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Prof Wang Yi and Prof Wang Zhongying
Prof Wang Zhongying (left) and Prof Wang Yi (right). Credit: Carbon Brief.
INTERVIEWS
10 December 2021 11:10

The Carbon Brief Interview: Prof Wang Yi and Prof Wang Zhongying

Hongqiao Liu

12.10.21

Hongqiao Liu

10.12.2021 | 11:10am
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Prof Wang Yi and Prof Wang Zhongying

At COP26 in Glasgow, Carbon Brief’s Hongqiao Liu was granted a rare – and lengthy – interview with two of the Chinese government’s senior advisors on climate change.

The conversation with Prof Wang Yi and Prof Wang Zhongying – which lasted for more than 80 minutes – covered a wide range of topics, including China’s energy transition, domestic coal policy, the recent power shortages, the “dual carbon” goals, and the importance of international cooperation on climate change.

The interview – transcribed and translated in full below, following a summary of key quotes – also touched on more personal matters, such as how they each discuss climate change with their family and the need to raise climate awareness in China.

Prof Wang Yi is the vice president of the Institutes of Science and Development in Beijing, a research organisation of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which is described on its website as “China’s highest advisory body in science and technology”. He is also vice-chair of the National Expert Panel on Climate Change of China, a consultancy body of the National Leaders Group on climate change, energy-saving and emissions reduction. He is a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) of China.

Prof Wang Zhongying is the director-general of the Energy Research Institute (ERI) in Beijing, one of the component research institutes of the Chinese Academy of Macroeconomic Research (CAMR) of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s state planner on social and economic reforms.

  • On China’s “new development philosophy”: “Any future strategies, as well as actions, that are not in line with such new development philosophies – even a little – will have to be passed.”
  • On when the Chinese government makes a statement: “When [our] government says something, it is something that has to be achieved…If [our] government makes a statement, it will not make empty promises.”
  • On balancing policy goals: “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 moving away from coal: “Tomorrow China could get rid of all the coal [consumption], but what about heating, right? What about the workers? Besides, our coal power fleet has only been running for an average of a dozen years. If they are all shut down, who will pay for the stranded cost?…We need to have a good pathway for coal exit and that is why we say that we have to promote [such work] in an orderly manner.”
  • On China’s coal policy: “What we talk about now is exiting coal [consumption], not exiting the installed capacity [of coal power generation]…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 constructing new coal power plants: “In some places, it is possible that green electricity from wind and solar, for the moment, due to the grid [availability] or other reasons such as network load, cannot be delivered…It is possible that [such places] will develop a few new coal power plants sporadically. But, at the same time, the old and ancient installed capacity will also be retired.”
  • On coordinating the “dual carbon” goals: “For China, a developing economy, the most important thing is not to reach the peak immediately, but to move to a transition pathway that will lead to carbon neutrality in 40 years.”
  • On peaking emissions: “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.”
  • On exploring transition pathways: “To be honest, in regards to how to develop during the transition period, the detailed roadmap is not entirely clear. We are constantly exploring many things…”
  • On defining the “peak” of emissions: “During this transition period, [the emissions curve] can be volatile, especially in light of the pandemic, the massive structural adjustment, as well as de-globalisation…The fluctuation [corresponds to] a plateau period and it is normal to have fluctuations within the plateau.”
  • On the importance of setting an absolute cap on CO2 emissions: “Of course, we have to carry out total control on CO2 emissions. [This is because] controlling energy [consumption] doesn’t make sense…Our [energy consumption] will continue to increase. Under such circumstances, it is misleading to control total energy consumption. Besides, [we] should [not only] control the total carbon emissions, [but also the proportion of] total fossil fuels.”
  • On understanding China’s transition: “China’s transition is not something that happens overnight; it is a continuous transition, a transition with constant structural adjustment…This is completely different from the West [which is] a mature economy. [The economy in] China has never been mature.”
  • On the meaning of “carbon neutrality” in China: “It is not [just] an indicator of total [carbon emissions]…It includes total targets and intensity targets [on energy and emissions], as well as targets for the [energy and economic] structure and [development] quality – these need to be achieved simultaneously. It [corresponds] to a system of targets.”
  • On carbon pricing: “Carbon [emissions] itself doesn’t have a price at the moment. In order to bring it [the emissions] down, one must give it a reasonable price. This way, there will be a source of money to form a cash flow…How are you going to form [prices]? Are you going to rely on the market, or are you going to use administrative means?”
  • On the impacts of the recent power shortage on China’s long-term climate actions: “I don’t think [the events] 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 strategic planning: “When it comes to strategy, we do not necessarily [choose] the best decision, but [choose to] not have the worst-case scenario.”
  • On energy security in the context of dual-carbon goals: “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…None of [them] can be left out.”
  • On fossil-fuel combustion and air pollution: “Do you think we want to have coal-fired power plants and boilers burning [coal] with chimneys emitting [pollutants]? No one wants that.”
  • On climate legislation in China: “It’s not that China doesn’t have legislation [on climate change]. Rather, [climate change] is too comprehensive and involves all kinds of laws…China has adopted [the Paris Agreement] by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. It’s equivalent to turning a piece of [international] legislation into domestic law…Can you say that China doesn’t have legislation?”
  • On short- and long-term outlook: “[The transition] is a very difficult process from now to 2035…However, if we can achieve visions set for 2035…then achieving carbon neutrality after 2035 will be…a steady process.”
  • On China’s approach to climate actions: “Since 2010…we’ve changed our governing philosophy…from GDP-oriented…to a path of green development that prioritises ecology…On top of that, China has, in fact, made a systematic design for carbon neutrality.”
  • On solution-seeking: “As the largest developing economy with such large emissions, there are no precedent cases [of a successful transition for a country like China]. China has to try with its own hands, learning by doing.”
  • On international cooperation: “We need more international cooperation. There is no way to achieve [transition] without cooperation…[China and the US] joining forces, carrying out real cooperations, and taking actions together…is a crucial hope for the world.”
  • On raising awareness on climate change: “Awareness-raising is very important. However, China still has a long way to go…We need to work harder…Furthermore, this awareness shall not be limited to a certain country or state, but to be raised to the global level.”
  • On China’s development path: “We hope our development will be more environment-friendly and more climate-friendly…We will certainly not be like the Western countries…I believe we will do better.”

Carbon Brief: Could you first share how you started working on climate change?

Wang Yi: I used to study China’s national situation [国情研究, a discipline focusing on analysing the national context and development strategies of contemporary China] and did a lot of [relevant] research. The earliest time [my work involved climate change] was in the early 1990s when we did a ranking of China’s environmental problems, including water and air pollution. At that time, [we] ranked climate change seventh. The experts from the World Bank asked us why we had put such an important global issue so far down the list. I told them that it was related to China’s own needs.

That’s when I started to focus on climate change. I started to study it [more intensively] in the late 1990s, focusing on alternative indicators and alternative scenarios, starting with energy intensity and carbon intensity analysis. I originally carried out strategy and policy research. As climate change became more and more important, it took up more and more of my research, and I started to be involved in the [UN climate] negotiations, including the support for the negotiations.”

Wang Zhongying: I am different from Wang [Yi]. The research I do is more specialised. I have been working on energy since the beginning, and have, in fact, been focusing on strategic research, too. I started by forecasting [energy] demand and carrying out analyses through modelling on both the supply and demand sides. Afterwards, [I] moved on to medium- and long-term development strategies and energy policy research. We (ERI) are a thinktank, not a policymaker. [We] advise the government.

