China’s top decision-making body has given new instructions on the nation’s efforts to tackle climate change at a meeting chaired by President Xi Jinping.
According to state media, the meeting, held in Beijing last Friday, urged officials to pursue the nation’s twin goals of reaching the carbon emission peak before 2030 and achieving “carbon neutrality” before 2060 in a “coordinated and orderly manner”.
Delivered in the unique vernacular of the Chinese government, the instructions also called on the country to “stick to a single game nationwide (坚持全国一盘棋)”, “rectify campaign-style ‘carbon reduction’ (纠正运动式“减碳”)” and “establish [new rules] before breaking [old ones] (先立后破)”.
Neither the Chinese government or state media have released an official explanation of the phrases. However, Carbon Brief understands that they could indicate the current problems within some regions’ climate governance and, more importantly, strategies to deal with them.
In this article, Carbon Brief trawls through Chinese media reports and speaks to various experts to provide the context behind these latest directives.
What are the new instructions?
The new climate instructions were among a series of macroeconomic commands released by the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) during a meeting on 30 July 2021. The organ – known as the Politburo for short – currently has 25 members, including President Xi. It is the supreme decision-making body of the CPC.
Xinhua said that the Politburo meeting “analysed and studied the current economic situation” and “set out the economic work in the second half of the year”.
The state-run newswire added that the meeting laid out the near-future agendas for various sectors, such as e-commerce, technology, finance and real estate.
On climate-related issues, the Politburo demanded that the nation “carry out the carbon-peaking and carbon neutrality work in a coordinated and orderly manner (要统筹有序做好碳达峰、碳中和工作)”, as well as introduce an action plan “as soon as possible” to lead the nation’s emission-peaking endeavour.
It employed bureaucratic lingo and commanded the country to “stick to a single game nationwide”, “rectify campaign-style carbon reduction” and “establish before breaking”.
The meeting then instructed officials to “resolutely contain the blind development of ‘dual-high’ projects (坚决遏制“两高”项目盲目发展)” – a goal set by the 14th five-year plan and highlighted by various leaders after that – and ensure a stable electricity supply during peak demand in summer.
Separately, the meeting directed the nation to “support ‘new energy’ vehicles for their accelerating development (支持新能源汽车加快发展)”. In China, “new energy” vehicles mainly include pure electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles and fuel-cell vehicles. The development of the industry has been listed as a national strategy since 2012.
All of the above instructions were relayed to the public on the same day by Xinhua and Xinwen Lianbo, a prime time daily news programme from CCTV, the state broadcaster.
The news came after Xie Zhenhua, China’s special envoy for climate change, said that China would “gradually release” a “top-level design plan” – described as the “1+N framework” – for its climate goals. (Read last week’s China Briefing for details.) It also came after the central government formed a high-level climate “leaders group” in late May to direct the country’s emission-reducing efforts.
Moreover, last week, a Chinese environment official warned of “very serious” consequences if “dual-high” projects were allowed to “develop blindly”. The official made the remarks during a press conference on Monday while giving updates on the latest round of top-level inspection by the Central Ecological and Environmental Inspection team. (See Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A about the inspection team.)
Avoid ‘campaign-style’ emission reduction
Bloomberg reported that these new instructions signified a “soften[ing] tone” from China on its climate ambition “amid power shortages”. The newswire wrote: “China’s top policymakers urged an easing of the aggressive measures taken to reduce carbon emissions as Beijing balances economic health with its climate goals.”
Economic Daily, a newspaper published by China’s State Council, the nation’s administrative authority, mentioned the power shortfalls that hit some Chinese provinces recently while reporting about the instructions. Although the state-run outlet did not link the two directly, it asked: “How to realise the goals of peaking carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 in a big country that has not completed industrialisation? How to reduce CO2 emissions significantly while guaranteeing the power supply needed for economic and social development?”
Prof Qi Ye from the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing said that the Politburo’s instructions were a “timely and accurate warning and correction” to the “signs of campaign-style ‘carbon reduction’ in some areas”. Prof Qi made the comments during an interview with Yicai, a financial website affiliated with state-run Shanghai Media Group.
