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We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.
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Over the past week, China has published two key documents: a guiding document on the country’s climate action and an action plan on peaking emissions. The two government releases are parts of China’s “1+N” policy framework, the national directives to help it peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.
Meanwhile, China’s president Xi Jinping said last Thursday that the country “must hold the energy food bowl in its own hands” while visiting an iconic oil field in northern China, state media reported. An official English report said that Xi was stressing the importance of energy self-reliance.
Furthermore, the country published a climate change “white paper” yesterday. The government report said that China had overachieved its climate targets. It also noted that the nation’s emission intensity – the volume of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per unit of GDP – in 2020 had dropped by 18.8% compared to 2015 and by 48.4% on 2005 levels.
China releases parts of ‘1+N’ climate policy system
WHAT: On Sunday, China’s central government issued “working guidance” on the country’s efforts to peak carbon emissions and achieve carbon neutrality under what it calls the “new development philosophy” – a comprehensive theoretical system raised by Xi to guide the country’s development. The guidance lays out key specific targets and measures for the coming decades under Beijing’s “dual-carbon” goals, Xinhua reported. Two days later, on Tuesday, China’s leadership released its action plan to peak CO2 emissions before 2030. The plan puts forward China’s main objectives for the 14th five-year plan (FYP) period (2021-2025) and the 15th FYP period (2026-2030), according to Xinhua. (Read the working guidance here and the emissions-peaking action plan here.)
WHAT: According to Xinhua, the working guidance is the overarching document of China’s “1+N” framework. Simply put, it is the “1” and the “overall deployment” of “1+N”, according to Xinhua. The emissions-peaking action plan, on the other hand, is a part of the “N”. At a talk in Hong Kong in August, Xie said that the “N” stood for the “action plan” for peaking emissions as well as “policy measures and actions” for “key” sectors and industries. Carbon Brief’s China specialist, Hongqiao Liu, has analysed both documents via Twitter. Read her assessment here and here.
WHO: The working guidance was jointly published by the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council. The former is a political body comprising the country’s most senior officials and the latter is the highest organ of state administration. The emissions-peaking action plan was approved by the State Council and distributed to all provincial, regional and municipal governments, ministries and commissions supervised by the State Council and all of its affiliated organisations.
CHINA COVERAGE: Xinhua ran two interviews with “people in charge” at the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – the state macroeconomic planner – about the two documents. In the first interview, the official – who remains unnamed – said that the working guidance addressed general, long-term issues and would play a leading role in “1+N”. In the second article, the interviewee – also anonymous – said the action plan would guide China’s efforts to peak emissions and had more specific, practical and detailed objectives. The person noted that the action plan had been “researched and formulated” by the NDRC in consultation with “relevant departments” before being discussed and approved by the party’s central committee and distributed by the State Council. The NDRC’s director He Lifeng wrote in People’s Daily – the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China – that the country must “earnestly” implement the working guidance to “guarantee” the achievement of emissions peaking and carbon neutrality “on schedule”.
GLOBAL COVERAGE: International media outlets examined the content of both documents more closely. On the working guidance, Reuters focused on its wording about food and energy security. The outlet reported that “the statement came as severe energy shortages in China threaten to overshadow Beijing’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions”. AFP (published via the Guardian) said that “China is targeting a clean energy goal of reducing fossil fuel use to below 20% by 2060”. Bloomberg looked at the same sets of goals, writing that Beijing “aims to have non-fossil energy consumption exceed 80% of its total mix by 2060”. On the emissions-peaking action plan, the South China Morning Post said it “restated the country’s climate goals for 2025 and 2030”. Argus Media focused on the plan’s targets for “new energy” vehicles and renewable energy. S&P Global Platts assessed the plan’s targets and implications for China’s oil refining sector. The Financial Times, Sky News and Singapore-based Straits Times also covered the story.
WHY IT MATTERS: Wu Changhua, chief executive officer of Beijing Future Innovation Centre, told Carbon Brief that the two documents were likely to form part of China’s new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). She said that the two “heavy-weighted” documents drew a “clear blueprint” for China’s national strategic plan and actions on decarbonisation. Li Yan, China chief representative of Greenpeace East Asia, said the publication of the working guidance “once again confirmed China’s determination to respond to climate change”. However, analysts suggested that some questions have been left unanswered. Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, tweeted: “It seems that China is going to Glasgow with little clarity on three key questions: at what level will emissions peak, how long before 2030, and how fast will they fall after the peak.”
Xi ‘stresses importance of energy self-reliance’
WHAT: China’s president Xi said in an address to oil workers on 21 October that the country “must hold the energy food bowl in its own hands” in order to develop the real economy – a term referring to economic activities that generate goods and services – CCTV reported. In Mandarin, the phrase “food bowl” is often used as a metaphor for jobs or the ability to make a living. Although Xi did not explain what he meant, Xinhua said that Xi was stressing the importance for China to enhance self-reliance in energy. The South China Morning Post interpreted “energy food bowl” as “power sources”.
WHAT ELSE: Xi told the oil workers that oil and energy production was “of great significance to the country”, CCTV reported. The official channel said that Xi also encouraged the workers to “create great achievements again” and “make new contributions”.
WHERE: Xi delivered the speech at the Shengli Oilfield in the city of Dongying in eastern China’s Shandong province. Shengli – which means “victory” in English – is a symbolic oilfield in China. According to a previous Xinhua report, areas around the oilfield were a piece of “desolate and barren saline-alkali land” when workers found evidence of oil during an oil survey in 1961. Since then, Shengli has produced 1.25bn tonnes of crude oil, Xinhua said. The oilfield celebrated its 60th anniversary this year.