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Carbon Brief: Since the early 1990s, has climate change become a significant research topic [in China]?

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Wang Yi: There is no doubt that it is becoming more and more important. The problems [we] face today are becoming more and more complex, such as extreme weather events, sea-level rise and so on. On the other hand, [research] is relatively difficult and [I], as an academic, [also] have an interest in pursuing difficult [topics]. 

The difficulty [of studying climate change] is that it is not a problem that can be solved [by a single discipline]. [It] can be approached from the aspects of energy, politics, diplomacy and so on, but one person can hardly cover all of the aspects. Besides, [it] involves the history, the present and the future with a relatively wide span and [it is] a comprehensive study covering different disciplines. The issue itself is also attractive for researching.

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Carbon Brief: What changes have occurred in the research?

Wang Zhongying: We used to say that “energy is the blood of the economy” – such a simple link. But as the climate is getting warmer and the situation is getting tougher, the [scope of] the energy issue has expanded. It is no longer [only] a question of meeting the needs of production and livelihood. Especially when a country’s economy has developed to a certain extent and at a certain level, the energy issue may be closely related to the ecology, the environment and green development, etc.

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Carbon Brief: In a recent interview with the Guardian, you [Wang Yi] mentioned “miscomprehension and misunderstanding”. Can you please elaborate on this?

Wang Yi: We did the interview in English. I discussed which words to deploy. But, in the end, different journalists and media outlets have different styles and they need to maintain the style to attract the audience, so I was not too [particular] about the wording…

It is true that there are many miscomprehensions and they come from several aspects. First, climate change is a rather comprehensive issue. Journalists like yourself who work in the field of energy and climate may be relatively familiar with it, but many other journalists who do not work in these fields are not necessarily familiar with the situation. 

For example, [some] don’t understand the definition of “carbon neutrality”. Does it refer to CO2 emissions from the energy activities, or also include industrial activities? Does it only include CO2 or also non-CO2 greenhouse gases emissions? Do we have a common understanding? [And then there is the challenge of] how to communicate such a complex scientific issue to the general public.

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

Second, it is rooted in China’s policy itself, an issue of the language [deployed in our policymaking].  A sentence in a Chinese [policy document], if you speak of it, it is very difficult for people from the outside to understand it in a literally translated manner. China has its own policy language: behind each sentence, there may be content of a paragraph or an article or even a report, and the content behind each sentence can be very rich. The Chinese language itself is very rich, too. 

So, to understand [Chinese policy], [one] needs to interpret it. One may need to be involved in the work [of policymaking] to understand the origin and development of the matter – that is how the policy has evolved from the past, to the present and the future, and to know the logic of [behind] the evolution of the policy.

The third challenge comes from the pandemic. Because of the pandemic…people may have various views on issues, but without face-to-face communication, one may say a word and the others do not know what the real intention is. Everyone is meeting online. In the light of the pandemic, misunderstandings may increase.

Lastly, there is the mutual influence of the climate factors and non-climate factors. Factors including politics, economy and values can affect the understanding of scientific issues and normal policy issues.

That is why we say [that these] are misunderstandings, or “not fully understood”, or “incompletely explained”.

One-size-fits-all approach: The “one-size-fits-all approach” is the common English translation of “yi dao qie” (一刀切), a Chinese phrase which means judging differing situations with the same yardstick, often leading to a negative impact. The… Read More

Even in China, isn’t that also the case? Our [policy] document is titled “A full and faithful implementation of the new development philosophy”. [We want to] promote the work of carbon peaks and carbon neutrality on such a basis. This shows that there are indeed people who interpret [the ‘dual carbon’ policy] in different ways, which led to problems afterwards – what we call ‘one-size-fits-all’ and ‘campaign-style carbon reduction’. They are all related to this [different interpretations].

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Carbon Brief: The “one-size-fits-all” and “campaign-style carbon reductions” that you just mentioned are misunderstandings of the “dual carbon” goals within China. Do these misunderstandings occur in policy implementation? Why are there such misunderstandings?

Campaign-style carbon reduction: “Campaign-style carbon reduction” is a term first mentioned in a meeting by the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China – the party’s supreme decision-making body – in July 2021.… Read More

Wang Yi: Because sometimes a policy comes out with just one line or a few sentences. With no clear interpretation or official interpretation, or if the official interpretation is not detailed enough, then people can understand it from different angles.

For example, in the case of coal, how indeed should coal be developed? Should it be strictly controlled, or should it, as some people say, be “stably developed”? Of course, those who work in coal say that coal is good, and those who are working on renewable energy say that renewable energy is good, and those who work in nuclear power say that nuclear power is good. In fact, each technology has its own advantages and disadvantages. However, the choice of the future path remains controversial.

‘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

On the other hand, it is true that many technology pathways are not very clear, especially when it comes to the roadmap for the next 30-50 years. For example, we have different judgements on hydrogen energy, nor is there a [uniformed] judgement on the future direction of the steel industry. Shall it [the steel industry] go through a transition from long processes to short processes? Or, shall we completely abandon [those technologies] and adopt hydrogen directly? This remains controversial. There are different dimensions to the issue.

There are many issues related to interests, too. For instance, one comes from this industry and needs to make money through it. And this could [cause] some specific issues.

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Carbon Brief: What you mentioned are misunderstandings at home. What about those at the international level?

Ecological civilisation: “Ecological civilisation” is a social developmental goal enshrined in the Chinese constitution. The term refers to a form of civilisation in which human beings and nature "coexist harmoniously". The concept was first… Read More

Wang Yi: Internationally, it involves how to “translate to English”, which is a big problem. Let me give you another example: our Chinese documents say “peak carbon emissions before 2030”, but in the English translation, using “by” or “before” could make a big difference. Even many of our official documents are still using “by”. Another example is “ecological civilisation” (生态文明), which we generally translate as “ecological civilisation”. But, in the past, Xinhua translated it as “ecological progress”.

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Carbon Brief: But the interpretation of translations is held by decision-makers, right?

Wang Yi: Not really. It still comes to a technical question: how do we understand [the concepts]. Some new concepts, when they have just been introduced, the definition itself is not very clear.

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Carbon Brief: So, interpretation is very difficult…What are the difficulties in getting China’s policy fully and accurately understood by those who are not decision-makers?

Wang Yi: The most important thing is to tell the story in others’ languages and others’ way of thinking. Interpretation and communication are very important and China still has a long journey to go in this regard.

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Carbon Brief: Mr Wang Yi mentioned that the roadmap for the next 30-50 years is not very clear. Many institutions have developed different pathways, which come up with very different conclusions. Why do the results vary so much?

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 Congress… Read More

Wang Zhongying: I can only explain how we did [the projections] ourselves. The Central Committee [of the Communist Party of China] and the State Council have come up with very clear targets for 2030 and for 2035, such as in the 14th five-year plan outline and the vision for 2035. It has included specific descriptions of the industrial structure, economic structure, energy structure and so on. But these descriptions did not come out of nowhere; they are the result of preliminary work from numerous research institutions, such as the China Academy of Sciences, the China Academy of Social Sciences, and institutions like ourselves that are affiliated to ministries and even universities.

State Council: The State Council of China is the highest executive organ of state power and the highest organ of state administration. It is composed of a premier, vice-premiers, state councillors, ministers in charge… Read More

The basic path of how energy shall develop by 2030 and 2035 is clear, very clear. What I need to reflect in the model are targets for the future, including achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 and building a “Beautiful China”, a visionary social and economic target for 2050 that was put forward in the 19th National Congress of the CCCPC, which covers criteria such as ecological civilisation, environment and so on. It can be said that these are qualitative targets.

