita GDP is lower than that of other countries.

Per-capita CO2 emissions, tonnes, versus per capita GDP ($), in a range of advanced economies, shown by the solid lines and covering 1960-2030. Historical data for China is shown by the black solid line in the bottom left for 1960-2012, with projected figures out to 2050 shown by the dotted grey line. Data source: Only including energy-related CO2 data. Historical CO2 emissions data for 1960-2012 are from the Oak Ridge Laboratory Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), USA; population and GDP data are from the World Bank. Post-2012 data are derived by the authors from nationally determined contribution climate targets and projected GDP.
Per-capita CO2 emissions, tonnes, versus per capita GDP ($), in a range of advanced economies, shown by the solid lines and covering 1960-2030. Historical data for China is shown by the black solid line in the bottom left for 1960-2012, with projected figures out to 2050 shown by the dotted grey line. Data source: Only including energy-related CO2 data. Historical CO2 emissions data for 1960-2012 are from the Oak Ridge Laboratory Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), USA; population and GDP data are from the World Bank. Post-2012 data are derived by the authors from nationally determined contribution climate targets and projected GDP.

Zou tells Carbon Brief he gave his research results to Xie, who then asked about the data sources and how they had been interpreted before handing the results to his own superior. 

His superior was Zhang Gaoli, a member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Political Bureau and the overall chief of “climate change affairs”.

 
Politburo: Politburo, or Political Bureau, is the supreme decision-making body of communist parties. The first Politburo – whose members included Lenin and Stalin – was created in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1917.… Read More


(Today, Han Zheng, China’s vice premier, has taken over Zhang’s role. See below.)

Zou tells Carbon Brief that China had not mentioned the concept of “peak emissions” at the Copenhagen talks in 2009. But, by 2014, China and the US were negotiating their joint statements ahead of the 2015 Paris meeting. It was at this moment that China first promised to peak its carbon emissions.

“I can proudly say that these changes were brought forth by that graph. It’s the very foundation of why China decided to commit to peaking emissions,” Zou tells Carbon Brief.

In the spring of 2014, the Obama administration in the US and the Chinese government began to discuss the “US-China joint announcement on climate change”. The two countries’ chief negotiators were their respective special envoys on climate, Xie and Todd Stern. On the Chinese side, Zou was responsible for coordinating the talks between the two countries’ leading experts.

On the evening of 11 November 2014, Xi Jinping and Barack Obama met at Yingtai in Zhongnanhai – the office complex in Beijing for the most senior Chinese officials – in what became known as the “Yingtai evening chat”.

Originally scheduled to last two hours and 45 minutes, the meeting ended up running for five hours. Zou tells Carbon Brief that the two sides spent a long time discussing the timeline for China’s peak emissions. Zou says that Obama pushed for a peak “by 2030” whilst Xi persisted on “around 2030”. Although Obama agreed to “around 2030”, China added a line: “…and to make best efforts to peak early”.

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping walk to a private tea at Zhong Nan Hai in Beijing, China
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping walk to a private tea at Zhong Nan Hai in Beijing, China on 11 November 2014. Credit: 506 collection / Alamy Stock Photo.

The following day, China and the US issued a joint statement detailing their respective post-2020 actions to address climate change.

The US planned to achieve an economy-wide emissions reduction target of 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025. 

Meanwhile, China planned to peak CO2 emissions “around 2030” and would strive to peak earlier. It also planned to increase the share of non-fossil energy in its primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.

Zou said at the time:

“The two countries have formally established a future direction for low-carbon development at the highest level of decision-making and they have made significant progress on solving climate change and achieving sustainable development. The targets are both positive and take into account constraints and realistic feasibility, therefore reducing the risks of trying to meet targets in the shortest time possible.”

Todd Stern, the US special envoy on climate change, later said in 2019:

“When the announcement was made in November [2014], it was quite stunning.”

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2013: Beijing struck by record-breaking smog

On 13 January 2013, Beijing witnessed the worst air pollution in its history. It proved to be a turning point for China’s attitude towards climate change.

This is how the New York Times described the air quality of Beijing the night before: 

“So what phrase is appropriate to describe Saturday’s jaw-dropping reading of 755 at 8pm, when all of Beijing looked like an airport smokers’ lounge?” 

But the worst was yet to come. The following day, the PM2.5 reading – the air-quality metric the New York Times was referring to – reached 933 in some areas of Beijing. Wang Yuesi, a researcher at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was quoted by the Oriental Morning Post saying that this was the highest PM2.5 data that had been ever measured in China.

