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From “War on Pollution” to “War on Greenhouse Gases”

In the past days, the media focus has been squarely centered on COP26 in Glasgow. And although the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere continues to rise rapidly, we have seen some positive results, such as the US-China Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, and progress in the Global Methane Pledge.

Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, in China the CPC Central Committee and the State Council jointly issued an important policy document entitled “Opinion on Achieving Comprehensive Victory in the War on Pollution”. The Opinion prominently covers carbon emissions, which demonstrates that China is actively integrating greenhouse gases into its powerful systems for pollution control.

The Opinion starts by spelling out many core targets to be achieved in the period of 2021 – 2025, largely transposed from the 14th five-year plan issued earlier this year. For example, the Opinion restates the binding target to cut carbon emission per unit of GDP by 18%, and PM 2.5 by 10% compared to 2020. In addition the percentage of days with excellent or good air quality shall reach 87.5%, the percentage of clean surface water shall reach 85%, and the area of good quality inshore waters shall reach around 79%.

This is followed by five chapters focusing on the fields of carbon reduction, air, water, soil, and biodiversity. It concludes with two chapters on governance and leadership. Carbon emissions come first, placed ahead of pollution control, which shows how climate action is becoming the overriding priority in environmental work.

The chapter on carbon emissions contains several highlights. In addition to the familiar fields, it requires tightening control of “GHGs other than CO2, such as methane”. This has long been advocated by CCICED. It also echoes the brand-new US-China declaration on climate, as well as the EU – China Joint Communique on Climate and Environment.

Another highlight is the requirement to incorporate GHG control into environmental impact assessments. Previous policies issued by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment mostly focused on assessing carbon emission in EIAs, and they have only just started to pilot this in key sectors and selected areas. The Opinion specifies that all types of GHGs must be included, not only CO2, and the instruction is coming from the top-level, showing an ever stronger commitment to bring other types of GHGs under control, such as methane, HFCs, N2O, etc.

The use of strategic EIAs is another highlight to prevent harm from occurring in the first place. This means that major economic and technological policies will be assessed on their environmental impact, including those which fall outside of the scope of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. Again, this has long been advocated for by CCICED.

The energy transition also receives much attention in the Opinion. It restates China’s goal to strictly control coal and importantly, to raise non-fossil energy consumption to around 20% by 2025. Combined with the target to achieve a 13.5% reduction in energy intensity, this non-fossil energy target works out to be more ambitious than the target to cut carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 18%, and if achieved it should work out to reduce carbon emission per unit of GDP by around 19.3%. It also sets the target for the first time to reduce the coal consumption of two key regions – the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region by 10%, and the Yangtze River Delta region by 5%.

Another highlight is that no more ‘private’ coal-fired power plants may be built. So-called ‘captive coal plants’ are used in China in industries such as aluminum smelting, chemicals, and petrochemicals, high-speed rail, etc. The Opinion also mentions that new gas-fired power generation must be coupled with reductions in coal, so as to result in a net reduction of carbon emissions.

The chapters on air, water, soil, and biodiversity further provide detailed targets on eliminating heavily polluted air and extremely dirty water, managing underground water quality, controlling soil contamination, managing solid waste and new types of pollutants, restoring terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, etc.

In terms of governance methods, the Opinion puts much emphasis on the rule of law and the role of the market. Environmental violations will be heavily punished. Stricter standards are encouraged. Environmental information disclosure and public awareness will be enhanced. Economic and market mechanisms will be further promoted, such as green electricity, green finance, environmental liability insurance, trading schemes, environmental credit ratings, and ecological compensation.

Finally, the document again emphasizes the important role of the central and provincial environmental inspections in supervising the transition.

China’s “War on Pollution” has been a remarkable success, as anyone living in Beijing in the past years can attest to. Starting in 2014 in response to regular episodes of extreme air pollution, an all-out effort was made to tackle pollution around the country. In Beijing, this resulted in the annual average concentration of PM2.5 dropping from 98 in 2014 to 39 in 2020. The skies have gone blue over the course of only a few years.

A friend in the Ministry of Ecology and Environment has informed me that the recent rise in carbon emissions has already ground to a halt, and China may already be entering a carbon ‘peaking plateau’. Let’s hope that the ongoing efforts in the new “War on Greenhouse Gases” will prove to be effective at containing heat-trapping emissions in the coming years, so that China may achieve its climate targets well ahead of schedule.

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