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china briefing
CHINA POLICY
23 December 2021 13:31

China Briefing, 23 December 2021: Analysis of Beijing’s new pledge; Interview with senior advisers; Economic planning meeting

Carbon Brief Staff

23.12.2021 | 1:31pm
China PolicyChina Briefing, 23 December 2021: Analysis of Beijing’s new pledge; Interview with senior advisers; Economic planning meeting

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s China weekly digest. 
We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s weekly China Briefing email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

Snapshot

Last Thursday, Carbon Brief published in-depth analysis of China’s updated Paris Agreement pledge and new long-term climate strategy. Despite widespread international disappointment by the revised targets, experts told Carbon Brief that those two documents – if fully implemented – could still lead China to over-achieve its goal of peaking emissions “before 2030”.

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In addition, this month, Carbon Brief also published a lengthy interview with two senior advisers to the Chinese government on climate change. In the rare conversation – which took place during COP26 in Glasgow – the two professors explained Beijing’s climate ambition and policy to Hongqiao Liu, Carbon Brief’s China specialist.

Elsewhere, China’s leadership has instructed the country to “correctly recognise and understand” its carbon-peaking and carbon neutrality goals in 2022, according to the Chinese state media. The order came from the central government’s annual economic planning meeting, which took place in Beijing this month, state media said.

Key developments

Analysis examines China’s new Paris Agreement pledge

WHAT: In-depth analysis published by Carbon Brief last Thursday has examined two key climate documents China submitted to the UN at the end of October. One of them was China’s revised 2030 pledge (known as a nationally determined contribution, NDC), which – among other targets – confirmed that the country would peak its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions “before 2030” and achieve net-zero emissions “before 2060”. The other was a new long-term climate strategy (LTS), which set out what China described as “strategic visions” for 2060 and covered a wide range of social, economic and governance areas. The analysis – authored by Hongqiao Liu along with Xiaoying You, Carbon Brief’s China editor – studied both documents in detail, evaluated their key goals and assessed their implications on China’s emissions and energy sector.

WHEN: Both documents were submitted on 28 October, just two days before the start of COP26. (Read Carbon Brief’s analysis of the complete key outcomes of the UN climate talks in Glasgow here or the key outcomes for food, forests, land use and nature here.) Following the publication of the updated targets, many international observers and media outlets voiced disappointment (here, here and here, for example). However, experts interviewed by Carbon Brief believed that “the combination of targets in the documents, if fully implemented, could still lead to a lower peak in emissions being reached earlier than the officially stated goal of ‘before 2030’”. 

NDC: Apart from confirming the 2030 and 2060 goals, the new NDC set some quantitative targets for 2030, the analysis said. They included reducing CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by more than 65% from 2005 levels, increasing the proportion of non-fossil energy to “around 25%” and increasing forest stock volumes by 6bn cubic metres from 2005 levels. The installed capacity of wind and solar power would also surpass 1,200 gigawatts (GW), per the document. Carbon Brief’s analysis included a table that compared all of the numerical targets set in China’s first NDC with those in the new version.

LTS: In comparison, according to the analysis, China’s new LTS had just one quantitative goal for 2060: an 80% share of energy from non-fossil fuels, increasing from “around 25%” set in the updated NDC. Nevertheless, it carried several quantitative targets for 2025 and 2030, which were not detailed in the revised NDC. Those quantitative targets involved key areas such as buildings, transport and forestry. One of them, for example, stipulated that “about 40%” of the new vehicles sold in 2030 in China would be powered by “new energy” or clean energy.

OTHERS: In addition to the forensic assessment of the targets, the analysis explored the new documents’ implications on China’s emissions and energy sector. Moreover, it looked at the challenges for China in its response to global climate change and rounded up the reaction from media outlets both inside and outside China. The analysis said that “[China] not only faces the technical challenges of turning away from its heavy reliance on coal and rapidly scaling up replacement clean energy, but also the need to balance sometimes competing priorities in terms of economic growth, social cohesion and international relations”. 

Beijing’s senior advisers explain government’s climate policy

WHAT: During COP26 last month, Carbon Brief was granted a rare opportunity by the Chinese delegation to interview two of its senior climate advisers. The 80-minute conversation – held between Hongqiao Liu and Prof Wang Yi and Prof Wang Zhongying in Glasgow – was filmed, transcribed and translated before being published on 10 December. In the article, the two advisers covered various topics, including China’s energy transition, domestic coal policy, the recent power shortages, the nation’s “dual carbon” goals, and the importance of international cooperation on climate change. Below are some highlight quotes. 

ON MAKING PLEDGES, Prof Wang Zhongying said: “When [our] government says something, it is something that has to be achieved…From the government’s point of view – and I’m talking about under our own government regulatory framework – if the government makes a statement, it will not make empty promises.” 

ON SETTING GOALS, Prof Wang Yi Said: “Being a big country, China needs to weigh up different goals…As a state, it needs to strike this balance and consider whether achieving one goal will affect the others and to make its best efforts to make such decisions more balanced.”

ON COAL PLANTS, Prof Wang Zhongying said: “President Xi now speaks of ‘strictly limit[ing] the growth of coal power [projects]’ and the word has already been spoken. From our point of view, what we need to do now is to further constantly lower the operating hours of installed coal power, while keeping the power system operating smoothly, safely and efficiently. And, here, “efficiency” means to accommodate more [renewable energy].”

