The first two weeks of 2021 have been busy for climate action in China. On January 5, China issued the final regulations for the national carbon market. The biggest change since the draft was the newly added provision that company-level emissions data must disclosed to the public – a big win which will certainly benefit compliance.
On the other hand, reports emerged that in 2020 alone, Inner Mongolia added high carbon emission projects with a total energy consumption of 80 mln tonnes of coal equivalent, sparking concern that some provinces may be trying to increase emissions now, before tougher climate policies take effect.
Then on January 11, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment issued an important policy document called “Guiding Opinions on Coordinating and Accelerating Work Related to Climate Change and Ecological Protection”. This document is the first policy document from MEE in 2021, demonstrating that climate action is a top priority. This policy is still hot out of the oven and hasn’t yet received much coverage in international media, so I’ll focus on it here.
It is a very rich document, and confirms many new approaches which CCICED has advocated for. The document is currently only available in Chinese, but we’re preparing an English version which will be shared soon. I’ve tried to select some highlights:
- Coordinate climate change and environmental protection: The overarching principle is to: “… promote synergies in response to climate change, environmental governance, and ecological protection and restoration”. It mentions that MEE will establish a special mechanism to coordinate these efforts, which are dealt with by separate departments. The document specifically points out the need to coordinate negotiations of global conventions for climate, biodiversity, oceans, etc, which is highly relevant in the context of the Conference of Parties of UNFCCC and CBD which will be held later this year.
- Local peaking: MEE will formulate an action plan for peaking emissions, and local level governments should put forward positive, clear and realistic goals for reaching emissions peaks. High emissions and high energy-consuming projects should be strictly controlled. The document re-confirms that climate change will be fully integrated into the system of environmental disciplinary inspections. If done well, this should hopefully avoid recurrence of problems like the steep rise in emissions in Inner Mongolia in 2020.
- Climate-related law: The document takes a broad view: “When revising laws and regulations of environmental protection, utilization of resources and energy, land space development and planning, add tackling climate change into relevant provisions.” It also calls for the early enactment of climate change related laws. This points to the need for a dedicated Climate Change Law, which Vice-Minister Zhao Yingmin had called for in December.
- EIA and permitting system: Climate change impacts should be incorporated into environmental impact assessments (EIA) for both projects and planning, and strictly applied, to “promote regions, industries and enterprises to implement policy requirements such as coal consumption reduction and substitution, GHG emission control”. Also, MEE will study integrating GHG emissions into the environmental permitting system. The environmental permitting system is likely to become the primary instrument to control industrial emissions, not just for pollutants but also climate emissions. When operational, these systems should provide a strong legal basis to reject new projects and plans with excessive emissions, and to monitor and control emissions from existing industries.
- Disclosure: Information sharing and disclosure is a very popular approach, which is mentioned seven times in various articles of the document. For example: government will establish a communique system for addressing climate change; data submission in the national carbon market must be implemented; information sharing of high energy-consuming and high emission projects should be strengthened; relevant illegal information will be recorded in the enterprises’ environmental credit system; and including GHG into the EIA and permitting systems. The latter would place responsibility for accurate disclosure squarely on the polluter. It’s important to note that it is a criminal offence to intentionally falsify information which must be publicly disclosed.
- Ecological Redlines, Nature-Based Solutions and Climate Adaptation: For the first time, the document draws a clear link between climate change and nature. Climate change should be incorporated into the ecological redlines; climate change adaptation and ecological restoration should be coordinated; nature-based solutions to climate change mitigation and adaptation should be prioritized; and climate change impact risk assessments should be conducted in agriculture, forestry, water, urban, coastal and ecologically fragile areas.
- Monitoring of non-CO2 emissions: It points out the need to strengthen monitoring of methane, HFCs, sulfur hexafluoride, and perfluorocarbons, using ‘large-scale and regional’ monitoring. Ecological redlines and land-use monitoring will be facilitated with satellite observation – this has proven highly effective in other countries. Satellite data combined with artificial intelligence can be applied to identify illegal land-use and other environmental violations at scale and with great accuracy, overcoming many challenges associated with local monitoring.
In summary, the “Guiding Opinions on Coordinating and Accelerating Work Related to Climate Change and Ecological Protection” sets the stage for 2021 very well. Implementing this work will provide many opportunities for international cooperation, not just to support China in its climate transition, but also to share some of its new approaches in coordinating climate and nature with the world ahead of the two COPs to be held in Kunming and Glasgow later this year.
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CCICED.