WHEN: Xi’s speech followed widespread power shortages in China last month. Although state media did not explicitly say that Xi was addressing the matter, CCTV linked his “energy food bowl” order to “recent” electricity outages domestically and surging commodity prices globally. In an editorial, the state broadcaster said that spiking domestic coal prices had brought an “unfavourable impact” on the supplies of electricity and winter heating. It added that the prices for “bulk energy raw materials” had also risen worldwide, which “further highlights the importance and necessity that we should hold the energy food bowl in our own hands”.
WHY IT MATTERS: At Shengli, Xi inspected a drilling platform, a research institute and a laboratory for carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), CCTV said. Global Times – a tabloid run by People’s Daily – wrote that Xi’s visit “will boost and accelerate the development of CCUS technology in China”, which is “crucial” to achieving carbon neutrality. The outlet cited “analysts”. Bloomberg read the news differently. It reported that Xi’s comments “suggest that fossil fuels – and crude in particular – remain central to China’s efforts to ensure energy security, irrespective of the government’s parallel commitment to capping greenhouse gas emissions”.
‘WHITE PAPER’: China has exceeded two of its emissions targets, according to a “white paper” released by China’s State Council yesterday. China’s emission or carbon intensity in 2020 was 18.8% lower than that of 2015, “a better result than” the target set in the 13th five-year plan (2016-2020) – which was 18% – the report said. The 2020 figure was also a 48.4% drop from the 2005 level, which “means that China had more than fulfilled its commitment to the international community”, the paper announced. In its 2015 NDC, China pledged that, by 2020, it would lower its CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 40% to 45% from the 2005 level.
COAL: The white paper said that China’s overall energy consumption in 2020 was 5bn tonnes of standard coal equivalent (tce) and the portion of coal consumption was 56.8% – down from 72.4% in 2005. When asked about China’s timeline of peaking coal consumption at a press conference for the paper, Sun Zhen – deputy director-general of the department of climate change at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment – did not provide a direct answer. Instead, he stressed that China must reduce its carbon emissions “safely” under the condition of “energy safety, supply safety for industry chains and normal life for the people”.
MORE ON COAL: The NDRC announced on Tuesday that it was looking into establishing a “standardised market-based pricing mechanism for coal” in a bid to guide coal prices to “stabilise in a reasonable range in the long run”. The authority said it would consider the coal industry’s cost, profit and market changes “in a coordinated manner” and research the possibility of a long-term mechanism comprising a baseline price, plus the upward and downward floating ranges. Bloomberg and Reuters covered the statement.
NUCLEAR: A Chinese state-run nuclear power group could be “squeezed out” of a major nuclear project in England under new plans announced by the UK government, the Times reported. UK ministers have moved to prevent China’s CGN group from getting involved in the £20bn Sizewell C nuclear plant in Suffolk “because of the Chinese involvement”, the newspaper wrote, without elaborating on the reason. The ministers have drawn up a new funding model in the hope of helping CGN’s French partner find investors to replace the Chinese firm, the report added.
‘KEY’ INDUSTRIES: China’s NDRC also issued new action plans aimed at propelling “key” industries’ energy conservation and carbon reduction efforts last Thursday. Among others, the plans demand more than 30% of the production capacity in “key” industries meet what it calls “advance levels” by 2025. The directives define “key” industries as “iron and steel, electrolytic aluminium, cement, flat glass, oil refining, ethylene, synthetic ammonia, calcium carbide and other industries”. Read the original document here.
‘KEY’ MOMENTS: Carbon Brief published new analysis on Monday, explaining “nine key moments” that have changed China’s attitude towards climate change over the past 20 years. Among other highlights, our China contributing editor, Jianqiang Liu, exclusively revealed how China’s leadership had come to decide on the 2060 “carbon neutrality” pledge, which was announced by President Xi last year.
STEEL: China’s steel industry “may already have” peaked its emissions in 2020, S&P Global Platts reported. The outlet added that, as a result, the targets under China’s new emissions-peaking action plan “are expected to be easily met” by steel mills. The report cited “industry sources”. Earlier this year, Chinese authorities demanded factories in China’s largest steel-producing city, Tangshan, curb their production capacity “to tackle pollution”. But the measures were relaxed in July amid strong demand for steel.
- The Chinese companies polluting the world more than entire nations – Bloomberg
- China, climate politics and COP26 – Sam Geall, Lowy Institute
- Sustainable protein could accelerate China’s shift to net zero – Eline Reintjes and Helena Wright, China Dialogue
- China’s Xie Zhenhua is the most important person attending COP26 – Jane Li, Quartz
Impact of high-speed rail on road traffic and greenhouse gas emissions
Nature Climate Change
A new study has shown that the rapid expansion of the Chinese high-speed rail network over the past 15 years has helped reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the transport sector. The research found that high-speed rail has led to a reduction in annual GHG emissions equivalent to just below 15m tonnes of CO2, which corresponds to 1.75% of the total GHG emissions in China’s transport sector. Dr Qin Yu from the National University of Singapore, the paper’s corresponding author, told Carbon Brief that transport is an “important” sector for China’s climate action. She added that the paper showed “high-speed rail’s impact on greenhouse gas emission could be further amplified with China’s carbon neutrality agenda”.
New research has found that achieving carbon neutrality in China’s power systems is feasible and can be cost-competitive if “planned properly”, but annual costs of different transition scenarios can deviate by more than $300bn annually. The study also found that planning a carbon-neutral pathway for China’s electrical energy systems on a national basis could lower the cost significantly compared with a provincial balancing scenario. The study is jointly conducted by China’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) and Tsinghua University, as well as the Harvard-China Project on Energy, Economy and Environment in the US. Prof Chen Xinyu from HUST, the paper’s first author, told Carbon Brief: “This paper provides a solution to achieving the carbon-neutral target, while maintaining system reliability and decreasing costs at the same time.”
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