ON PEAKING EMISSIONS, Prof Wang Yi said: “Peaking emissions is actually not such a difficult thing. An administrative order would have done it, right? But we didn’t opt for that. We are hoping to integrate carbon neutrality into the whole process of socio-economic transformation. It is a matter of social stability and development, as well as how to transition in this process.” 

ON RECENT POWER SHORTAGES, Prof Wang Yi said: “I don’t think [they] are going to have much of an impact on our long-term goals. Rather, they are to make our policy implementation more steady and allow us to [complete the transition] more smoothly without having more risks.”

ON ENERGY SECURITY, Prof Wang Zhongying said: “Nowadays, when we talk about energy security, it is not just a simple matter of securing supply and demand. It also includes environmental security and climate security. It is reasonable to say that it is actually a combination of three types of security – namely, supply and demand security, environmental security and climate security, none of which can be left out.” 

​​Other news

CENTRAL ORDER: China has emphasised the importance of its climate goals at the country’s highest-level annual economic planning meeting. The meeting, called the Central Economic Work Conference, took place in Beijing over 8-10 December and was attended by China’s president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang. It gave seven specific orders related to the economic field for the upcoming year. It also called on the country to “correctly recognise and understand” five “new major theoretical and practical issues”, which included the goals of carbon peaking and carbon neutrality. State broadcaster CCTV aired a 14-minute news clip about the meeting. State newswire Xinhua also covered the event. 

DETAIL: According to the official reports, the meeting gave detailed instructions for realising the climate goals. In a nutshell, the leadership directed the country to “resolutely promote” the carbon-peaking and carbon neutrality works, but stressed that the tasks would not be accomplished overnight. It called on the nation to pursue its climate goals in “a coordinated manner nationwide”. It also underlined that “traditional energy” should “exit gradually” on the basis of “safe and reliable new energy”. Furthermore, it directed the country to “base itself on its coal-dominant reality”, implement “clean and efficient” use of coal and “ensure energy supply”. 

POWER SECTOR: China’s power sector could see its CO2 emissions peak as early as 2025, at around 5bn tonnes, according to a new paper published jointly by Peking University and North China Electric Power University. The projected timeline would only be realised if the sector develops non-fossil fuel resources, “actively changes” the role of coal and “fully explores” energy storage and demand response, the paper said. The scenario – one of the three studied by the authors – would require China’s installed capacity of wind and solar power to exceed 1,100GW and the peak level of coal-fired power capacity to stay within 1,200GW by 2025. In addition, the peak level of electricity generation would need to be under 5,200 terawatt hours (TWh) by 2025, according to the paper.

FOOD SYSTEM: A new paper has found that cutting down meat consumption can help reduce China’s agricultural ammonia emission by about 20% a year and its particulate matter by up to six micrograms per metre cubed annually. The reductions can, in turn, prevent some 75,000 annual premature deaths related to air pollution in the country, the paper added. The study was carried out by a research group formed through the University of Exeter and the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Joint Centre for Environmental Sustainability and Resilience (ENSURE). Nature Food published the paper on 16 December.

CLIMATE IMPLICATION: Prof Gavin Shaddick, chair of data science and statistics at the University of Exeter and co-director of the Joint Centre for Excellence in Environmental Intelligence, is a co-author of the above paper. He told Carbon Brief: “Meat production is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases and targeting the agricultural sector and the national diet can serve as an important strategy in reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases and harmful pollutants in China. This study shows the tremendous co-benefits of changing diets and agricultural practices, including reduced greenhouse gases and particulate air pollution, as well as improvements in health through both the consumption of healthier diets and improvements in air quality.”

CARBON MONITORING: China Meteorological Administration (CMA) – the country’s meteorological authority – announced on Monday that it had completed a carbon monitoring, verification and support system to record “human-caused and natural carbon flux changes”. CMA stated that the system would be primarily based on the “high-precision” CO2 concentration data collected by its 59 observation stations for greenhouse gases. Yu Rucong, deputy director of CMA, said that the system “will provide solid support for our country’s realisation of the goals of carbon peaking and carbon neutrality and the monitoring of carbon emissions”.

Extra reading

New science

The effectiveness of China’s regional carbon market pilots in reducing firm emissions
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

A new study has shown “unambiguous evidence” that China’s regional pilots of its emissions trading scheme (ETS) are “effective” in reducing the carbon emissions of participating firms. The researchers analysed a “unique panel dataset” of firm tax records in the manufacturing and public utility sectors over 2009-15. Dr Zhang Junjie, an associate professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in the US, is one of the paper’s corresponding authors. He told Carbon Brief: “We find that China’s regional ETS pilots effectively stimulated firms to reduce CO2 emissions, although with low carbon prices and infrequent allowance trading. Firms achieve emission reductions through energy conservation and fuel switching.” He added that the study found “no evidence that the ETS pilots hampered the financial performance of the regulated firms”. (Read Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A on China’s national ETS here.)

Challenges and opportunities for carbon neutrality in China
Nature Reviews Earth & Environment

A new “perspective” paper has summarised the “key features” of China’s CO2 emissions, its reduction processes and successes in meeting climate targets. The paper found that “China is in the process of [forming its] national strategy on emission mitigation and has successfully met its climate targets”, Dr Liu Zhu, the paper’s first author, told Carbon Brief. However, “China still faces the challenges of reaching its peak total CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060, which requires nationwide technological improvements and social-economic transitions,” noted Dr Liu, who is an associate professor at the Department of Earth System Science at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He added that “whether and how China could achieve [its] net-zero emission target will be critical for the success of global climate actions”.

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