14th Five-Year Plan: The 14th five-year plan is short for the “Outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035”. It was drafted… Read More

In regards to the overall economic scale – [that is] what we often refer to as per-capita GDP – we also made comparisons with the international community, using the US dollar. We may have different understandings of what is meant to be a “great modern socialist country”, but there is a consensus amongst the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and ourselves, that with the value of US dollars in 2005, the per-capita GDP should be between US$40,000 and US$60,000 by the time in 2050.

Great modern socialist country: In October 2017, China’s president Xi Jinping raised the concept of a “great modern socialist country” for the first time in his report for the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist… Read More

Now, with the [estimation of the] economic scale and a cap on carbon emissions, we can deduct backwards. [Yet,] there is a very important basis for such reverse deduction and that is to build the foundation for the energy mix by 2030 or by 2035. President Xi has proposed to build a “new power system based on new energy sources”. As a matter of fact, my personal understanding is that, as early as 2030, as late as 2035, this “new power system” shall be established.

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Carbon Brief: What is the definition of this power system?

Wang Zhongying: The definition is very clear: new energy will be the main source, which means new energy must account for more than 51% [of primary energy consumption]. New energy refers to wind and solar energy. 

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Carbon Brief: Does it include natural gas?

Wang Zhongying: Natural gas…[“New energy”] is a rather vague concept and different people have different interpretations. As far as I know, we are now talking about “new energy” and the state has not given a clear definition. That said, wind and solar are definitely “new”. President Xi has made an international pledge to have more than 1.2bn kilowatts of wind and solar installed capacity by 2030.

‘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

Why do we have targets like [non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption] “around 20%” by 2025 and “around 25%” by 2030? According to other [policy] documents, we have to achieve carbon peaking before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060, which are binding [goals].

[Such binding goals] also include “prioritising ecology and green development” that we just mentioned and the “new development philosophy”, which we need to implement fully, accurately and comprehensively, as mentioned by Mr Wang Yi. Any future strategies, as well as actions, that are not in line with such new development philosophies – even a little – will have to be passed. 

From this perspective, I personally understand that we must achieve more than 20% for the target of “around 20%”; as for “around 25%”, the share of non-fossil fuels in our [energy mix] must reach more than 25%. 

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Carbon Brief: And similar to the target of around 80% by 2060? But I see your own research predicts 91% and 97% in 2060 [in the “baseline scenario” and “carbon neutrality scenario”, respectively]…

Wang Zhongying: My study has a premise. [We estimate that] by 2060, the electricity consumption of the whole society could reach 17.4 trillion [kilowatts hours], of which, 4 trillion  [kilowatts hours] of electricity should be used to make green hydrogen.

In the [policy] document[s] issued by our state, “80%” is equivalent to a bottom line. The bottom line, too, is calculated backwards, as a bottom line to work backwards [to define near-term targets]. As to us, we act as a thinktank, a third party research unit. There could be many different pathways to achieving carbon neutrality and we are proposing one [possible] pathway.

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Carbon Brief: This is my [Hongqiao Liu] own observation, when it comes to China’s ambitions, international media and analysis often refer to studies carried out by scientific research institutions to demonstrate that China has the capacity to do more than “20%”, “25%” or “80%”, which are targets given in China’s policy. Then, with this as a talking point, here comes the question: if China can achieve much higher, why doesn’t the policy raise the ambition to the same level? Is this what you would consider as a miscomprehension?

Wang Zhongying: This is because our political system is different. When [our] government says something, it is something that has to be achieved. We can’t just say things like “the power system should be net-zero by 2035”. If we can’t achieve it by then, it would be a problem (那叫什么事儿呢). 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. So, [in] this [context], how can you deduct [in reverse] like this? You can’t do it.

As I said in my presentation yesterday, you can only deduct [looking forwards]. I showed a few projects carried out by several large domestic solar power companies in different terrains – how they cover the top of deserted mountains with solar PVs; the smallest [installed capacity] is 80MW, and it can be as large as 200MW or more – and they can even be carried out in the hybrid forms with farming and aquaculture. We have the technology and the ability to do it. And we also have the vast Gobi [desert]…

[That’s what I mean. That we] can only deduct [looking forwards] that the 20%, 25%, 80% targets proposed by the government will definitely be achieved – and not to deduct [backwards] from the 80% target – that [since] we have done better in the 14th Five-Year Plan than the 13th Five-Year Plan, and as a result what you have proposed in the 15th Five-Year Plan [is not as ambitious as the 14th Five-Year Plan]…I think it’s a cultural difference.

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Carbon Brief: Some scholars studying contemporary China conclude that China tends to “under-promise”, but “over-deliver”. That is to say, when making policies, China is often more conservative [on the targets], but in actual implementation, China often overshoots [the targets]…

Wang Yi: This is a cultural issue. We Chinese have always been like that. 

Back to the question you just posed, whether China’s policy is sufficient or not. Actually, it is related to the assessment methods and assessment indicators.

Wang Zhongying: Exactly.

Wang Yi: One has to tell me what is sufficient or insufficient. And one has to tell me the criteria, right?

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Carbon Brief: So, how do you assess whether a policy is ambitious?

Wang Yi: Regardless of the targets, if one ought to [assess] whether our goal is sufficient, [one has to present] what criteria they use to assess the insufficiency and what indicators are chosen. Do you choose money [finance], policy or technology, or do you choose administration? It [China’s climate policy] corresponds to a multiplicity of indicators. Simply saying it is sufficient or not has no scientific basis.

We are mainly talking about evidence-based [policymaking]. And when it comes to implementation in China, we are actually talking about a comprehensive implementation programme. For example, is there a law in place? Whether it is implemented in a legal framework? Second, is there a relatively good plan [planning documents]? Third, is there a policy in place? Fourth, is there money? And, of course, do you have available technologies, adequate administration and supervision? That is to say, it [China’s policy] is a package. In such a circumstance, I doubt those who assess whether [our policy] is sufficient or not are capable of fully comprehending [the full picture]. 

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Carbon Brief: So, if I may recap what I just observed, [you are saying that] when China makes policy decisions, “20%”, “25%” and “80%” draws a bottom line and they will surely be implemented…

Wang Yi: Nor is it necessarily said to be a bottom line.

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Carbon Brief: How should it be understood then?

Wang Zhongying: Let me add to Wang Yi’s point. “20%”, “25%” and “80%”…We [the policymakers] have done tremendous primary work in the early stage [before setting these targets]. The targets that we publish, we are definitely certain that they can be achieved. This is a prerequisite. It is a cultural [difference] that we just talked about. This is my first point.

The second point is that when we come up with targets, they are all for the future. Some are 5-10 years in the near future and some are as far as 40 years. There are many uncertainties about what is going to happen 40 years from now. You cannot compare the situation of the 13th Five-Year Plan with that of the 12th Five-Year Plan, and then work backwards from “80%” for 40 years later and say that this target proposed for 40 years later is too low. One has to standardise and harmonise the boundaries of assessments. These happen in two time periods. And it is not scientific to use what has happened in the past to evaluate whether the target proposed for the future is too low.

Wang Yi: Of course, there is another matter here. In fact, when we evaluate the goals of different countries, they are actually different [assessments]. Why do I say this? For those in the West, your economy is in a relatively stable stage; [you are] a mature economy. China is a developing economy that has been constantly evolving. It is undergoing structural changes in every aspect.

