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Technical workers installing equipment at Zhangpuying Wind Farm in Nanqiao District, Chuzhou City, Anhui Province, China
Workers installing turbines at Zhangpuying wind farm in Anhui province, China. Credit: Oriental Image.
CHINA POLICY
16 December 2021 11:59

Q&A: What does China’s new Paris Agreement pledge mean for climate change?

Multiple Authors

12.16.21
China PolicyQ&A: What does China’s new Paris Agreement pledge mean for climate change?

Two days prior to the start of COP26 last month, China submitted its updated 2030 climate pledge and a new long-term climate strategy (LTS) to the UN.

The submission means China has now officially confirmed that its commitment to tackle climate change under the terms of the Paris Agreement will see it peak its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions before 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions before 2060.

Notably, major targets in the revised 2030 pledge (known as a nationally determined contribution, NDC) stay intact from the announcements made by China’s leader Xi Jinping in December 2020. But it did not specify the long-anticipated peaking date, the level at which the country’s emissions would peak, or how long they would plateau before starting to drop. 

There was widespread international disappointment in reaction to the two documents, given they did not raise China’s headline climate ambition.

However, various China experts interviewed by Carbon Brief believe 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”. 

Below, Carbon Brief reviews both documents, their implications for China’s energy sector and emissions, plus examines the challenges the country faces in tackling climate change.

What is in China’s new climate pledges?

The headline targets in China’s updated NDC are pledges to reach a peak in CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieve “carbon neutrality” before 2060.

The document – which is titled, “China’s achievements, new goals and new measures for nationally determined contributions” – was published on 28 October 2021, just days before COP26.

In terms of quantitative targets for 2030, it pledges to cut CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by more than 65% from 2005 levels, increase the share of non-fossil energy to around 25% and raise forest stock volumes by 6bn cubic metres from 2005 levels, as well as bringing the installed capacity of wind and solar to more than 1,200 gigawatts (GW).

The first three quantitative targets are enhancements to goals that were included in China’s first NDC, submitted in 2016 at the same time as it ratified the Paris Agreement. The fourth target for renewable capacity is a new addition.

In addition to the strengthened quantitative goals, China has now pledged to peak emissions “before 2030”, whereas its first NDC had aimed to do this “around 2030” and to “mak[e] best efforts to peak early”. Furthermore, China has officially added its goal of “achieve[ing] carbon neutrality before 2060” into the latest document.

The following table, compiled by Carbon Brief, shows that all of the numerical targets set in China’s first NDC have been enhanced in the revised submission.

The table also shows China’s progress to date, based on public information disclosed by the Chinese government and Carbon Brief’s interview with Prof Zou Ji – chief executive and president of the NGO Energy Foundation China – in March 2021.

IndicatorsTargets for 2030Progress in 2020
First NDC (2016)Revised NDC (2021)
Peaking CO2 emissions“Around 2030”
(and “making best efforts to peak early”)
“Before 2030”
(and “achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”)
Around 80% of China’s emissions “having peaked” or “expected to peak before 2025”
CO2 intensity reduction (compared to 2005)60-65%>65%48.4%
Non-fossil share in primary energy mixAround 20%Around 25%15.9%
Forest stock volume increase (compared to 2005)Around 4.5bn cubic metres6bn cubic metres5.1bn cubic metres
Installed capacity of wind and solar power> 1,200GW534GW
Main targets for 2030 in China’s First NDC (2016) and its revised version (2021), as well as the progress to date as of the end of 2020. Source: Submissions to the UN and Carbon Brief analysis of public data disclosed by the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE, 2021), National Forestry and Grassland Administration (NFGA, 2021), and the National Energy Administration (NEA, 2021).

Notably, the target for wind and solar means that China has committed to more than doubling its installed capacity – already the world’s largest – during the 2020s.

(Hu Min, executive director of the Innovative Green Development Program, [iGDP], a Beijing-based thinktank, tells Carbon Brief the renewable goal is likely to be “massively overachieved”. The International Energy Agency [IEA] says it will be met four years early.)

Along with its updated NDC, China published its “mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategy” (LTS) on 28 October. Countries were invited to submit such strategies by 2020, as part of the COP21 decision in 2015 that adopted the Paris Agreement.

The LTS sets out what China describes as “strategic visions” for 2060 and covers a wide range of social, economic and governance areas. It also includes emerging policy priorities, such as nature-based solutions and blue carbon.