PM2.5” refers to an air-borne particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size. (A micron is a unit representing one-millionth of a meter.) When the concentration of such particles increases in the air, the air becomes more dangerous to public health. According to the World Health Organization, the “ideal” PM2.5 level should be 10.

The-entrance-of-the-ancient-Imperial-Palace-in-Beijing-during-the-severe-air-pollution-episode-on-13-January-2013
The entrance of the ancient Imperial Palace in Beijing during the severe air pollution episode on 13 January 2013. Credit: Oriental Image.

Two months earlier, Xi Jinping had been elected as the general secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee at the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, making him China’s top leader. But what greeted him that January was what an environmental official described as “a long and severe air-polluting process that has been rare in history”.

 
Central Committee of the Communist Party of China: The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC) is a political organ consisting of the country’s most senior officials. The committee is elected every five years by the National People’s… Read More

Since the beginning of 2010, China’s already poor air quality had worsened. Beijing and its surrounding areas were the worst affected. By 2013, the severity of the pollution had peaked. The China Meteorological Association described 2013’s “smog” – a word that had often been used as a euphemism for air pollution in China – as “the worst in 52 years”.

In January of that year, Beijing Children’s Hospital received more than 7,000 sick children in one day, most of whom suffered from respiratory illnesses. A report issued by the Chinese Health and Family Planning Commission stated that the smog in early 2013 covered more than 1.4m square kilometres – nearly three times the size of Spain – and had affected more than 600 million people. 

A young patient suffering a respiratory disease receiving treatment at a hospital in Beijing
A young patient suffering a respiratory disease receiving treatment at a hospital in Beijing on 31 January 2013. Credit: Oriental Image.

The extreme levels of pollution sparked strong societal discontent. Civil society environmental organisations and individuals took to the streets to monitor PM2.5 levels themselves. People also expressed their anger on social media. In January 2011, the term “PM 2.5” was only mentioned about 200 times on Weibo, China’s most popular social media platform, but, in January 2013, the number soared above three million, according to the Guardian.

An official who asked not to be named told Carbon Brief that the serious air pollution was related to China’s response to the 2008 financial crisis. At that time, Chinese policymakers introduced a 4tn yuan ($586bn) stimulus package to invest in a large number of high energy consuming and polluting industries, such as coal, iron, steel, cement and chemical plants.

Xi, now heading a new generation of Chinese leadership, began to take air pollution seriously. China issued an Air Pollution Prevention and Action Plan, also known as the “Air Ten“, in September 2013. The policy consisted of placing regulations on pollution, plus transitioning the energy mix and restructuring industries. The aim was to achieve better air quality within five years and eliminate heavily polluted air altogether within another five years after that.

In 2014, Prof Chai Fahe, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Environmental Sciences, said that “2013 was the first year that we had waged a full-scale war against smog”.

Local media described the policy as the “strictest” environmental strategy ever implemented by China. The policy also stipulated that the “scoring” of local officials should be “heavily” based on their air-pollution mitigation efforts.

To achieve its goals, Beijing city shut down all coal-fired power stations and banned residents in surrounding areas from using loose coal for heating. Starting from 2013, the city planned to spend 1tn yuan ($147bn) over five years on pollution control. 

In August 2021, Huang Runqiu, China’s minister of ecology and environment, praised Beijing’s achievement in improving its air quality over the past few years. Huang said that the city’s average PM2.5 reading had dropped by 52.9% in the space of five years, from 80 in 2015 to 38 in 2020.

The Forbidden City in heavy smog in Beijing
The Forbidden City in heavy smog in Beijing on 14 January 2013. Credit: Oriental Image.

“The air pollution that happened between 2011 to 2013 was a watershed moment which shifted China’s attitude towards climate change,” Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE),a non-profit environmental research organisation based in Beijing, tells Carbon Brief.

Ma states that China’s process towards understanding climate change has been a process of “discovering its own identity”. He notes that China had always believed itself to be a developing country, but at the Copenhagen talks in 2009, its identity was challenged, even to the point where other developing countries no longer considered China to be one of them.

“To China this was a shock,” Ma says, adding that it was difficult for China to change the perception of its own identity.

Before the Copenhagen talks, China’s leadership did not think there was a direct connection between environmental issues and climate change. Leaders often believed that localised environmental pollution was China’s problem, while climate change was a problem for developed countries.