[Different countries] also [have] different goals. The interpretation from the West reads as if it [China’s policy goals] is very simple. But being a big country, China needs to weigh up different goals. Using the SDGs [UN sustainable development goals] as an example: the 169 goals in seven areas are not all exactly in lockstep – some move faster and some move slower; and there is a balance between these 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.

For instance, coal exit…Tomorrow China could get rid of all the coal [consumption], but what about heating, right? What about the workers? Besides, our coal power fleet has only been running for an average of a dozen years. If they are all shut down, who will pay for the stranded cost? It [is] a real problem. We need to have a good pathway for coal exit and that is why we say that we have to promote [such work] in an orderly manner. 

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Carbon Brief: Just now you mentioned coal, I see your logic… 

Wang Yi: You understand it, but many westerners don’t…

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Carbon Brief: …now the average operational years of China’s coal power fleet is about 12-15 years…

Wang Zhongying: …only 12 years today.

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Carbon Brief: Following your logic, if China is determined on coal exit, it makes sense to stop building new coal power plants from today and, at the same time, to transform the existing fleet for grid flexibility and basic security, as said in the ‘1+N’…

Wang Zhongying: What you just described reflects a widespread misunderstanding. What we talk about now is to exit coal [consumption] not to exit the installed capacity [of coal power generation]. I don’t know if you get what I mean. You have to separate the installed capacity of coal power from [the actual] coal power generation. 

‘1+N’ policy framework: “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

The same power plant…think about it…at the time of the “reform and opening up”…especially in the early 2000s, in China…do you know how many hours a year a coal power plant has to run? It could be up to 6,000 [hours], and some individuals may be even as high as 7,000 hours. Do you know, on average, our coal power plants – although we have a big installed capacity on coal power generation, up to more than one billion kilowatts – operate today? Just under 4,300 hours, on average.

And the regional development is very uneven. In some places, it is possible that green electricity from wind and solar, for the moment, due to the grid [availability] or other reasons, such as network load, cannot be delivered. But if it [such places] happens to have coal [supply] and installed [coal-fired power generation] capacity, then it can build [some coal power plants]. It is possible that [such places] will develop a few new coal power plants sporadically. But, at the same time, the old and ancient installed capacity will also be retired.

President Xi now speaks of “strictly limit[ing] the growth of coal power [projects]” and the word has already been spoken. [In Xi Jinping’s speech in April 2021, he said “China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects”.] 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]. 

Think about this…by going from 7,000 hours to 4,000 hours, 3,000 hours [of the operating time of coal power plants] are [given over] to wind and solar. Then, if further lowering from 4,000 hours – like in Denmark and some advanced [countries] in Northern Europe, where [they] combine thermal power with thermal storage boilers, it [the coal power plants] can operate for less than 1,000 hours. If I [China] were to reduce the [operational hours of] over one billion kilowatts of coal power plants from 4,000 hours to 1,000 hours, instead of shutting them down, think about it, how much less coal I [China] could avoid using. And at the same time, I can accommodate more wind and solar.

Wang Yi: There are two layers of meanings here. China has been talking about “structural adjustment”. Now one just looks at the increase [of installed capacity], how come [you’re] not looking at the [fact] that so many coal power plants have been shut down? 

Wang Zhongying: Exactly.

Wang Yi: China has also shut down so many coal-fired power plants. China has shut down all the most inefficient ones. That’s the first [layer].

The second is that China is talking about…if you look at the wording in the [policy] document, [it says] “establishing [new rules] before breaking [old ones] (先立后破)”. When you haven’t established the new, how can you get rid of all the old?

Besides, the reason why China [can] make our renewable energy grow so fast without having established a ‘new energy system’ is that coal power plays a very important role 

Wang Zhongying: [It] plays a big supporting role.

Wang Yi: Without coal power regulating the peak, it is impossible to let renewables grow [so fast]. Before that [ a new energy system is established], we need a transition process.

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Carbon Brief: It seems to me that there is a major misunderstanding here – if there is a misunderstanding: that is what you [Wang Zhongying] mentioned, “installed capacity is not the same as operating hours, nor is it the same as the amount of coal consumed”…

Wang Zhongying: This is one [misunderstanding]. Another one is what Wang Yi just said, it [such an argument] only looks at the installed capacity of coal power, but ignores the fact that in the last 15 years, wind and solar have grown dramatically. Solar power has grown 3,000 times! Such rapid growth. If there really wasn’t coal power reducing [operation hours] from 5,000 to 4,000 hours – and, in some individual areas, it has actually dropped to 3,000 hours, and that’s what I mean imbalance development – [if] without the fundamental supporting role that coal power has been playing, it is impossible for wind and solar to [develop so fast].

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Carbon Brief: I would like to go back to a question that I mentioned just now, which is about the coordination or consistency of short-term actions and long-term goals. A lot of analysis and commentary today suggest that, if we add up the medium- and long-term targets of countries for 2050 and 2060, it seems that there is already much ambition on controlling temperature rises. Yet, it is the short- and medium-term actions that are most important. Because, as you said, there is a lot of uncertainty in the medium to long term. Now, many discussions about China are also focused on whether China’s actions in the short- and medium-term, or in the near term, are strong enough. What is your view on this?

Wang Yi: This is, again, related to…what target[s] are you referring to in the short term? What target[s] are you talking about in the long term? How is your policy oriented? How will your [emissions] curve go, right? You [the emissions curve] can go that way [a higher peak] or go that way [a lower peak]. [But if] the final result [carbon neutrality] is the same, how can you say that my near-term actions are not [strong] enough?

Now, [let us] look at it over the course of 40 years: I [China] want to both peak CO2 emissions and achieve carbon neutrality. For China, a developing economy, the most important thing is not to reach the peak immediately, but to move to a transition pathway that will lead to carbon neutrality in 40 years. 

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. 

Then, how do you evaluate whether a certain short-term target is reasonable or unreasonable? This [should be] related to my [our] policy objectives. My [our] policy objective is the transition, not reaching the peak right away. This is what I think is a core substance. Surely, this is not to say that reaching the peak is not important.

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Carbon Brief: Let me make sure that I understand you correctly. You were saying that [China] is now in a process of transition and [we need to] give China [time] for a smooth transition. And, after balancing and dealing with many different issues [during the transition period], [the development of China] will step on a correct [pathway], as it has completed the learning curve and the systematic transformation. Then from there, after reaching the peak, the road forward [towards carbon neutrality] will become easier…Can I understand it this way?

Wang Yi: This is one aspect. But if you only understand it this way, it is obviously not enough. First, to be honest, in regards to how to develop during the transition period, the detailed roadmap is not entirely clear. We are constantly exploring many things.

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Carbon Brief: How long will this transition period be?

Wang Yi: That depends on how you choose [the scale] as different regions [may have a different transition period]. Why do we say, “stick to a single game nationwide (全国一盘棋)”? That is because [the transition of] different sectors are different. You can hardly say that the pathway is the same for all sectors and all regions. It’s hard for me to evaluate.

Another thing is, what does it mean to “reach the peak”, right? This is also a question. Does it mean that once [emissions] reach 10 billion tonnes, they can’t [go] up to 10.2 billion tonnes? Can’t they go down to 0.95 billion tonnes, and after that, can’t they go up again? 

Wang Zhongying: Laughs.

Wang Yi: During this transition period, [the emissions curve] can be volatile, especially in light of the pandemic, the massive structural adjustment, as well as de-globalisation. In the transition period, it [emissions] can be fluctuating. The fluctuation [corresponds to] a plateau period and it is normal to have fluctuations within the plateau.