Prof Alex Wang, the faculty co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment of UCLA School of Law, tells Carbon Brief that, in broad terms, the instructions are “a continuation of the push” to pursue the 2030 and 2060 climate goals. But he notes that they were delivered in “an intriguing dialectic”.
He explains that the top leadership was ordering regional governments to move towards the climate goals in a “rational” and “strategic” way that takes into consideration other national plans, such as the economy and energy supply.
Prof Wang notes that the instruction of “rectify[ing] campaign-style carbon reduction” is a call to urge local officials to avoid the “sometimes wild attempts” of meeting targets. He says that some local officials’ actions can often be “last minute” after slow starts to implementing required rules.
His view is echoed by Caijing, a Chinese financial media. In an article from Monday, Caijing said: “Carbon peaking and carbon neutrality are long-term tasks. Although to reduce carbon [emissions] without respecting rules and in a ‘Great Leap Forward’ style may indeed lead to the realisation of emission-reducing goals, it may also lead to other problems that cannot be ignored.”
Chinese regional governments have in the past taken drastic measures right before the deadline to hit their assigned energy targets. For example, in late 2010, the authority of Anping county in Hebei province halted the electricity supply not only to energy-intensive enterprises, but also its residents in a bid to reach the energy-control goals set by the 11th five-year plan, which ran from 2006 to 2010.
Local officials later had to apologise to the public for its “lack of consideration and simple methods”. Xie Zhenhua, then deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, publicly criticised the Anping government’s approach, calling it “wrong” and “go[ing] against our original intention of saving energy and reducing emissions”. The incident was widely covered by state-run media outlets, such as China News Service and Beijing News, at the time. It was used as a case study in a paper from 2013 by Prof Wang, who assessed China’s environmental evaluation system in the context of the energy-saving and emission-reducing goals of the 11th five-year plan.
Similar cases also happened in Zhejiang province last year when the region, just south of Shanghai, tried to meet the energy-control objectives outlined in the 13th five-year plan, which ran from 2016 to 2020. Local officials resorted to limiting electricity consumption and cutting off electricity at the end of last year to achieve its goal. The move forced many factories to halt production and left a large number of residents without heating in winter. (Read Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A on the 14th five-year plan for more.)
According to Prof Yuan Jiahai from the School of Economics and Management at North China Electric Power University in Beijing, the new instructions do not mean that China is softening its tone on climate change. Prof Yuan says that, on the contrary, they suggest that Beijing’s climate policy “will only get stricter and stricter”. He explains his understanding of the term “rectify[ing] campaign-style carbon reduction” to Carbon Brief:
“First, [the central government] hopes to correct the ‘chaotic actions’ [in emissions reduction] which have not been recognised by the system. Second, it hopes to correct the simple and crude understanding that economic development can be sacrificed for reducing emissions. Third, it signals an accelerated introduction of the top-level climate plan to guide regions and industries’ to reduce emissions in an orderly fashion.”
Dr Guo Li, research associate of Lau China Institute at King’s College London, has slightly different opinions. She says that the instructions imply a softening of the tone in the short term, “but not necessarily so in the long term”.
She tells Carbon Brief that the central government has perceived “overheating and disruptions” in the nation’s climate action and “want[s] to curb the repercussions”.
What do the other orders mean?
The other two instructions – which called on the country to “stick to a single game nationwide” and “establish before breaking” – had never been mentioned by China’s top policymakers in reference to the nation’s climate goals. But both phrases can be linked to influential Chinese leaders from the past.
The term “a single game nationwide” comes from Deng Xiaoping, who first proposed an economic open-up of the country in the late 1970s. According to People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, Deng once said that “compared to capitalism, socialism has the advantage of playing a single game nationwide – to concentrate its efforts on ensuring [the completion of] key issues.” Those words have served as a guideline in China’s social and economic development over the years. It is also China’s strategy to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
The other term, “establish before breaking”, is a derivative of a slogan from Mao Zedong, who led China from 1949 to 1976. The original term, which translates directly as “no breaking no establishing” (不破不立), means that one should only establish new rules after breaking the old ones. It was first used by Mao in a speech in 1940.