When Xi wrote his “Zhijiang Xinyu” column during his tenure in Zhejiang province [see above], he talked about environmental protection, sustainable development and consumption reduction, but “climate change” was not mentioned once in any of his 232 articles.

Ma says the outbreak of air pollution between 2011 and 2013 profoundly changed China’s perception of the wider problem. He says it made China realise that taking a pathway towards a low-carbon economy was for its own benefit.

China’s new leadership – with Xi at its centre – decided to seriously tackle the issue of air pollution and, at the same time, carve out a new path for dealing with climate change. Ma says:

“Combating air pollution was the strongest motivator for China to start engaging in the fight against climate change. It was the tiny, tiny particle of PM2.5 that drove such enormous change in China’s response to climate change.”

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2014: Xi says China’s economy has reached a ‘new normal’

From 2012 to 2014, an unprecedented trend was detected in the Chinese economy: its growth rate decreased to below 8% for three consecutive years. (Since 1978, China’s GDP growth has averaged almost 10% a year, according to the World Bank.) 

 
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Dr Li Zuojun, deputy director of resources and environmental policy research of the Development Research Centre of the State Council (DRC), stated in 2014 that there were 30 provinces across China where economic growth rate had not reached the projected targets. Of these provinces, those that were traditionally “resource rich” had had a “very difficult time” and this stagnation was “unprecedented since China’s reform and opening-up period”, which had begun in 1978.

Annual GDP growth in China from 2001 to 2020

Annual GDP growth in China from 2001 to 2020. Source: World Bank, chart by Carbon Brief using HighCharts.

On 9-10 May 2014, Xi Jinping visited China’s central Henan province for a work inspection. While speaking with local officials, he introduced the concept of “new normal” for the first time, stating:

“We [need] to adapt to a new normal based on China’s current stage of economic development.”

Xi Jinping, centre, on an agricultural inspection tour in Henan
Xi Jinping, centre, on an agricultural inspection tour in Henan on 9-10 May 2014. Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo.

Xi said later in 2015:

“To clarify that China’s economic development has entered a new normal is a major conclusion we reached after a comprehensive analysis on the long-term global economics cycle and China’s development characteristics, as well as the interactions between the two.”

On 1 May 2021, Xi published an article in Qiu Shi – the official magazine of the Central Commission of the Communist Party of China – describing the major adjustments he had made to the country’s “concepts and logic” regarding economic development since he became leader of China’s Communist Party at the 18th National Congress in 2012.

In the article’s 13 conclusions, the most significant included: “Heroes would not be determined solely on the basis of GDP growth rates”; “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” (see above); and “economic development has entered a new normal”.

The so-called “economic new normal” indicated that China was moving into a new phase of development that differed from the high-speed growth pattern it had been following for 30 years. The economy was facing slower growth. In this state, China’s economy needed to find new drivers and this provided an opportunity for low-carbon economic development.

In 2014, Xi proposed nine characteristics for a “new-normal” economy. One was that “the carrying capacity of the environment has reached, or is close to, its upper limit and it is necessary to promote a new way of green, low-carbon and circular development”.

He said that an approach of “extensive” economic development had once played a great role in China. However, continuing along that old economic path would be unsustainable today.

“If we do not hurry and transition to another development model…we will one day be stuck in a dead end,” Xi said

Dr Li Zuojun told Outlook Weekly, a state-run weekly magazine, in 2015 that China’s old path of high growth, high consumption, plus high pollution, could no longer go on. He said that, under the new normal of the economy, “green development” was a necessity and would be a solution to the economic slowdown.

Xie Zhenhua also wrote in the epilogue of Zou Ji’s book (see above) that China’s economic development had reached a new normal. There was a consensus building across the country’s policymakers that accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy, along with economic restructuring, would be highly consistent with China’s goal of actively addressing climate change. Xie referenced Xi’s remarks that tackling climate change “is not what others ask us to, but [something] we do on our own initiative”.

Dr Jiang Kejun, a researcher at the Energy Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Macroeconomic Research in Beijing, wrote in 2020 that the trend of China emitting increasing amounts of carbon emissions had ended in 2013 and that emissions thereafter had fluctuated around an “equilibrium value”.

This, he said, was due to the sectoral changes in the economy as China’s industrialisation had passed its initial “accumulation stage”. The energy-intensive industries, which consume more than half of China’s energy, were close to reaching their peak in production or had already peaked with some even seeing decreased production.