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Carbon Brief: Another issue that attracts much international attention is the absolute cap for CO2 emissions, a target that was first brought up in the 14th Five-Year Plan outline, which says to implement a cap system that is “based primarily on carbon intensity control, with the absolute carbon cap as a supplement”. The new ‘1+N’ policy also proposed to “coordinate and establish a system on total CO2 emissions”. However, no timetable or numerical value has been given as of today. Why is this? Is it because of any technical difficulties? Or is it difficult to give a guiding value of the total emissions in the transition process?

Wang Yi: Let’s set aside the issue of how the policy [was] formulated. From an academic point of view – and from my personal point of view, of course – we have to carry out total control on CO2 emissions. [This is because] controlling energy doesn’t make sense. China’s economic development at the current stage has not yet decoupled from the total energy consumption.

Wang Zhongying: …cannot decouple.

Wang Yi: China’s per-capita energy consumption is only 3.5 tonnes of standard coal, while the OECD averages over 6 tonnes of standard coal. Our [per-capita energy consumption] will continue to increase. This is a basic condition. Under such circumstances, it is misleading to control total energy consumption. [We] should [not only] control the total carbon emissions, [but also] total fossil fuels.

Wang Zhongying: Exactly.

Wang Yi: Surely, there is another matter: our policy needs to be coherent. You can’t say that the policy is like this today and change to that tomorrow. The [performance] assessment systems of the leaders are developed based on the past inertia…So, there shall be a transition period of policy: to gradually change from total energy control to total carbon control in the future.

You can see that because of the power cuts this year, it has already started to change the dual control on energy towards total control on CO2. However, do localities have the data? I can tell you that many of our prefecture-level cities don’t even have an ‘energy balance sheet’ (a statistical table that describes the conversion of primary energy to final consumption). 

Wang Zhongying: Right, right.

Wang Yi: The most basic thing is to get the data right. Most of the municipalities at the prefecture level do not have an energy balance sheet. There is no [technical] problem in calculating the total carbon emissions at the national level. But then, at the provincial and municipal levels, there are some technical problems. Without an energy balance sheet, there is no way to calculate [emissions] data. That’s why we are now setting up a statistical accounting [system on CO2 emissions], to carry out this specific work. The groundwork needs to be done correctly.

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Carbon Brief: Is it possible, like what happened in the development of the carbon market, to first set some pilot cities on total CO2 emission control? For example, in some cities, the data is better and they may have already reached the peak. Is it possible [to carry out that first]?

Wang Yi: This issue may have been, in fact…“Low carbon city” pilots can already consider these issues. But then, you have to know that this country is a whole.

I think [there is no need] to carry out such pilots. In fact, if the conditions are adequate, [the city] can transition directly, and there is no need to [stall] on this issue…If you think this system is alright, then there is not too much [need to be discussed]…In terms of direction, there are no big issues [on carrying out total carbon control]. Why do you have to test everything in a pilot? Are there too few pilots in China? What pilot don’t [we] have? [We have] all kinds of pilots.

So, we have to coordinate all the policies. What we lack is a comprehensive policy, not just a simple change of one system. Then, should other systems also be considered together? So, it’s a question of integration. So, if you have to do [a pilot], unless it is a particular core issue, such as our current housing system reform, property tax, etc, other issues [are not necessary]…

Wang Zhongying: What’s the meaningness of piloting? If you make Qinghai province [in northwestern China] a pilot, what is the significance? It can immediately achieve 100% of zero carbon [power generation]. 

I couldn’t agree more with Wang Yi: our country is a whole. The [leadership] has proposed the concept of “common prosperity” (to get wealthy all together). Common prosperity, right?

Common prosperity: “Common prosperity” is a political and macroeconomic term in China, which generally refers to a situation when all members of a society lead a happy, well-off and prosperous life, both materially and… Read More

My personal understanding, going back to what you said earlier about transition: how long the transition period would be…Transition, ah, must follow a scientific manner. So, when it comes to this [situation] in China…

Let’s go back to the energy transition in China…I personally hold this view: from today to peak carbon emissions before 2030, and then from 2030 to 2035, such a 15-years framework is a transition period for us.

Why do I say this? That is…If you interview an expert on wind power and the power system…when solar and wind power account for a certain proportion of the power system, we will…that is to say, in regards to innovation and [research and] development, to the methods of system regulation and stabilisation…that is to say….in other words, [if] we can reach 25% [of the non-fossil energy in the primary energy consumption], then that [if we continue to develop], it is not a challenge to reach 30%, 40% or 50%. I don’t know if you understand what I mean…

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Carbon Brief: Do you mean laying a good foundation?

Wang Zhongying: No. The system…the power system…For example, the proportion of wind and solar in the power system, if it can reach 25%, then I can go further down to 30%, 35%, 40%, 50%…Even 100% is not a problem.

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Carbon Brief: What do you mean by this?

Wang Zhongying: This process of transition is a process of scientific methodology. I [China] will build up a very perfect system. I don’t know how to explain it to you…It’s like once you stride over the obstacle…

Wang Yi: I will explain it to you this way…China’s transition is not something that happens overnight; it is a continuous transition, a transition with constant structural adjustment. It is not like changing something here today, problems will be solved tomorrow, and that the transition can be [completed] in five years. 

If you look at the past 40 years of China’s development, its structure has been changing day in and day out. This is completely different from the West. The West has reached the emissions peak and [are on the way to achieve] carbon neutrality and they are [doing this as] a mature economy. [The economy in] China has never been mature; it is constantly in transition. This is one thing.

Secondly, when we make sense of the goal of carbon neutrality, [the understanding cannot be] too simple. It [carbon neutrality] is not [just] an indicator of total [carbon emissions].

We say that carbon neutrality is a “lever of the system (系统性的抓手)”. It includes total targets and intensity targets [on energy and emissions], as well as targets for the [energy and economic] structure and [development] quality – these need to be achieved simultaneously. It [corresponds] to a system of targets.

In this regard, the transition is not simply a transition of a single sector or a single technology, but rather a systemic transition. This is why the documents make it very clear that it is a process of systemic transition, a transformation of the development model, industry model, economic model, including business model, all of which will all undergo great changes.

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Carbon Brief: You repeatedly brought up “transition”, which is difficult and faces many challenges. One of the principles mentioned in the “1+N” document is “guarding against risks“. In particular, it says to “respond appropriately to any economic, financial, and social risks that may arise during the green and low-carbon transformation to prevent any excessive response and ensure carbon emissions are reduced in a safe and secure way”. How do we understand “risks” and how should we interpret them? Do they refer to power shortages, as we have seen recently?

Wang Zhongying: Not for this reason…there is also this reason…Let’s take Europe as an example. We also did a lot of research this time, including [how the power crunch in] Europe started from a gas shortage, triggering power [price] spike – this is because it is mostly gas-fired power [generation]. But coal [prices] are also going up. In this, one of the big [reasons] is the speculation of the financial capitals, as they consider it as an opportunity. As financial capital arrives, the more shortage the gas [supply] is, the more they buy in the future, which continuously pushes the price up, leading the price of coal futures to spike, too. 

Domestically, the [coal] market, it can be said that it is now very liberalised. During the rise of coal prices this time, the financial capitals’ speculation also played a role. So, I think there is a meaningness why this [policy] refers specifically to “risk”.

