With China widely expected to release its latest five-year economic plan today, analysts were cautiously hoping for a major milestone on the road to a decarbonized future, while watching for indications of whether the country would begin cutting its emissions soon enough and deeply enough to bring it fully in line with the targets in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
As The Energy Mix went to (virtual) press—late Thursday evening in North America, but Friday mid-morning in Beijing—some news reports focused on China’s essential role in international efforts to get the climate crisis under control, while others parsed recent official announcements and found signs of solid progress.
“China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, as well as the second-biggest economy after the U.S.,” The Guardian explains. “Global carbon emissions must halve by the end of this decade to have a chance of holding global heating well below 2.0°C above pre-industrial levels, as set out in the Paris accord, so China’s role will be decisive.”
Which points directly back to the significant of today’s announcement. “The five-year plan, of which this will be the 14th since 1953, forms the cornerstone of economic governance for the one-party state, and sets out social and environmental aspirations as well as GDP and industrial targets,” The Guardian says. In a surprise announcement last September, President Xi Jinping pledged to put his country on track for carbon neutrality by 2060. And “if China’s net zero target is met, along with those of other countries—the U.S., the EU, the UK, Japan, South Korea, and many smaller countries also plan to reach net-zero by 2050—then the world has a good chance of keeping to 2.0°C,” the paper adds.
But China’s ultimate target is four decades away—which is why it’s so important that Xi also promised to peak the country’s emissions by 2030. And when they begin assessing the five-year plan, analysts will be looking for more still.
“To achieve the Paris targets, emissions must turn down in the next couple of years,” said veteran climate economist Nicholas Stern told The Guardian. “Realistically, that cannot happen unless emissions in China start to fall.”
Most experts say it should be possible for the country to begin reducing emissions in 2025, the news story adds, and that’s the commitment they hope to see in the five-year plan. “2025 seems possible, all the modelling by Chinese teams points to that, and it’s not too late,” said European Climate Foundation CEO Laurence Tubiana, one of the architects of the Paris deal. “But 2030 or around 2030 would be too late, there is no ambiguity about that.”
While that essential detail was still unknown late Thursday evening, two staff members from the World Resources Institute’s China office see “tectonic shifts in policy-making” in a key guidance document on climate change and environmental protection, issued in January by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment. Liu Daizong and Zhang Daiyang say the document sets the stage for a five-year plan “which will detail necessary actions to secure the neutrality pledge and transform the whole economy.”
One of the key sectors where that transformation will play out is electricity generation, where the State Grid Corporation of China undertook earlier this week to triple its installed solar and wind capacity—from a baseline of 450 gigawatts in 2020—by the end of this decade. Greentech Media casts that commitment as another support for a five-year plan that goes big on net-zero ambition.
“These numbers might seem fantastical—we’re talking terawatts—but evidence, and precedents, suggest they are also achievable,” Greentech writes, noting that the country’s total solar capacity surged from 6.5 to 130 GW between 2012 and 2017.
“The top-down 2060 net-zero target combined with the sustainable economics of solar is a potent combination,” the industry newsletter notes. “The release of the State Grid Corporation’s plans on Monday demonstrates that the country is readying for this growth in earnest,” and “hand in hand with the growth of renewables is the winding down of coal.”
WRI China’s Liu and Zhang say the phrasing of the Guiding Opinions document puts climate change ahead of its more general focus on environmental protection, assigns carbon reductions higher priority than a broader effort at pollution control, and establishes an absolute cap on carbon pollution, rather than setting an intensity-based target that allows higher emissions if energy consumption rises.
“Apparently, over the past two years, lobbies and policy suggestions from environmentalists and researchers have largely facilitated the government’s understanding and action plans for climate change issues in the decades ahead,” the two WRI staffers write. “As a developing country, China has long emphasized its large population and relatively short development time, arguing to prioritize efficiency only to allow more flexibility and secure economic stability for its low-carbon transition. However, combating climate change is not about the impact of a single person or an average number; instead, it is the overall emission data that really matters and determines the actual temperature increase.”
But while even the 2030 and 2060 targets “are a big step forward” for the world, signalling an encouraging shift “from vision to work plan,” Liu and Zhang write, “for many domestic provinces and industries it changes the rules completely, and in an undesirable way.” The shift in policy will be unnerving for carbon-intensive regions and industries that “spent years developing and catching up, struggled to optimize their structures and improve proficiency, and now they are forced to throw all their achievements away in less than 30 years.”
“People always ask, why can’t China move faster away from coal,” Bernice Lee of the UK’s Chatham House think tank told The Guardian. “It is hard in China, like it is hard in many other places: it is about real people on the ground, industries, powerful lobbies, bureaucratic fights, and inertia.”
But “a better question for us to ask ourselves is: what can the rest of the world do to encourage China—and others, like India—to move faster away from coal?” she added.
All of those factors make the Guiding Opinions document a valuable resource, Liu and Zhang write, with its emphasis on collaboration across multiple government agencies, use of a variety of mechanisms to drive down emissions, coordination across levels of government and beyond, and sectoral commitments from energy, industry, transportation, and waste. The two WRI authors go into detail on what the five-year plan needs to achieve, and some of the pathways to get there.