However, there is only one quantitative goal for 2060 in the LTS, targeting an 80% share of energy from non-fossil fuels – an increase from 25% by 2030, as set in the revised NDC.

Apart from that, it presents several quantitative targets for 2025 and 2030 in key areas such as buildings, transport and forestry, which are not detailed in the revised NDC.

Among other goals, the LTS stipulates that, by 2025, all new buildings in cities and towns would implement China’s “green building” standards and half of the rooftops of new public buildings and factories should “strive to” be covered with solar panels.

It also specifies that “about 40%” of new vehicles sold in 2030 would be powered by “new energy” or clean energy – effectively meaning electric, hybrid and hydrogen vehicles.

‘New energy’: China has not given an official definition of "new energy" so far. But, according to a book published by Tsinghua University, the term refers to the renewable energy developed and utilised using… Read More

All of these near-term targets have been enhanced compared to the previous objectives set in domestic policies. For example, the target for new and clean energy-fuelled vehicles would mean doubling the rate of market uptake over five years, from the 20% target set for 2025 just a year ago.

The language on peaking oil consumption is also worth noting. The strategy states that oil consumption “shall reach a peak plateau“ during the 15th five-year plan period, from 2026 to 2030. Within that total, it says that land transport, which accounts for around three-fifths of China’s oil use overall, will “strive to peak” by 2030.

At the same time, the LTS provides no clear indication about the financial support China intends to give for the realisation of its climate goals.

Guo Hongyu, deputy program director of Beijing-based Greenovation Hub – ​​a local environmental “think-do organisation” – tells Carbon Brief that the LTS lacks a clear timetable for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, for example. Nor does it specify how China plans to finance its short- and long-term transition, Guo adds.

‘Dual-high’ projects: “Dual-high” projects is a term used by Chinese authorities to refer to projects with “high” energy consumption and “high” emissions. The two “highs” used to stand for “high” energy consumption and “high”… Read More

According to the Green Finance Committee of China Society for Finance and Banking – a Beijing-based organisation aiming at promoting green finance – a cumulative 487tn yuan (around US$76tn) of investment is required for carrying out green and low-carbon projects in China over the next three decades.

In addition, the country will need “transition finance” to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors, such as the “dual high” industries, agriculture, shipping and aviation. 

Aerial picture of Huaneng Power Plant in the city of Huai’an in Jiangsu province in eastern China
Aerial picture of Huaneng Power Plant in the city of Huai’an in Jiangsu province in eastern China. Credit: Oriental Image

Do China’s new climate pledges raise its ambition?

China’s new climate pledges represent an increase in ambition compared with the targets it submitted under the Paris Agreement in 2016.

Climate Action Tracker (CAT), an independent scientific analysis of climate pledges, finds China’s revised NDC targets are “slightly more ambitious” than its original version.

(It still rates both as “highly insufficient’” for falling outside of China’s “fair share” range and for being inconsistent with the 1.5C and 2C climate targets.)

‘Dual carbon’ goals: “Dual carbon” goals refer to China’s two climate goals announced by president Xi Jinping at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020. President Xi announced that China… Read More

However, the goals of “peaking CO2 emissions before 2030” and “achieving carbon neutrality before 2060” were first announced by Xi in a virtual address to the UN General Assembly in September 2020.

(These targets are often referred to as the “30-60 goals” or “dual-carbon goals” in Chinese.)

The new documents repeat other targets and use the same phrasing as the “further commitments for 2030” that Xi announced on 12 December 2020 at the UN Climate Ambition Summit.

Similarly, the NDC repeats the pledges made in a speech in April 2021, where Xi said

“China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, and strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025) and phase it down in the 15th Five-Year Plan period (2026-2030).”

(Neither Xi nor the new NDC explained when the nation’s coal consumption would peak, but many observers and media outlets believe it means peaking would be 2025.)

As such, none of the “updated NDC goals” are new to the public – even though they include fresh commitments in the context of the international climate regime. 

China had been facing increasing pressure to set more ambitious domestic climate goals, going beyond those announced over the previous year.

In September 2021, Xi used his speech to the 2021 UN General Assembly to pledge that China “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad”. 

Yet John Kerry – US president Joe Biden’s climate envoy who has visited China twice this year for climate diplomacy – had been calling on China to phase out its domestic use of coal and bring forward its timeline of peaking emissions. Similarly, UK prime minister Boris Johnson had urged China to “go further and phase out the domestic use of coal as well”.