Percentage change in Chinas per-capita CO2 emissions and per-capita GDP, 1990-2019

Percentage change in China’s per-capita (production- and consumption-based) CO2 emissions and per-capita GDP, 1990-2019. Source: Our World in Data, chart by Carbon Brief using HighCharts.

From 2014 to 2015, China’s perceptions towards climate change went through what Zou calls “a magnanimous transformation” after the country had entered into an economic “new normal”, as well as negotiating positively with the US ahead of the Paris Agreement (see above). Zou tells Carbon Brief: 

“[China’s attitude] transformed from relatively negative to relatively positive and from relatively passive to relatively active.” 

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2018: Xi’s ‘Thought on Ecological Civilisation’ established

On 18-19 May 2018, the China Eco-Environmental Conference was held in Beijing and attended by Xi Jinping.

Since 1973, China has held eight environmental conferences and, of the four most recent ones, the 2018 conference was the only one attended by the country’s leader.

It was at this meeting that Han Zheng, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and vice premier of the State Council, proposed the “Xi Jinping thought on ecological civilisation”, should be formally incorporated into his ideological system. Xi had been emphasising the theory of “ecological civilisation” for many years.

Xi Jinping at the Eco-Environmental Conference, Beijing, in May 2018. Source: Wang Ye for Xinhua News Agency.
Xi Jinping at the Eco-Environmental Conference, Beijing, in May 2018. Source: Wang Ye for Xinhua News Agency.

China’s most powerful leaders often have their own unique ideological systems, such as “Mao Zedong Thought”, “Deng Xiaoping Theory” and Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents”. Compared to these three systems of thought, “ecological civilisation” is one of Xi’s most distinctive political legacies.

At this conference, Xi summarised the principles that must be followed in order to promote “ecological civilisation”. They included “maintaining harmonious coexistence between man and nature”, “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” (see above) and “working together to build a global ecological civilisation”. Xi said:

“[We] must deeply involve [ourselves] in global environmental governance, enhance our voice and influence in the global environmental governance system, actively guide the direction of change in the international order and form solutions for world environmental protection and sustainable development.”

At that time, China was facing a rebound in its carbon emissions.

Li Junfeng, the inaugural director of the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC), told a group of entrepreneurs in May 2021 that China’s carbon emissions had seen their first peak in 2010 and then continued to fall until 2016. But from 2017 to 2019, emissions rebounded for three consecutive years.

Li said that, in January 2017, Donald Trump had arrived at the White House and subsequently announced the US’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. He added:

“Some comrades [in China] immediately thought, now that the Americans have quit the Paris Agreement, why should China limit [its] coal capacity? So, in 2017, [China] loosened restrictions all of a sudden and approved several coal chemical, heavy chemical and coal power projects.”

Ma Jun, director of Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), tells Carbon Brief that the reason carbon emissions bounced back in those years was that, in addition to Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, 2018 was also a year of economic downturn and “local governmental officials strongly hoped for deregulation”. In the intervening years, he says there was intense competition between the desire to stimulate the economy and the need to control air pollution and cut emissions.

An IPE report published in 2020 stated that production by some steel companies that had violated compliance measures increased dramatically in the autumn and winter of 2018-2019.

For example, crude steel production in Hebei province increased significantly in the fourth quarter of 2018 compared to the same period of the year before, including an increase of more than 20% in November. In the first two months of 2019, the province’s crude steel output increased by 17.3% year-on-year. Some regions, including Hebei, saw a resulting rebound in air pollution.

At the environmental conference held on May 2018, Xi severely criticised some local officials, saying:

“Some localities have had frequent ecological and environmental problems, leading [the local officials] to be interviewed and [relevant incidents] to be exposed. However, the local party and government officials there have not only escaped prosecution, but also been promoted and reappointed. What a strange thing to do! This must not be allowed to happen again!”

Just a few years before, under Xi’s direction, China’s central government had investigated and prosecuted several major cases related to the environment and energy.

Examples include the destruction of grasslands by coal mines in the Qilianshan Muli area, the illegal construction of villas in the Qinling Protected Area and the corruption of officials involved in the coal industry in Inner Mongolia. All these cases caused a large number of senior officials to be arrested for corruption.

Xi also founded the Central Ecological and Environmental Inspection Team (CEEIT) to supervise provincial and central ministries. In February of 2021, CEEIT openly criticised the central government’s National Energy Administration (NEA) for failing to limit the country’s expansion of coal power plants. Never before had a high-level central government agency been inspected and openly criticised for multiple “failures” related to energy development. (See Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A about CEEIT.)