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Carbon Brief: I actually wanted to ask…I can probably understand [why] it [incorporates] financial risks. But what do “economic, financial and social risks” written here refer to specifically? It is hard for me to imagine what kind of risks there will be…

Wang Zhongying: Multilayered…

Wang Yi: They are definitely multilayered. In fact, the power rationing in China this time is not caused by a single factor, but a variety of factors. 

Among the problems that we talk about [regarding] carbon these days, one core issue is the pricing of carbon. Back then, the West wanted to use economic instruments [to solve the issue]. Why did the ‘Kyoto Protocolincorporate three flexible mechanisms? Isn’t it because the cost of carbon is too high and needs to be brought down? That’s why there’s CDM [clean development mechanism], carbon emissions trading and joint compliance.

[It’s the] same in China. Carbon [emissions] itself doesn’t have a price at the moment. In order to bring it [the emissions] down, one must give it a reasonable price. This way, there will be a source of money to form a cash flow. 

When you don’t have [a price on carbon], isn’t it a problem? If you [reduce emissions] too quickly, doesn’t that bring a whole series of problems behind it? For example, this is one of the reasons for the stranded costs [of shutting down the young coal fleet] that I mentioned earlier. If you go too fast and shut down all the factories, doesn’t that create financial problems?

Wang Yi
Wang Yi during Carbon Brief’s interview. Credit: Carbon Brief.

Similarly, when you invest in carbon resources, carbon capital, and if its price is not certain, doesn’t that involve the loss of assets of state-owned enterprises (SOEs)? It gets into questions including what the future judgment of the price of carbon will be, whether you should invest for this, whether you should calculate them as assets, whether you should carry out technology innovations and so on. As the price itself [has not yet] formed, there is no way to [explain] such questions.

That’s why COP26 calls for attracting public finance. This is because public finance doesn’t have to consider so much about profitability. If you want to become a market economy in the future, you have to have a reasonable price. Of course, how are you going to form [prices]? Are you going to rely on the market? Or are you going to use administrative means?

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Carbon Brief: Let me make sure I understand what you just said. [You mean] that the carbon price is a factor that can trigger risks?

Wang Yi: Of course, it is a very important factor. Very important.

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Carbon Brief: Is this a factor that will be absorbed by society during the transition process and will be reflected in different financial, economic and social systems?

Wang Yi: Of course, you have to establish [a carbon price] first. We don’t have that mechanism yet.

Wang Zhongying: This includes what we talked about earlier “one size fits all” and “campaign-style carbon reduction”, they are all the same. They are likely to cause employment issues, social problems and so on. [Whatever] you [policymakers] do, whichever consideration is inadequate, could cause big problems. On top of that, adding financial [risk]…That’s why the rise of coal price rise is caused by a variety of superimposed factors.

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Carbon Brief: The recent discussion on coal, from what I read and hear, many international analyses come down to [an opinion] that the power rationing in the short-term may damage and slow down the transition progresses. [Domestic analyses, on the other hand], focus on arguing that the transition occurred too fast and touches people’s livelihoods, which in return creates some obstacles. Of course, it also involves another issue, that is the repetitive emphasis on “energy security”, which many people interpret as continuously dependent on fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal. [As a result], this may pull up the emissions curve and make the transition even slower and more difficult. What are your takes on this issue?

Wang Yi: Personally, I don’t think this will have a particularly big impact [on our climate policy]. 

The reasons [of coal shortage supply this time], if you look into it, are rather complex. First, a direct factor is the issue of “market[-based] coal [price], and [state-]planned electricity [tariff] (“市场煤、计划电”)”. Second, it is because exports have increased and coal demand has been growing. Third, many past policies, including the system of “dual control” on energy, have more or less had some impacts [on the supply]. China’s structural transformation is also a factor: the structural transformation of the whole supply-side has resulted in the closing of so many coal mines and the supply cannot [keep up]. At the same time, the import of coal has also been reduced. This is the result of many factors.

‘Dual-control’ policy: "Dual-control” was a policy proposed by China’s central government in 2015 to regulate the nation’s total energy consumption and energy intensity (the energy use per unit of GDP). China’s 13th five-year plan,… Read More

Of course, this is a very good warning. In the process of transition, we have to consider how to combine different policies better, right? Problems can also arise when there is a bad mix of policies. [If] you look at individual policies, each of them seems to make sense, but when combined together, problems can arise. That’s one aspect to consider.

Second, it reflects the determination of the policy itself and the political will of the decisions. On this issue, the CCCPC and China’s leadership are very clear: we want to maintain our [dual-carbon] targets and we want to ensure the strength and pace [of climate actions]. The question is, have you indeed controlled the strength and pace in the process of implementation? Problems only occur [when they are not well controlled].

So, these things [the recent events], 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. 

When it comes to the matter of strategy, [we] don’t necessarily opt for the best decisions, but rather to avoid the worst-case scenario.

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Carbon Brief: Can you please elaborate a little bit more on “energy security”? As I just mentioned, many international experts interpret President Xi’s speech on “energy security”, on the anniversary of the Shengli oilfield [opening], as an emphasis on continuing to strengthen [the development and consumption of] fossil fuels…

Wang Yi: This is a total misunderstanding…

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Carbon Brief: What do you think the discussion on “securing energy security” in the Chinese context actually means?

Wang Zhongying: The dual-carbon goal is definitely unwavering. 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. 

Now let’s go back to what President Xi said at the Shengli oilfield in Shandong. You can’t interpret this as we need to develop more fossil fuels. You need to look at it from the other way around…China’s energy…the Shengli oilfield…

Let’s talk about oil. This is all open statistics: 70% of the oil consumed in China is imported and relies on the foreign market. Do you see what I mean? Why [does President Xi] give this speech in the Shengli oilfield? 70% of a country’s oil supply is controlled in the hands of others…In the international market, for example, this year, [the] oil price [is very volatile]: sometimes 50-60 [US$ per barrel], sometimes over 80, and the highest at over 90 and up towards 100…Then, what do you say, how can China secure [its oil supply]? So, we have to secure the 30% of the oil supply that we exploit on our own.

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Carbon Brief: Will such security on supply and demand change in the future, as the energy structure changes in the process of the transition?

Wang Zhongying: No.

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Carbon Brief: I meant, for example, as more wind and solar power will be produced locally, the definition of energy security will change accordingly. 

Wang Yi: Definitely.

Wang Zhongying: Gradually…The same applies to electric vehicles [EVs]…As the share of EVs continues to expand, our oil consumption will reduce. If we can maintain the 200m tonnes [of oil supply] that we produce ourselves with low cost and high efficiency, then why do I bother to spend $90 on import? Then I can reduce the imports, right? Yet, won’t I have more assurance [about] the energy security of our country? It does not affect the development of our wind and solar, nor the transition. Rather, we will accelerate the development [of wind and solar].

Let me give you another example. I don’t think the rise in electricity prices triggered by the spike of natural gas prices and the spike in energy prices is an energy crisis. It is just a short-term temporary phenomenon of energy shortage. I’ll put my words here: by the time of early next year, [the prices] will definitely have come down.

Because during the pandemic, we did a statistical survey…What do the corporates and capitalists do if there is no profit? In the last two years, especially in the last year 2020, [international] investment in oil extraction has fallen by US$300bn from its peak, dropping from US$600bn to US$300bn. What does that mean? It means that there is simply not enough reserve for production capacity. 

Now after the pandemic, [economic production] has recovered and countries are [re-]opening up. The UK opened up three months ago and Denmark has also opened up…I talked to the minister of climate, energy and utilities of Denmark yesterday and he said the country has been open for a long time, the economy is starting to recover and demand is starting to come up…But the production capacity has not increased, and OPEC is still limiting production. Don’t you see the oil price has risen to US$80? 

