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How Big on the Environment is China’s ‘20 Big’?

China’s 20th Party Congress (20 大in short, or ’20 Big’) has just concluded. I’ll share my take on what the ’20 Big’ signals for the environment, especially as leaders and observers are preparing for the climate COP which will start in Sharm-el-Sheikh this week.

The Communist Party of China has revealed the country’s top leadership for the next five years, and several reports were presented which should guide the nation in the coming years. In terms of the environment, it’s mostly good news: it will remain a top priority.

This continued environmental emphasis is clear from the new membership of the Politburo, and from the leaders’ reports presented on the first day. An official English translation of the report on the opening day is available here.

Some of the new ‘red’ leaders are definitely ‘green’

President Xi will continue in his leading roles for the coming five years. This is reassuring for the environment, because he has been a strong supporter of environmental protection over the past 10 years.

For context, late in 2013 was in my mind the most significant turning point for environmental protection in China, when the government started to publicly disclose air pollution data. The air quality was absolutely dreadful at that time, so sharing hourly air quality data from numerous monitoring stations was a bold step, and advanced by world standards. The air quality data went viral on social media, sparking a strong sense of public concern and triggering a landslide shift in environmental awareness around the country, at all levels. A series of actions followed, including a major overhaul of environmental laws and regulations, top-down central environmental inspections, and much more. This strong level of effort still continues today, and we can see some clear results, including much more frequent blue skies.

It’s also noteworthy that two former ministers of environment have been elevated to the 24-member Politburo. They include Chen Jining and Li Ganjie, both of whom have also acted as executive vice-chairpersons of CCICED in the past. Their promotions suggest that the Party wants to boost environmental capacity at the top.

Chen Jining has been promoted to Party Secretary of Shanghai, which in the past has been a stepping stone to the top leadership. For reference, the last four Party Secretaries of Shanghai all entered the Standing Committee of the Politburo after the end of their terms. An environmental engineer by profession, Chen served as the President of Tsinghua University from 2012 to 2015, Minister of Environmental Protection between 2015 and 2017 and mayor of Beijing from 2017 to 2022.

Li Ganjie worked on environmental protection and nuclear safety for most of his career, and rose through the ranks extraordinarily quickly in the past years. He has previously served as Vice-Minister of Environmental Protection, Deputy Party Secretary of Hebei, and Minister of Ecology and Environment (previously as Minister of Environmental Protection) from 2017 to 2020, and then went to Shandong Province where he first acted as governor and subsequently as Party Secretary, the top job in the province.

Both Chen and Li are now probably the youngest Politburo members.

What did the reports say about the environment? 

In his report on the opening day, President Xi Jinping emphasised the need to achieve “Chinese modernisation” as a central task for the CPC, and “promoting harmony between humanity and nature” is clearly stated to be one of the essential requirements for the achievement of Chinese modernization.

During President Xi’s reading of the report at the Congress, the part summing up China’s recent progress in environmental protection received the second longest applause, with the longest applause going to the part on cross-strait relations.

The report includes an entire chapter on the environment, entitled “Pursuing Green Development and Promoting Harmony between Humanity and Nature”. It is further broken down into green development, pollution prevention and control, ecosystems, and dual carbon goals.

When it comes to the future, the report vows among other things to promote the creation of green and low-carbon production methods and lifestyles, to “basically eliminate” air and water pollution, to improve the diversity, stability and sustainability of ecosystems, and to actively and steadily promote the peak carbon and carbon neutrality goals.

For the first time, public interest litigation is explicitly mentioned in the report, in a chapter entitled “Exercising Law-Based Governance on All Fronts and Advancing the Rule of Law in China”. It mentions: “the Procuratorial organs will step up legal oversight, and the system of public-interest litigation will be improved.”

This is considered a recognition of the success of the system for public interest litigation by prosecutors. In the past years, over 370.000 cases have been brought for the environment, primarily targeting local government departments which failed in their duties to protect the environment.

ClientEarth has argued that these public interest prosecutors could play a key role in advancing China’s climate transition, even in the absence of a dedicated climate law. Zhang Xueqiao, deputy procurator-general of China, confirmed in a speech to IUCN last year that they are actively exploring this possibility.

In terms of energy policy, the report stresses the need to “build the new first and dismantle the old later” (先立后破). It vows to gradually shift towards a system of “dual control” for total carbon emissions and carbon intensity, and to “deepen the energy revolution”.

On the other hand, the report stresses that the clean and efficient use of coal will be strengthened, and that the exploration and development of oil and gas resources will be intensified. While it is clear that energy security must be guaranteed, the current utilization rate of coal-fired power plants is low (about 50% average nationally), and so there is a risk that additional capacity would be even further underutilized. This could also extend the lifetime of strong interest groups for fossil energy.

At a press conference hosted on the sidelines of the Congress, the deputy director of the National Energy Administration (NEA), Ren Jingdong, was also quoted as saying that China would continue to promote the development of clean energy, and strive to make non-fossil fuels account for around 20% of total energy consumption by 2025 and 25% by 2030, up from about 16% in 2020.

Regarding international relations, the report expresses a desire for a peaceful and sustainable future:

“China is committed to building a world of lasting peace through dialogue and consultation, a world of universal security through collaboration and shared benefits, a world of common prosperity through mutually beneficial cooperation, an open and inclusive world through exchanges and mutual learning, and a clean and beautiful world through green and low-carbon development.”

Conclusion

The 20th Party Congress confirms that the environment will remain a priority for China. Given all the economic pressures China faces today, this emphasis on the environment shouldn’t be taken for granted. It is really heartening to see that the Party is sticking to the goals and targets it has set for China’s environmental and climate transition.

It gives me hope and some confidence that China will adhere to its domestic climate commitments, most importantly the carbon and energy intensity targets for 2025, which have been included as ‘binding’ targets in the 14th Five Year Plan. China will also continue to tackle ongoing environmental problems, including all sorts of pollution and ecological harm.

We are also very aware of the role China plays in the global green transition. I believe China’s new leadership won’t backslide on commitments such as ceasing to build coal plants overseas, and it will continue to make rapid progress in greening of overseas investment and trade in the coming years.

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