In July 2021, Xu Bijiu, executive deputy director of CEEIT, said in Beijing:

“The Central Inspection Office of Ecological Environmental Protection is a major policy innovation personally planned, deployed and promoted by General Secretary Xi Jinping. He has issued important instructions at every key point and critical moment.”

Xu said that if the “dual-high” projects – those with high energy consumption and high emissions – were allowed to develop “blindly”, it would directly affect the nation peaking its emissions by 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. He said:

“Some places are still very impulsive in blindly launching ‘dual-high’ projects and there is a momentum for starting [such projects in] sizable, rapid, rushed and chaotic ways, which must be resolutely curbed.”

He added that the strict control of “high energy consumption and high-emission” projects was the focus of an inspection of eight provinces and regions, which had just ended in July.

On 31 August, the NEA announced its “rectification plan”, vowing to “strictly implement the Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilisation”, “comprehensively build a clean, low-carbon, safe and efficient energy system and promote the implementation of the goal of nationally determined contributions to combating climate change”. It also issued a detailed list of ways to rectify the situation, in light of CEEIT’s criticism.

Since Xi introduced the CEEIT in 2015, more than 6,000 officials – including nearly 20 at provincial and ministerial level – have been held accountable for various environmental and energy-related incidents.

After Covid-19 broke out, China immediately issued a decision to ban illegal wildlife trade and eradicate the indiscriminate consumption of wildlife. Lu Zhi, a professor of conservation biology at Peking University and founder of the NGO Shanshui Nature Conservation Centre, pushed for the ban. She tells Carbon Brief that the final decision was made by Xi:

“In the past, we couldn’t find a spokesperson at the central level when it came to biodiversity conservation and environmental protection. Now he [Xi] is the spokesperson.”

Through a series of forceful measures, the authority of the “Thought on Ecological Civilisation” has been established over recent years and Xi’s focus on the environment and climate can no longer be ignored by officials.

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2020: Xie Zhenhua coordinates new research on ‘low-carbon transition’

In the summer of 2020, Xie Zhenhua was invited out of retirement by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment to be its adviser on climate change.

The invitation – not to be confused with his later appointment, in February 2021, to be China’s special envoy on climate change – seemed ordinary at first. However, it played a vital role in Xi’s climate pledges announced last September, largely due to a research project Xie had been leading.

At the beginning of 2020, Covid-19 had just broken out in the Chinese city of Wuhan. As a result, the whole nation was put under a lockdown, leading to economic stagnation. A few months later in the summer, the outbreak had been brought under control in China.

 
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The most important agenda for the central government became the deliberation and formulation of the 14th five-year plan (FYP) – a government strategy that would establish the direction and goals for the country’s overall development from 2021 to 2025.

A Beijing-based climate advocate, who was close to the matter and requests anonymity, tells Carbon Brief:

“There were fierce disputes between ministries. Many policymakers suggested removing carbon emissions-reduction targets from the plan so that the country could focus on economic recovery.”

Since the 12th FYP (2011-2015), China has established systematic and restrictive goals to lower various indexes, including energy intensity and emission intensity. If such objectives were to be removed from the forthcoming plan, China would face a major regression in its effort to tackle its emissions. 

There had already been signs of regressions in different provinces. Some of them had been keen to drive investment to restore the economy – by launching a large number of projects that would result in high energy consumption and emissions. The officials of those provinces were not interested in reducing carbon emissions. What they wanted was higher GDP – a measure that represents an area’s economic growth and had been used to evaluate an official’s performance.

During the discussions ahead of establishing the 14th FYP, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) called on the central government to actively respond to climate change, but its voice was weak. Two years before, MEE had just been assigned the climate change “function” – a task previously handled by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). NDRC is a powerful organ – the highest-level planner for social and economic development – under the State Council, the nation’s highest administrative authority. In comparison, the MEE oversees the state’s environmental affairs.

To effectively push forward climate-related affairs, MEE needed the help from someone influential, such as Xie Zhenhua. Xie had served as the head of the Chinese delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) for 11 years consecutively, eventually leading to the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. But, at the time, he had retired and left the command centre of China’s climate policymaking.  

 
Ministry of Environment and Ecology: The Ministry of Environment and Ecology, or MEE, is China’s ecological and environmental watchdog. It was established in 2018 by the Chinese parliament to shoulder environmental-protection responsibilities previously spread among several ministries.… Read More

In the summer of 2020, MEE invited Xie to be its adviser on climate change. It is normal in China for a ministry to rehire a retired employee, but this recruitment of Xie was anything but ordinary.