While falling short of these requests, China’s submissions to the UN formalise its commitments and contain important signals on its policy intentions.

For example, the revised NDC specifies that non-fossil fuels “will dominate the future increment of energy consumption”.

This is the first time that China has made such a clear statement on the definitive role of non-fossil fuels in its future energy mix. Similar statements in the past had only used a more generic term of “clean energy”, which in some official Chinese communications includes natural gas. (See: What do China’s pledges mean for its energy sector?)

Similarly, the long-term strategy says:

“China will strictly control the consumption of fossil energy [and] vigorously accelerate the development of non-fossil energy.”

The ambition of China’s pledges also needs to be interpreted in light of its “1+N” framework –  a set of policy directives being drawn up to ensure it meets its “dual-carbon” goals.

‘1+N’ policy system: “1+N” is a systematic set of directives being formulated by China to help it peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. According to China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua,… Read More

Xi said in a written statement for COP26’s world leaders summit that the “1” and the top “N” – together with upcoming “N”s, including “specific implementation plans for key areas” and supporting measures on science and technology, carbon sinks, fiscal and taxation and financial incentives – “will form a ‘1+N’ policy framework for delivering carbon peak and carbon neutrality, with clearly-defined timetable, roadmap and blueprint”.

The overarching document of the framework – the “1” in “1+N” – was issued jointly by the ruling Communist Party and central government on 24 October, just days before the revised NDC.

This document is titled: “Work guidance for carbon dioxide peaking and carbon neutrality in a full and faithful implementation of the new development philosophy”.

New development philosophy: The “new development philosophy” is a comprehensive theoretical system first raised by China’s president Xi Jinping in 2015 to guide the country’s overall development. According to an explanatory article written by Xi… Read More

(Interestingly, the document had been finalised and circulated to provincial governments on 22 September 2021 – exactly a year after Xi had announced China’s “dual-carbon goals” at the UN – several weeks earlier than its public release.)

The second “1+N” document was published by China’s central government soon after, on 26 October 2021, titled: “Action plan for carbon dioxide peaking before 2030.” It is considered a key element of the “N”.

Hu says that many policies in the “1+N” documents are “much stricter and more detailed” than in the revised NDC. (She also produced a line-by-line analysis.)

For example, the “work guidance” requires the “accelerat[ion] [of] upgrades and power flexibility retrofitting for existing coal power generators” and the “action plan” outlines “strict[ly] control[s] [on] the scale of supplementary coal power” in trans-regional transmission projects, setting a new 50% cap for electricity generated from non-renewable sources. Neither is included in the NDC or LTS.

As well as formalising its increased ambition, China’s revised NDC also changes its justification for committing to national climate targets, putting a greater emphasis on its own initiative rather than its international responsibility.

Daniel Gardner, emeritus professor of Chinese history and environment at Smith College in the US, tells Carbon Brief that China’s relations with the US and the West have made it “increasingly resistant to international pleas and pressure to enhance its climate goals”. 

In its first NDC, China had referred to “national conditions, development stage, sustainable development strategy and international responsibility”, but this language no longer appears. Instead, the introduction of the revised NDC highlights a quotation from Xi:

“To address climate change is not at others’ request, but on China’s own initiative.”

Indeed, both NDC and LTS refer to “Xi Jinping’s Thoughts”, especially his “new development philosophy”, as “China’s philosophy and goals” or “guiding principles” on addressing climate change. (Read Carbon Brief’s analysis on the nine key moments that changed China’s mind about climate change.)

Finally, compared to the INDC it submitted in 2015, the two new documents are much more lengthy. For example, the revised NDC is 78-pages long in its original Chinese and 62-pages in English – respectively, three or five times the length of the first NDC.

There is also a significant change in the structure and level of detail in the documents. For example, the revised NDC adds a new chapter on “China’s philosophy and goals” and expands a one-page subsection on “promoting international cooperation on climate change” into an independent chapter. It also spends one-third of the total length elaborating the “positive results” that China has achieved in implementing the first NDC since 2020.

What do China’s new pledges mean for its emissions?

China’s climate pledges have long been expressed in relative terms, with targets to reduce the CO2 intensity of its economy – meaning the CO2 emissions per unit of GDP. 