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Carbon Brief: So, as [China’s] energy mix becomes more and more low-carbon, [the economy becomes] more and more decarbonised, and more and more wind, solar and hydropower to be produced locally…In theory, energy security shall become more secure, right?

Wang Zhongying: More secure, yes.

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Carbon Brief: In addition, you mentioned two other aspects [of energy security], and one is “environmental risk”…

Wang Yi: It depends on how you define energy security.

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Carbon Brief: I’d like to hear you elaborate on this. You mentioned “environmental security” and “climate security”, while what I’ve learned about “energy security” is more about affordability, availability and so on.

PM2.5: “PM2.5”, or particulate matter 2.5, 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… Read More

Wang Zhongying: What is “environmental security”? “Environment” speaks of smog domestically. Do you think we want to have coal-fired power plants and boilers burning [coal] with chimneys emitting [pollutants]? No one wants that. So, how does it affect the smog? There are thousands of scientists [whose study shows that] 70% or 80% of the domestic air pollution is caused by the emissions from coal-fired power plants, oil and gas combustions and exhaustion gases. 

Wang Yi: Today [the level of] PM2.5 has met the so-called ‘(Interim) Phase 1 target’ of the [World Health Organization]. To move forward, if you [China] cannot transform the energy structure, you [it] have no way to achieve 20, or 10, or even 5 [micrograms per cubic meters], which we now speak of…Impossible to achieve…

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Carbon Brief: So, “environmental security” is also in the framework of “energy security”?

Wang Yi: That’s why I just said, the [dual-carbon] goal is comprehensive and systematic. Right?

Wang Zhongying
Wang Zhongying during Carbon Brief’s interview. Credit: Carbon Brief.

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Carbon Brief: Going back to what we were just discussing…your interpretation of energy security is something I had never heard of…that it counts in environmental security and climate security

Wang Zhongying: This is an interpretation by us as experts. But, at the state level, there is a special [interpretation]. It actually puts energy security within the country’s holistic view on security (安全观)…

Wang Yi: The ‘holistic view on national security (总体国家安全观)’.

Wang Zhongying: The holistic view on national security…it includes ecology, environment and climate change, as mentioned earlier.

Wang Yi: Back to the question you just raised [on energy security]. Of course, there must be a very big change. [The policy requires] “over 80% of non-fossil fuels [in total primary energy consumption] by 2060”, right? By that time…that is to say, what we just talked about…What is the direction? For example, the direction of the transition. We are very clear that electrification of end-energy consumption is a basic direction. That’s why we have “over 80% non-fossil fuels”. Then, look further down…How will the electricity outlook look? Today China’s per-capita electricity consumption is 7,500kWh…

Wang Zhongying: It isn’t that high, is it?

Wang Yi: It’s the whole [society consumption], not the household. It’s 7,500kWh for the whole society…No, [it’s actually] 5,300kWh…

Wang Zhongying: Correct.

Wang Yi: With 5,300kWh…If we double that, it will be over 10,000 kWh. And if you further triple it, it will be over 15,000kWh. Then, here, you need much more wind and solar power. By that time, we will not be talking about 1.2 billion kW [of installed capacity for wind and solar power] – 12 billion kW is more than the total [power generation capacity] in the US – but over 6 billion kW [of installed capacity]…

After doubling [the current level] the per capita [electricity consumption] will be over 10,000kWh, then you will have to have more than 6 billion kWh of wind and solar power. Think about this, how will such a giant system look? There will be massive changes, be that technology, management and so on…All aspects will have to change greatly at any time.

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Carbon Brief: Due to the limited time [we have left], I will ask you two more questions. One is for Wang Yi. I know you participated in the early work of preparing an expert draft of China’s climate legislation. Many analyses on China that I’ve read from international media say that China’s medium- and long-term target [of achieving carbon neutrality] as well as the 2030 target [on peak emissions], only exist as administrative orders without the support of climate legislation. Because of this, many raise questions on whether [China] can maintain the stability, consistency and continuity of such policy. At the moment, we have five years as a [planning] cycle. Can we keep [the planning] all the way up to 2060? According to their systems, China needs to pass legislation, put them [the targets] in law, and put in place comprehensive climate legislation…

Wang Yi: Firstly, it’s not that China doesn’t have legislation [on climate change]. Rather, it [climate change] is too comprehensive and involves all kinds of laws. For example, China has a Renewable Energy Act and Energy Conservation Law…Can you say that they are not laws? They are laws, too. However, as new goals have been proposed, we are indeed considering how to work on legislation in the next steps. 

That’s why the National People’s Congress (NPC) is also doing intensive research. And I also personally led teams at various departments [to do] surveys, to understand the demands of various departments. This is because legislation is the result of compromises between different interest groups and carbon neutrality involves so many areas. So, you have to carry out surveys to understand all the circumstances…

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And, also, the legislation [process] also involves revising [existing laws], rather than passing one piece of legislation. Indeed, it is what we call “coordinating to make and revise” a series of laws. It is a matter of establishing a system. We are now considering making plans for further legislation, as well as amendments. 

Of course, we need to acknowledge that there is only one year left in the current cycle of the Standing Committee of the NPC. So the current work is likely to lay a good foundation for the legislative work of the next Standing Committee of the NPC. I think, after our research, we will soon come out with a plan on the legislative work for the next Standing Committee of the NPC, which can formulate a plan for coordinated governance. 

Once you amend…At the moment, the Energy Law is in the process of discussion. Then you need to amend the Law on the coal industry, the Power law, the Land Management Law…All laws must be amended, and that’s why we have to coordinate the law-making and amendment process. Now we are in the middle of formulating [a plan]. You’ve got to give China a little time, right? Legislation is a very serious process and it requires a process. 

Further on, the agreement was just signed between the US and China. If you look at it, there is a provision on sharing experience on legislation. Has the US passed [climate] legislation? The US doesn’t even have legislation internationally [the US’s international pledges are not yet adopted in domestic legislation], does it? It also faces problems. 

Can you say that the US relies on [legislation]? The US probably relies even less on legislation than China does. After four years [of presidential terms]…It basically relies on executive orders to solve the matter. So I think…For example, [with] the Paris agreement, China has adopted [it] by the Standing Committee of the NPC, right? It’s the equivalent to turning a piece of [international] legislation into domestic law. Even the US has not done this. Can you say that China doesn’t have legislation?

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Carbon Brief: After talking to you, I have the impression that China needs to go through a period of transition and, as you mentioned, the transition is not going to be a success overnight (一蹴而就). My question is, when will the moment of “all arrows shoot at once (万箭齐发)” arrive? You just estimated it to be 2035…

Wang Zhongying: It’s not like “all arrows shoot at once”. It is a very difficult process from now to 2035 – that’s what I meant. However, if we can achieve visions set for 2035, which are laid out in the ​​outline for the 14th five year and long-term targets for 2035, then achieving carbon neutrality after 2035 will be…We cannot say that it will be very smooth, but it will be a steady process.

Wang Yi: I think it may not be called the “all arrows shoot at once”, but rather to promote in a more orderly and coordinated manner: some come first and some come later with a specific timetable and roadmap. And this is not to say that we are moving forward side by side at the same pace. 