The anonymous Beijing-based climate advocate referred to above tells Carbon Brief that it was vice-premier Han Zheng that approved the invitation.

Han Zheng, also a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China, takes charge of climate change affairs. According to the source, Han hoped that Xie could continue to help MEE. The source says Xie thanked Han and told him about a research project he had been leading.

Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng holds the first High-level Environment and Climate Dialogue between China and the EU with Executive Vice President of the European Commission
China’s vice premier Han Zheng holds the first High-level Environment and Climate Dialogue between China and the EU via video link in Beijing on 1 February 2021. Credit: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo.

In October 2017, Xie was awarded the LUI Che Woo Prize in the sustainability category for his contribution in the “prevention of climate change”. He donated his prize money, Hong Kong $20m (US$2.5m), to his alma mater, Tsinghua University. The prestigious university in Beijing used the money to set up the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD) and invited Xie to be its director.

A year later, Energy Foundation China, a philanthropic foundation, bestowed US$2.5m upon ICCSD, supporting it to conduct research on China’s long-term low-carbon development strategy and pathway. Zou Ji, the president of Energy Foundation China, had worked under Xie at the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, a government-run organisation.

With this funding, Xie coordinated ICCSD to carry out joint research with more than 20 Chinese organisations working on climate change. Their research topics included:  

“Scenario analysis of China’s mid- to- long-term economic and social development and low-carbon transition countermeasures and approaches; strategies and paths of low-carbon development for industry, transport, construction and other sectors; and goals, strategies and technology choices for the low-carbon development of energy and power systems.”

The institute was focused on coming up with advice to the government on the strategies, pathways, technologies and policies for China’s low-term low-carbon development. 

Xie-Zhenhua,-Chinas-special-representative-on-climate-change,-attends-a-press-briefing
Xie Zhenhua, China’s special representative on climate change, attends a press briefing on the sidelines of a conference on climate change as part of the Eighth Round of China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogues in Beijing, China on 6 June 2016. Credit: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo.

When Xie was appointed by Han to his new role in 2020, the ICCSD research had been underway for 18 months. Xie provided Han with a summary of the research’s findings. According to Carbon Brief’s source, Han regarded the report as being “very important” and instructed bureaus and committees to study it – a directive that received “positive response” from MEE and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

According to the source, Han called various departments of the State Council to have “many” discussions on the topic and requested Xie to present a more detailed report.

China’s top leadership circle comprises seven Politburo Standing Committee members, of whom Xi is the leader. Carbon Brief’s source says that, apart from Han, other standing committee members were also researching and studying low-carbon development and some of them had a “deep conversation” with Xie.

In March 2021, six months after Xi made the “30-60” pledges, he said during a high-level financial conference:

“Our country’s aim to reach emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060 is a significant strategic decision made by the Party Central Committee after careful deliberation.”

Dr Yang Fuqiang from Peking University’s Institute of Energy, tells Carbon Brief the fact that Xi said “careful deliberation” – a rare phrase – meant that China’s core leadership had thought long and hard about “carbon neutrality”. 

Carbon Brief’s source says that China had a strong urge to restore its economy throughout the summer of 2020. They note that if the Chinese leaders were to make any promises to tackle climate change, it would signify a confirmation of a long-term, low-carbon developmental direction for the country. There would have been careful consideration. Xi needed scientific research to support his decision-making and “the suggestions made by Xie Zhenhua came at an opportune time,” the source adds.

Ma Jun from the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), tells Carbon Brief that, although China had conducted a lot of research on the peaking of carbon emissions by then, it had very few research findings about carbon neutrality. Many related assessments, he says, are still ongoing. He says:

“But the leadership did indeed make up its mind [on two things]: first, China must stand out to shoulder its global responsibility; second, China must change its way of developing and should not maintain its highly polluting and energy intensive developmental mode.”

Ma says he believes that, before Xi’s pledges, no Chinese organisation had been able to thoroughly analyse how to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. 

Ma adds that he thinks Xie’s “main contribution” was to calculate the basic “big numbers” for decision-makers. These included the estimation that to reach carbon neutrality before 2060 China might need to pay an economic “cost” of 120tn yuan ($19.2tn) over 40 years, which would average 2-3% of its annual GDP.