In addition, the country has not been clear on the scope, namely whether the CO2 targets correspond to energy-related activities or to all CO2 emissions.

This has made it difficult to gauge the crucial question of how large its emissions will be and whether they fit within the global carbon budgets for staying below 1.5C or 2C.

(By 2020, China had cut its CO2 intensity to 48.4% below 2005 levels, exceeding the “40-45%” pledge it made under the Copenhagen Accord, agreed at the 2009 UN climate summit.)

China has now formally committed to peaking its CO2 emissions before 2030. But, as it stands, there is still “little clarity” concerning what level its emissions will peak at, which specific year will see the peak and how fast emissions will start to fall thereafter, according to Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research and Clean Air.

A loader loads coal for transport at an open-pit coal mine in Yijinhuoluo Banner, Inner Mongolia
Trucks transporting coal at an open-pit coal mine in Ejin Horo Banner of Ordos city, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in northern China. Credit: Oriental Image.

(On 19 November 2021, an implementation plan on emissions goals for nationwide public institutions, jointly issued by four ministry-level departments, spelled out an explicit – and unprecedented – earlier peak year of “before 2025” for “pioneers”.)

Further, none of the recently released documents gives an exact number of the “absolute cap” for CO2 emissions, an initiative that was first brought up in the “14th five-year plan outline”. (See Carbon Brief’s in-depth Q&A on China’s 14th five-year plan.)

Instead, the revised NDC slightly shifts the emphasis, from setting a new cap system that is “based primarily on carbon intensity control, with the absolute carbon cap as a supplement”, to a more specific focus on “coordinating and establishing the system of controlling total CO2 emissions”. It also does not include a quantitative target for non-CO2 greenhouse gases emissions.

This evolution is part of a wider shift within Chinese policymaking from controlling energy use towards targeting emissions. At COP26, Prof Wang Yi, vice president of the Institutes of Science and Development at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and senior government adviser on climate change, told Carbon Brief that, “from an academic point of view”, China shall gradually change from total energy control to total carbon control, as the former can be “misleading”.

(For more detail, see Carbon Brief’s in-depth joint interview with Prof Wang Yi and Prof Wang Zhongying, another senior Chinese government climate adviser.)

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), an environmental research NGO based in Beijing, thinks “it is time” for China to consider publishing an absolute cap to guide the development direction of the country. He tells Carbon Brief:

“Although we already have a cap on carbon intensity – and it is true that such targets are often overachieved – as long as the economy is still growing, the absolute emissions will continue to grow, too. The cap can provide certainty – a predictable target for localities and industries – in the transition.”

(The direction is now officially confirmed in the ruling Communist Party’s annual Central Economic Work Conference held in December 2021, which calls for an “early shift” from control of energy consumption to carbon emissions.)

According to Prof Wang, although there is no technical problem in calculating the total carbon emissions at the national level, it can be challenging to implement such a new control mechanism at the provincial and prefecture level due to the lack of solid statistics and a sound emissions accounting system.

Despite not setting an explicit limit for greenhouse gas emissions, China’s climate goals do provide some constraints on its CO2 output, shown in the chart below.

The yellow wedge shows how its emissions might have developed under the CO2 intensity target in its first NDC – a reduction of 60-65% on 2005 levels – and GDP growth assumptions from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The blue line represents the impact of the intensity target in the updated NDC – a 65% reduction – and the red line indicates the effect of its additional goals, such as those on non-fossil energy’s share of the total and on the installed capacity of wind and solar.

(The pink wedge shows the path to net-zero by 2060, which may need to arrive by around 2050 for CO2 only as the target applies to all greenhouse gases.)

Chinas CO2 intensity target could see emissions increase
China’s CO2 intensity target could see emissions increase, but other targets in the NDC, in combination, imply faster progress in emissions reduction. Source: Carbon Brief analysis and public data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2021), WRI (2017), Tsinghua ICCSD (2020) and OECD (2021). Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

Specifically, the combined impact of the targets in China’s revised NDC is equivalent to a 68.3% cut in the country’s CO2 intensity by 2030, according to an October 2020 study by Tsinghua University Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD) and 18 other Chinese research institutes.

(This study was published a year before the updated NDC, but included an “enhanced NDC scenario” that aligns with the new pledges.)