Prof Yuan says that these two phrases represent the central government’s strategy to tackle the problem of “campaign-style carbon reduction”. He tells Carbon Brief that “stick[ing] to a single game nationwide” means that a “top-level” plan for the climate goals is crucial. He explains:
“This refers to the blueprints and action plans for peaking emissions and carbon neutrality on a national level. And [it also refers to] the implementation strategies for key industries including electricity, iron and steel, non-ferrous metals, petrochemical and chemical, building materials, construction, transportation and others.”
Prof Yuan says that the order also calls for moves to facilitate technological innovation, improve carbon sink capacity and enhance green finance. He notes that the instructions imply that key sectors and enterprises will formulate their respective goals and action plans under the 2030 and 2060 climate goals “scientifically”, guided by the top-level plan. He continues:
“Only such a top-down and then bottom-up approach can guarantee solid and overall implementation of the ‘dual-carbon’ goals. As a result, those targets and plans would be feasible as they combine the characteristics of regions, industries and key enterprises.”
In Prof Lin’s opinion, the term means that the leadership wants officials to prioritise building emission-curbing infrastructures before conducting decarbonisation. He noted that this would allow relevant authorities to meet their emission targets on the back of ensuring a smooth operation of the economy. He told Yicai that the infrastructure could include a “new energy” system, a reformed electricity system and a carbon market.
Dr Guo from King’s College London says that, on the one hand, the directives emphasise that the nation’s climate goals must be achieved with “total planning” and “in an orderly fashion”. She explains that the meeting promised that the top policymakers would “release a national action plan ‘as soon as possible’ so the economic departments and local and provincial governments can make decisions and plans accordingly”.
But she points out that, on the other hand, the strong wording against “campaign-style carbon reduction” is followed by insistence on coordinated national responses as well as “establish[ing new rules] before breaking [old rules]”. This indicates “the intention for cooling down aggressive measures and initiatives”, Dr Guo says.
Why are they important to China’s climate goals?
The new instructions from the Politburo show the central government’s attempt to balance its climate pledges and its economic growth, according to Prof Yuan from North China Electric Power University. He says:
“China aims to accomplish the biggest reduction of carbon intensity – the amount of CO2 produced per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) – in the world. It also aims to use the shortest time in history to achieve carbon neutrality after reaching the emission peak. This, without doubt, is a tough battle and calls for early plans and timely actions.”
Prof Yuan says that one of China’s challenges is that its climate agenda partially collides with the government’s goal of lifting the nation’s per capita GDP from $10,000 to $20,000 between 2020 and 2035 – a complicated task in its own right. He adds:
“To strive towards the dual-carbon goals while restructuring the economy, one can only imagine the difficulties and the complexity [of the mission].”
Prof Yuan highlights that the first plenary meeting of China’s climate “leaders group” in late May had already instructed officials to follow a forthcoming “top-level” plan and “respect the rules” while meeting emission targets. It had also ordered officials to be realistic and practical while managing “the rhythm” of their work.
However, “in the actual work of different industries, local governments and state-owned enterprises, there are still many discrepancies and misunderstandings in how to implement the dual-carbon goals”, Prof Yuan points out.
He explains that one of these discrepancies is whether or not officials should shut down coal mines right away. Another is whether they should immediately close coal-fired power plants and stop building new ones.
According to Dr Guo, the directives signal that the central government is issuing strong cautions against “economically and socially disruptive actions” in emission reduction. She says:
“I can see the significance for climate targets on at least two levels in the short term: First, it means scaling back from overly ambitious policy targets and measures; Second, it prefers a top-down policy style with careful but strong central planning and control.”
From Prof Wang’s point of view, the significance of top-down political orders, such as the new ones, is that they guide policymakers. Furthermore, he says that the bureaucracy understands that these statements could have consequences down the road for those who do not comply.
However, Prof Wang also has concerns about the new orders. He says:
“The phrases are so general that they are open to many interpretations and below [the Politburo level], many battles will be fought to shape the meaning. Given the dialectical nature of the statement, which highlights conflicting priorities that need to be reconciled, it is even less clear how the principles will be implemented.”
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