Ma says: “The high level [leadership] thought that it was not something they wouldn’t be able to afford.” In 2020, China’s GDP amounted to around 101tn yuan ($16.2tn). (See above.) In August 2021, Xie said:

“According to the estimations and calculations of relevant organisations in our country, to achieve emissions peaking and carbon neutrality, our country will need more than 130tn yuan.”

The ICCSD estimations were presented between June and September 2020. On 22 September, Xi announced at the UN General Assembly that China “aim[s] to…achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”.

On 12 October 2020 – 20 days after Xi’s announcement – at the press conference of Tsinghua’s research, Xie said: “This research strongly supported the determination of the country’s mid- to- long-term low-carbon development goals and strategies.” (See Carbon Brief’s article at the time about the presentation of this research.)

Tsinghua Universitys Prof He Jiankun presenting the evolution of Chinas total energy demand and energy mix
Tsinghua University’s Prof He Jiankun presenting the evolution of China’s total energy demand and energy mix under the 1.5C emission pathway at the release event of the “China Low-Carbon Development Strategy and Transformation Pathways” on 12 October (black: coal, grey: oil, light blue: fossil gas, green: non-fossil energy). Source: Screen capture from Tsinghua’s presentation live-stream.

In China’s bureaucratic circles, the culture means that lower-level officials would never stress their own contribution to higher-level officials during the latter’s decision-making process. Besides, Xie has always kept a low profile.

However, he used the phrase “strongly support” – an indication that the research he had been leading directly propelled Xi’s “carbon neutrality” announcement.

In February 2021, just a few months after the research’s public presentation, Xie was appointed as China’s special envoy on climate change for the second time – two years after his last tenure in the role finished when he had retired at the age of 70.

It is worth noting, though, that Xi’s decision exceeded Chinese academics’ expectations. Zou Ji of Energy Foundation China tells Carbon Brief: “What surprised me a little was that President Xi did not leave any leeway for academics.”

He notes that, normally in China, academics would be more progressive in their analysis, whereas decision-makers would be more conservative. Zou adds: “This time, researchers had not gone as far as President Xi, or as aggressive[ly] as President Xi.”

Zou says that the carbon-neutrality decision “was, for sure, his [Xi’s] decision”. 

The information revealed by another person close to China’s highest decision-makers echoes Zou’s view. Jiang Xiaojuan, dean of the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, used to work as the deputy secretary-general of the State Council. In a book she published this year, she revealed how China’s top officials make decisions. She said: “The aspiration and will of the high level are very important.” 

Jiang wrote that, to take environmental protection as an example:

“The need to accelerate governance is urgent. However, when it comes to action, there would be many worries and questions, for example, [that such action would] impact economic growth, increase input and [lead to] the over-shouldering of global responsibility…”

Jiang concluded: “In the end, [what’s important] is not the consensus of all parties in the debate, but the determination by the highest level.”

In China, when officials and academics talk about the “environment”, they include the “climate”. Thus, the “decision-making process” described by Jiang included decision-making about climate change. 

All signs suggest strongly that the 2020 announcement of China’s “dual carbon” goals was driven personally by Xi.

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Summary: Three reasons why China’s stance on climate change has shifted

Observers and experts tell Carbon Brief that there are three main reasons for the recent significant change in China’s climate policy:

1. Xi’s determination

Chinese society has become more aware about climate change and, most importantly, Xi himself now has a “climate-friendly mindset” and is “extremely determined” to implement policies which help to reduce emissions.

Professor Lu Zhi tells Carbon Brief: “The change in perception is important. It is top-down and driven by Chinese leadership.”

2. Economic conditions

The conditions are ripe in China. After 2012, China’s economic growth rate had rapidly declined, while energy consumption and carbon emissions in many parts of the country had peaked and plateaued. China’s economy had transitioned and entered a “new normal” as it strove to shift from extensive development to “high-quality development”. China is becoming a high-income country, with per-capita GDP exceeding $10,000 for the first time in 2019.

At the same time, China’s renewable energy industry has already established an advantage, globally. On 3 August 2021, Xie Zhenhua said in an online speech that China’s installed renewable energy capacity had accounted for about 33% of the world’s total by 2020 and that the country’s newly installed energy capacity in 2020 made up 52% of the global total of the year.

Xie noted that China had been the top renewable energy investor worldwide for the eighth consecutive year. He added that China’s solar power had reached 253m kilowatts of installed capacity in 2020, more than 3,000 times that of 2005, while the installed capacity of wind power had reached 281m kilowatts, more than 200 times the 2005 level.