The combined effect could be larger still, equivalent to a 70-75% reduction in CO2 intensity, according to other environmental thinktanks, such as Energy Foundation China (EFC) and the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Similar to the impact on China’s CO2 intensity, many other studies, from the International Energy Agency (IEA) to EFC, project that the country’s emissions will peak before the pledge deadline of 2030 – and it could even be before 2025

As such, the various studies suggest that China has the potential to overachieve against its climate commitments. This reflects an important difference between China and some other countries, when it comes to making international pledges.

Several China experts tell Carbon Brief that, for the Chinese government, implementation is as important as raising ambition. Hu, for example, argues that Chinese pledges are “not an empty check” because they are backed by domestic policy. She tells Carbon Brief:

“Unlike other countries, after making an international pledge, China doesn’t need to renegotiate them with domestic legislators or reengage in new rounds of political gaming, which, in the cases of many western countries, could lead to compromised results.”

“China talks less but does more”, agrees Ma. According to him, the release of the “1+N” policies is a “critical step” to make China’s long-term efforts on tracking climate change “more sustainable”, without “taking two steps forward, one step back”.

This was also one of the key messages from China at COP26. In his written statement to the Glasgow “leaders summit”, Xi called for a focus on “solid action” and “realistic goals and visions”. He added: “Visions will come true only when we act on them.”

What do China’s pledges mean for its energy sector?

In addition to constraining China’s greenhouse gas emissions, the country’s climate pledges also have significant implications for its energy sector, in the near and longer terms.

For example, meeting the new targets would mean coal’s share of the energy mix dropping significantly from 57% in 2020 to 51% in 2025 and 45% in 2030, according to the above study from Tsinghua ICCSD.

That means, during the 15th five-year plan period (2026-2030), the share of coal, for the first time, could drop to below 50%, ending its role as the “dominant energy source” in China. 

Tsinghua ICCSD’s projection is illustrated in the following chart, with the targeted share of non-fossil energy by 2025 (20%) and 2030 (25%) shown in yellow and the remainder for fossil fuels broken down into coal (grey), oil (blue) and gas (purple), respectively. 

Chinas updated NDC target aims for increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2025
China’s updated NDC target aims for increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2025 and 25% by 2030. Source: Tsinghua ICCSD (2020). Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

The Tsinghua ICCSD projections for coal are less aggressive than some others made, for example, by Dr Yang Fuqiang, a distinguished researcher of the Institute of Clean Energy at Peking University, who led the “China coal cap project” for NGO the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC). 

In March 2021, Yang told Carbon Brief that coal in the mix is “likely to drop to 48%” by 2025 – some three percentage points below the ICCSD figure – despite the 14th five-year plan not specifying an explicit “coal cap”.

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Against the long-term vision in the LTS of “accelerating the replacement of fossil fuels with non-fossil fuels”, ICCSD’s projection suggests the share of gas in the energy mix would steadily increase from 8.5% in 2020 to 11% by 2025, and further rise to 13% by 2030.

According to the LTS, China will “actively expand” and “accelerate” the application of natural gas in the hard-to-abate industries, such as steel, cement, aviation and shipping, as well as in transportation. It includes natural gas within the definition of “new and clean energy” – a category in which it also includes electricity, hydrogen and advanced liquid biofuels.

Although it does not signal an end to fossil fuel use, the NDC and LTS targets still put the spotlight on China’s rapidly growing oil and gas use, in addition to coal.

The significance of coal in China’s energy mix means that the oil and gas industry has had limited exposure in the climate debate, says Hu. But now that “coal exit is almost certain”, the oil and gas industry is resisting being pushed into the “frontline”, she says.

Indeed, China’s new pledges clearly signal a shift away from fossil fuels, towards an energy system dominated by non-fossil energy, including nuclear and renewables, as shown in the chart below.

The dark blue bars indicate the historical share of non-fossil fuels in China’s energy mix and the targets of the NDC and LTS are shown in red, rising to 80% in 2060. The interim projections, in light blue, are from the “net-zero China 2060 scenario” of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy (Tsinghua 3E).