Wang Zhongying: Exactly, exactly…

Wang Yi: We talk about ‘sticking to a single game nationwide (全国一盘棋)’. This is to guard the bottom line and baseline [of peaking before 2030], while regions and sectors that can peak emissions ahead of time should do so. Different regions and sectors can play their respective strength to achieve the same goal (八仙过海,各显其能).

Wang Zhongying: That’s right.

Wang Yi: You have to live up to this level. Meanwhile, we shall also note that adjustments need to be made at any time as we can hardly say that all the pathways have been drawn very clearly today.

Prof Wang Yi and Prof Wang Zhongying
Wang Yi and Wang Zhongying during Carbon Brief’s interview. Credit: Carbon Brief.

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Carbon Brief: Lastly, can you please summarise the role that China plays in climate action and climate governance today? You can talk about it from your areas of expertise.

Wang Yi: Personally speaking, in reality, our entire decision-making process and the consultation process…We are involved in the consultation process of policymaking…And speaking from our perspective as a thinktank, we should be able to provide solutions better, and such solutions should align better with the economic and social development, including the basic laws of the transition. We hope that our solutions can be built on the basis of science, what we call evidence-based or science-based. If we can do this, then build on this foundation, we hope [our solutions] can achieve more balance. 

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Carbon Brief: The question I just asked is what you think of China’s role in climate actions today. How do you evaluate it?

Wang Yi: This is a big question. (Laughs.) I think China indeed plays a very important role on this matter…a leading role. Regardless of being the biggest emitting country…Although China should be [considered as] a developing country…I think China has done a very good job in leading on this matter.

Especially since 2010, we have first changed our leadership structure…No, we’ve changed our governing philosophy… (laughs)…changed from GDP-oriented in the past to a path of green development that prioritises ecology.

Secondly, we are using a systemic approach to ensure the [protection of] the ecology and environment, which has been mentioned all along. We do not want to use the campaign-style approach. In regards to carbon neutrality, we also hope to apply such an approach. 

On top of that, China has, in fact, made a systematic design for carbon neutrality this time. What we have seen in the “1+N” only includes the “1”, an overarching document, which is only a part. Next, we still have dozens of documents coming out. You will see that China is going to become a country that promotes [the works on] carbon neutrality and the transition in a most systematic way.

Wang Zhongying: On this matter…Unlike Wang Yi, who is a senior expert, I am relatively specialised in the energy sector. 

Wang Yi: You are flattering me…

Wang Zhongying: However, I have this point of view. I think the international community should first fully understand the goals of China’s energy transition. Why do I say this? Our energy structure is a structure of high carbon. High…At the same time, it is the world’s largest consumer of primary energy. The high carbon structure is a fact, too. 

So why do I say that the international community should understand, as well as support China’s transition goals? If China can achieve the energy transition…Let’s set aside whether 2060 is an ambitious goal…I [China] want to achieve near-zero emissions of its economy and society, its energy system must first achieve near-zero emissions. Having said that, [if] we can successfully transition, then the entire global energy [system] can successfully transition. That’s what I mean.

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Carbon Brief: Do you mean China will set an example? 

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Wang Zhongying: That’s not really what I mean. The energy system is a tremendous system and a very complex system – and China happens to have the world’s most tremendous and complex system. Think about this, if such a most complex and massive system can transition successfully, which energy system in the world cannot?

Wang Yi: That’s what I said about different systems…Actually, the Chinese experience is probably also difficult to learn from. Yet, China can share it, right? What we do can be studied…We don’t have teachers, either. We have our own case studies and we can share the best practice. We shall do this. 

I only have two complementary points to make. First, we shall still be “learning by doing”. Not a single country like China has been able to make the transition so far. As the largest developing economy with such large emissions, there are no precedent cases. China has to try with its own hands, learning by doing.

Secondly, we need more international cooperation. There is no way to achieve it [transition] without cooperation. 

Wang Zhongying: Exactly. 

Wang Yi: That’s also why China and the US were able to sign the agreement. China and the US are the two biggest emitters. They can join forces, carry out real cooperations, and take actions together…I think this is a crucial hope for the world.

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Carbon Brief: Finally, do you discuss climate change with your children? Do you discuss your work with your family? 

Wang Yi: (Laughs.)

Wang Zhongying: That’s a sure thing. For example, my wife, she cares about it very much. I came from [the field of] renewable energy and, little by little, my beloved and my family have entered a state of obsession on renewable energy from knowing nothing in the first place. Yesterday, as soon as the China-US joint declaration was released, I sent it to my family [WeChat] chatting group. This is a sure thing.

Wang Yi: There is no doubt that this [has] an impact [on my communication with the family]. Because of [my] day-to-day work…As you know, in China we all work regardless of day or night…She definitely cares about what you’re [I’m] up to. She also takes the initiative to find out about the matter. Not only does she know, her friends are now also very knowledgeable and spread the word all around. 

I think this kind of awareness-raising is very important. However, China still has a long way to go, because there are many people who don’t have this kind of knowledge. We need to work harder. (Laughs.)

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Carbon Brief: Some say that the extreme rainfalls and floods this summer have given many Chinese people a first-hand experience of what climate change is like. Is this a factor [in promoting such understanding]?

Wang Yi: It’s a factor. I don’t think it’s enough. In China, you have to know…We have to note that different people at different stages of development have different requirements for the environment. 

Wang Zhongying: Exactly.

Wang Yi: Our country is so big. In a consumer society like the West, one’s feeling is different from those in a developing society. Let me give you another example, the West always talks about research, saying that air pollution will reduce how many years of your life expectancy and how many years you will live less. 

Then, assuming you are talking to someone who does not have enough to eat…You will feel that talking about these to those people [your arguments are] very pale and powerless, right? People have to have enough to eat first, then they are going to think about “whether I can breathe fresh air”. It is only when one has reached a certain standard of living that one can improve their own awareness of the environment and of the climate. 

Furthermore, this awareness shall not be limited to a certain country or state – instead, it should be raised to the global level. You have to [contribute to] the destiny of mankind at the global level…And this requires a realm of elevation. 

I think for the people in medium-developed countries, they still need to further learn… Especially, to cultivate [awareness] with the developed countries, including the lifestyles.

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Carbon Brief: How to cultivate [that] in China?

Wang Yi: It is very difficult and takes a lot of [work]. First of all, you have to talk about…[The per-capita energy consumption in China is] only 3.5 tonnes of standard coal, while you, the Westerners, set a standard of living of more than 6 tonnes of standard coal. That is a demonstration effect. You Westerners do not prioritise reducing emissions and then [are] asking me to eat less beef. Can I agree? Right? 

As I said the other day, we are on the same boat, but in different cabins, right? You can’t use such data to do the calculation [taking Western standards and projecting China’s future emissions], that’s not fair. [This is also] why developed countries shall reduce their emissions first. You [Western countries] have to get your job done first.

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Carbon Brief: Back to the 3.5 and 6…Shall everyone meet in the middle ground? As you said, China is still going to continue to develop…

Wang Yi: Yes, everyone is going to converge in the end. But, now, [we] still have to aim for development. Of course, we hope our development will be more environment-friendly and more climate-friendly. This is what we wish for. We will certainly not be like the Western countries. When [we] reach a high income, [we will not] still have so much energy consumption and so much carbon emission. I believe we will do better.

Wang Zhongying: The old way is not going to work. (Laughs.)

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Carbon Brief: That’s it for now.

Wang Zhongying: Thank you.

Wang Yi: Thank you.

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The interview was conducted by Hongqiao Liu at COP26 in Glasgow on 10 November 2021.

The original Chinese transcript is available as a PDF.

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