“Renewable energy has developed rapidly in China, which has significantly reduced the cost of renewable energy promotion and use worldwide,” he said.

Dr Jiang Kejun tells Carbon Brief that, in addition to the country’s technological and cost advantages, China has also established a manufacturing advantage in renewable energy. He says China’s GDP was 18.7tn yuan in 2005, 40.3tn yuan in 2010 and more than 100tn yuan [$16tn] in 2020.

“100tn yuan means China has huge manufacturing capacity,” Jiang says. He believes that, not only has the goal of deep emissions reductions created a “revolution” in new technologies and industries, it will also bring about “rich opportunities” for China’s economic development.

Since 2008, China’s manufacturing industry’s “added value” as a percentage of GDP has remained between 28% and 33%, according to the China National Information Center under the NDRC.

According to Forbes, China’s global share of solar cell manufacturing is 80%. Of the top 10 solar companies in the world, eight are Chinese.

Liu Hanyuan, a representative of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, said in September that China had established an annual production capacity of around 200GW for its solar-power sector. The electricity generated by the sector every year is equivalent to 100m tonnes of oil. (Liu is the founder and chairman of Tongwei Group, the world’s largest producer of solar cells.)

Zou Ji of Energy Foundation China tells Carbon Brief that prior to the 2009 Copenhagen conference China’s per-capita GDP was only a few thousand dollars and its position at that time was to defend its rights to emit:

“Although President Xi put forward the Two Mountains theory in 2005 (see above), the conditions then were not yet ideal for its implementation.”

A decade later, however, conditions in China have completely changed and the timing is right for the implementation of the Two Mountains theory, Zou notes:

“China is at a different stage of development now, [therefore] its current strategy is different from the past.”

3. International pressure

The majority of the China experts interviewed by Carbon Brief say that the nation’s climate policy is also influenced by Sino-China and Sino-Europe relations.

Lo Sze Ping, a long-time environmental advocate in China, tells Carbon Brief that in the years since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in late 2015, the US, China and Europe have clashed on a range of issues, but climate remains one of the few areas where they can work together.

Zou Ji tells Carbon Brief that China is pressured by both the US and Europe on its climate policy. He says that, under Joe Biden, the US wants China to set higher emission reduction targets, while China has to see if the move would be in line with its own targets. He explains:

“If it is not, it is useless for you [the US] to increase pressure on China. If China thinks it is in line with its own targets, China would do it no matter what, regardless of whether or not you [the US] brings it up.”

Like other Chinese climate officials and scholars, Zou is fond of citing this quote from Xi: “Addressing climate change is not what others ask us to. We are doing so on our own initiative.”

But Xi himself has not denied the impact of international pressure. He said in 2016: 

“Neither international nor domestic conditions will support China’s development if we follow the same kind of extensive development path as in the past.”

Zou tells Carbon Brief:

“I think President Xi has seen the general trend in global development. Actively addressing climate change contributes to the building of a community with a shared future for mankind, which is in line with his development philosophy. At the same time, it is also in line with China’s domestic processes.” (“Build a community with a shared future for mankind” is a phrase often used by Xi.)

In March 2021, at a high-level economic meeting held in Beijing, Xi called for the integration of emissions peaking and carbon neutrality into the overall construction of an “ecological civilisation”. Lo says that by proposing an “ecological civilisation”, Xi was actually promoting a Chinese development model that could be more advanced than the Western model and could lead the future of global development.

This viewpoint is similar to what Prof Hu Angang suggested to Chinese leaders 12 years ago (see above): China can reduce its emissions and become a world leader through a “green revolution”.

However, China’s “2030-2060” twin climate goals face huge challenges. First, can Xi Jinping’s policies be fully implemented by lower-level officials? Second, can China’s energy-intensive and high-emission economic development model that it has relied on over recent decades be turned around in the short term?

A year after the announcement of the “30-60” target, at least 20 out of the country’s 30-plus provincial-level regions have been experiencing electricity rationing or blackouts. (See Carbon Brief’s analysis). Local officials are faced with insufficient power supply, but they also have to meet the carbon-reduction targets issued by the central government.

China says on the international stage that it wants to tackle climate change, but it also says it must deliver “national energy security”. The decade ahead will show whether it can meet this challenge. The whole world is relying on it doing so.

Sharelines from this story
  • Analysis: Nine key moments that changed China’s mind about climate change

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