Past targeted and projected share of non-fossil fuels in Chinas energy mix 2005-2060
Past (dark blue), targeted (red) and projected (light blue) share of non-fossil fuels in China’s energy mix 2005-2060 (%). Sources: Historical shares from Carbon Brief analysis of data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2021); projections between 2035 and 2055 (light blue) extracted from the “China Net-Zero 2060 Scenario” published by Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy (Tsinghua 3E); targets for 2025, 2030 and 2050 from the updated NDC and the LTS. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

It is worth noting that the projections come from a separate study and research institute of Tsinghua University – Tsinghua 3E  – rather than Tsinghua ICCSD, referred to above. The Tsinghua 3E study, which was also published a year before the submission of the updated NDC, projects that the share of non-fossil fuels in the energy mix is likely to triple over the course of 20 years and eventually increase to 81% by 2060.

In particular, the new pledges could see renewable energy accounting for almost half of China’s total primary energy consumption by 2045, the study says, growing to 68% by 2060. Nuclear, at the same time, would grow from today’s 2% to 13% by 2060. 

During COP26, a new study published by the Energy Research Institute (ERI) of the Chinese Academy of Macroeconomic Research – a research institution affiliated to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – projected an even larger share of non-fossil sources in the energy mix. It sees them reaching 91% in 2060, in its modelled “baseline scenario” – and 97% in a “carbon-neutral scenario”.

(In this study, the “baseline scenario” corresponds to a 2C-aligned net-zero China around 2070, while the “carbon-neutral scenario” corresponds to the pathways for achieving both “dual-carbon” goals.)

The same study also projects China to overachieve the 1,200GW wind and solar target for 2030 – by more than a third, some 387-450GW – and to achieve a cumulative 5,570-7,145GW of installed capacity of wind and solar by 2060, in two different scenarios, respectively.

Prof Wang Zhongying, director-general of the ERI, told Carbon Brief in an interview at COP26 that China’s policy targets represent a “bottom line”, which the policymakers are “definitely certain” about meeting. He views this as a “cultural difference”, relative to other countries. 

Neither the updated NDC nor the LTS set quantitative targets for nuclear energy. However, the long-term vision for nuclear energy is more proactive than the short-term one, suggesting to “vigorously” develop advanced nuclear energy technologies in 2030-2060.

It is worth noting that under China’s LTS, fossil fuels would still account for around one-fifth of China’s primary energy consumption by 2060. In Tsinghua 3E’s scenario, coal, oil or gas use would be coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS) or offset by negative emissions.

What are the challenges for China to tackle climate change?

China’s updated NDC came against a complex backdrop for its efforts to tackle climate change, following recent power shortages and with its use of coal under the spotlight.

China’s response to short supply was to “go all out” to ramp up coal production, while in two recent addresses Xi reasserted the importance of coal and energy self-reliance for the country. This has left some international observers arguing that China could be backing away from its climate pledges.

Others have noted that the response to the power crisis was separate from – and potentially even complementary to – China’s longer-term goals on climate change. (See Carbon Brief’s interview with Prof Wang Yi and Prof Wang Zhongying.)

These tensions illustrate the scale of the short-term hurdles facing China in terms of meeting its 2030 climate goals. There are similarly stark challenges as it attempts to change its development path on the way to carbon neutrality by 2060.

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It 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.

Guo says there is no need to question the sincerity and seriousness of China’s pledges, as the leadership has made it clear that the country has to shift to a low-carbon economy for its own benefits. But the transition is, nevertheless, not an easy one.

At a press conference the day before China’s new NDC was published, Sun Zhen – deputy director-general of the department of climate change at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment – was asked when the country expected its coal consumption to peak. 

Sun 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”. 

Ma says the recent power rationing gives a vivid lesson on the multiple challenges that China is facing, alongside tracking climate change. Mishandling these could lead to social disruption and even “sacrificing the hard-earned progress on climate change”, he warns.

On September 27, 2021, Changsha, Hunan Changsha High-tech Zone has electricity rationing, and company employees move their computers home to work.
Employees moving their computers back home to work after the electricity of their office was cut off in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan in southern China, on 27 September, 2021. Credit: Oriental Image.

Illustrating these competing priorities, Dr Michael Davidson, assistant professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy of the University of California San Diego, says China’s short-term policy design and its longer-term direction are “by no means aligned”.

He points to two reasons for this. First, the surprise timing of Xi’s announcements in December 2020 came late in the drafting process of the 14th five-year plan, meaning his pledges were accompanied by few tangible shifts in near-term policy directions.

Second, there is an ongoing tension between different interests and priorities in Chinese society and policymaking. He tells Carbon Brief:

“Incumbent coal stakeholders are still very powerful…The key task for Beijing will be to avoid a rush into carbon-intensive development before medium-term pledges kick in, which would significantly complicate a smooth low-carbon transition.”

Guo tells Carbon Brief that while there is little question about the long-term goal, there are many inconsistent views on the technical approaches, roadmaps and the depth of the transition over the next 5-10 years from different stakeholders, including governments at all levels – from the central leadership in Beijing downwards. She adds:

“It is extremely difficult to balance the interests of all groups but China wants to accomplish the transition in an orderly and steady manner. This might have resulted in the mixed text of near-term policies, but it will definitely change when the society is entirely brought up to speed.”

Thom Woodroofe, a former climate diplomat and fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute non-profit, says that the domestic coal exit is the “biggest bridge” for China to cross on the way to its climate goals.

He believes crossing this bridge will require a “shift in mindset” in Beijing and among the country’s “industrial players” – and that getting on track for carbon neutrality by 2060 would mean starting to move away from coal “immediately rather than later this decade”.

Prof Zou Ji, chief executive and president of the NGO Energy Foundation China, says that even though it would be impossible to eliminate China’s young coal power fleet overnight, that does not mean the country cannot reduce its coal consumption.

According to him, phasing out “bulk” coal consumption alone can cut one-sixth of China’s total coal consumption. He adds that reducing coal consumed as industry feedstock by a quarter over the 14th five-year plan period of 2021-2025 is also achievable.

(In China, so-called “bulk coal” is widely consumed across the nation for cooking and heating, in areas where network gas or electric power is not available. It is also considered as one of the major contributors to air pollution in China.)

Although not mentioned in the revised NDC and LTS, the domestic “1+N” includes a series of policies that aim to “gradually reduce and eventually prohibit” the burning of bulk coal and to strictly control incremental capacity of the coal-to-chemicals and coal-to-gas industries. 

In addition, the “1+N” documents talk about accelerating the transition of coal power from the basic provision of electricity generation towards a source of energy security and system regulation that can complement variable output from renewables.

Hu from iGDP says this signals a fundamental shift in policymakers’ thinking on the role of coal, which is no longer being treated as a dominant energy source.

Separately, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and National Energy Agency (NEA) has issued a joint notice on transforming and upgrading coal power units, aiming to further improve efficiency and reduce coal consumption. 

In spite of a consistent policy preference for “clean coal”, Hu thinks the specific domestic policies on coal can put China on track to peak use of the fuel “around 2025”, even if no explicit statement is made on coal phase-out.

Similarly, recent research from Peking University also projects that coal consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of the power sector would peak “by 2025”.

The need to peak and then phase down coal use also highlights the urgency for the country’s renewable sector to grow, and to grow fast.

Aerial view of thermal power plant, Shanghai
Aerial view of thermal power plant. Credit: Yibo Wang / Alamy Stock Photo.

Dr Yang Muyi, senior electricity policy analyst of Asia at Ember – an independent climate and energy thinktank – tells Carbon Brief that, in his view, the “biggest challenge” in China’s climate change endeavour is how to ramp up the uptake of clean energies, especially to the extent “considered essential for meeting the incremental energy demand and replacing coal and other fossil fuels in meeting the existing energy demand”.

(The CCCPC’s annual Central Economic Work Conference held in December 2021 set the tone for the above issue, specifying that the “phasing out of traditional [conventional] energy” should be based on “safe, reliable new-energy alternatives”.)

This entails a shift in energy mix, as well as necessary system-wide changes in its structure and regulation to support the uptake of clean energies, according to Dr Yang.

David Fishman, manager of the Lantau Group, an energy-focused strategy and economic consulting group, tells Carbon Brief that, in the coming years, China must find a way to build low-carbon power at a scale that can meet new consumption demand and simultaneously replace existing high-carbon generation. He adds:

“The construction scale that is required to do this has never been seen in China before and they’re going to have to build that scale of [low-carbon power] generation every year for the next 40 years.”

Wu Changhua, China and Asia director of the Office of Jeremy Rifkin, points to the challenging “winners and losers dynamics” between the fossil fuel and clean energy industries, when fossil fuel industries are “forced to retreat and give away the space to non-fossil fuels”. She describes this as the “short-term pain of a fundamental transition”.

This also has international aspects, according to Wu, around the geopolitics of competition for new clean energy supply chains. She explains to Carbon Brief:

“[One challenge is] an increasingly complex and challenging geopolitical landscape that is not in favour of China playing its due role in being a strong player in the global decarbonisation process – this is related to industrial value chains, finance and trade among others.”

Finally, diplomatic tensions between China and the US may also bring headwinds to the climate action not just for China but the world.

Dr Liao Xuanli, senior lecturer on international relations and energy security studies at the Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy (CEPMLP) of the University of Dundee in Scotland says that, as the world’s two largest CO2 emitters, China and the US “have every reason to work together” to address climate change.

But she adds that the “bilateral confrontation” between the two major nations “has made things less likely for them to cooperate”. 

“Politicisation of carbon reduction wouldn’t help resolve any disputes”, Dr Liao points out, adding that the move “could only deepen the distrust of the two parties and also undermine the global efforts to tackle climate change”.

How have China’s new pledges been received?

Reaction to the new pledges has differed strongly in the Chinese and international media, with the former lauding Beijing’s determination to tackle climate change and the latter implying that the Chinese government could have aimed higher.

Some China experts interviewed by Carbon Brief say calls for more ambitious targets that maximise – or even exceed – the country’s capacity to deliver reflect limited understanding of China’s political system, its policymaking process and its approaches to climate action.

For example, any new climate pledges over recent years have “come from Xi’s mouth first”, says Hu. It was also unrealistic to expect China to raise the ambition of its international pledges, Hu adds, when it had only just come up with domestic guidelines and work plans designed for meeting the goals set by Xi in December 2020.

Others argue that those announcements “helped create momentum”. Guo from Greenovation Hub agrees and says they helped to rebuild confidence in global climate action in a difficult period, during which many countries were struggling with economic recession and social unrest amplified by the pandemic.

In China, state news agency Xinhua reported that the submission of the NDC and LTS “is China’s concrete action in implementing the Paris Agreement and reflects the country’s determination and efforts in promoting green, low-carbon development and addressing global climate change”. Xinhua cited the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the pledges – along with other recent government documents – “demonstrate China’s sense of responsibility and represent its latest contributions to global efforts in addressing climate change”, reported Shanghai-based the Paper. The news site – affiliated with state-run Shanghai United Media Group – quoted Wang Wenbin, a spokesman of the foreign ministry. 

Wang told a press briefing that “we also call on the international community, especially developed countries with historical responsibilities for past greenhouse gas emissions, to work together under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and contribute their due share to advancing global climate governance”, the Paper wrote. (Read Wang’s remarks in full here.)

At another briefing, Wang reasserted China’s determination to fulfil its climate commitments, after being asked to comment on criticism that China’s NDC was “not ambitious enough”, the Paper said.

Wang was quoted stating that “China has always been a country of action in climate governance, actively shouldering the international responsibilities corresponding to the country’s situation while continuing to add pressure onto itself to raise the level of action in responding to climate change”. 

Global Times – a tabloid run by People’s Daily – hit back at criticism of China’s climate agenda:

“The West and the US have questioned China’s sincerity and target on climate change, which is irrational. Developed countries had emitted for more than 150 years while developing countries only emitted in the past 30 years.”

In comparison, international media outlets largely viewed China’s updated NDC as a letdown. 

The New York Times noted that the pledges “reiterate” what Xi had promised a year earlier: “China formalised the pledges its leader announced last year, but the country went no further.”

The newspaper also quoted Li Shuo – senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia – who said that China had “missed an opportunity to demonstrate ambition”.

Associated Press reported that “China is offering no significant new goals”, while CNN said that “the submission is a disappointment to leaders who have been pressuring the country to make a significant jump in its pledges and to speed up its plans to decarbonise its economy”.

According to the Guardian, China’s “long-awaited” NDC “represents little progress on the previously announced ambitions…disappointing observers”. It said that “the reaction among analysts was that the new climate plan is disappointingly short of fresh details” because its main targets had already been announced by Xi last year. But the article also pointed out that “others said it was significant that China had put those verbal commitments in writing”.

Bernice Lee, research director at Chatham House, a London-based thinktank focused on international affairs, described China’s new NDC as “disappointing” in an interview with New Scientist. She said China “has missed a chance to slow global leadership”, but added that the country’s promise to peak emissions before 2030 is a positive step.

Sharelines from this story
  • Q&A: What does China’s new Paris Agreement pledge mean for climate change?
  • Analysis: What do China’s new pledges mean for climate change?

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