It’s been a very heavy week. The most recent IPCC report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability provides a global scientific consensus that climate change will cause many parts of the planet to become unliveable in the next few decades. You’d think that would be a cause for alarm in capitals around the world, but in practice the report was completely overshadowed by the unfolding misery in Ukraine.
Amid all this, the Chinese government agenda appears to be moving on schedule. The ‘two sessions’ (a key annual event of the legislature and political consultative conference) are about to kick off this weekend, which will bring together thousands of delegates in Beijing to review legal and policy proposals.
Numerous policy documents have been released in the past months under the ‘1+n’ framework, and just this week, China’s Leaders Group on Climate Change held a meeting and published a summary statement on the government website. The Leaders Group is led by vice premier Han Zheng, who is also a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and chairman of CCICED. The fact that the meeting takes place right before the two sessions is a sign that the climate transition is considered a top priority. At the bottom of this article I have provided an unofficial English translation of the statement, prepared by my colleagues at ClientEarth.
The meeting reconfirms that China must move towards the ‘dual control of total carbon emissions and carbon emissions intensity’. I believe this has been in the works for some time now, and was first confirmed following a Central Economic Work Conference in December 2021. I’m hopeful that China may announce absolute emissions targets in the coming period (maybe this year or next). Shifting to absolute greenhouse gas emissions targets would be a major milestone, and it has been a CCICED recommendation for several years now.
While emphasizing the need to achieve China’s carbon peaking and carbon neutrality goals, the statement from this week’s Leaders Group meeting also refers to the country’s reliance on coal, and the need to ensure energy security, supply chain security, food security and living standards. This echoes similar comments made by China’s president Xi Jinping in a meeting of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau in January 2022 (original in Chinese). I believe those comments should be understood in the context of anxiety within the power sector, and the power shortages which hit China around September to November last year. Even though analysts point out that those were mainly caused by high coal prices which made it loss-making for power plants to burn coal, there is a perception among society that overly ambitious climate efforts were to blame, at least partly.
So is China’s climate transition still on track? Figures were released by the National Bureau of Statistics this week, showing that emissions intensity reduced by 3.8% in 2021, and energy intensity reduced by 2.7%. Both figures are on track to meet the climate targets China has set for 2025, in the 14th Five Year Plan. In the current geopolitical context, it is good to see that China stays committed to its climate transition.
China achieved impressive GDP growth of 8.1% in 2021 (due to the post-pandemic economic rebound over 2020), so we can deduct from the same report that China’s total carbon emissions rose by about 4% in 2021. Assuming that China’s economic growth in 2022 – 2025 will not be as high as in 2021, China should still be on track to enter a carbon emissions peaking plateau soon.
Nonetheless, these emissions trajectories are still a far cry from UN Secretary General Guterres’ call to reduce global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. As the latest IPCC report shows, greater ambition and action will be needed by all countries to avoid catastrophic climate change. And this in turn will require peace and a level of mutual trust among countries.
Unofficial English translation of the public statement following the meeting of the Carbon Peaking and Carbon Neutrality Leaders Working Group on 1 March 2022
Vice premier Han stressed that the country’s goal of peaking its carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality is a major strategic decision made by the CPC Central Committee given the situations at home and abroad. He noted that development and security should be balanced, calling for solid steps and overall planning to make progress amid stable development. Efforts should be made to ensure the well-being of the people, as well as the security of energy, supply chains, industrial chains and food, while reducing carbon emissions. The potential of the carbon goals in guiding and supporting high- quality development should be fully recognized. We should stick to the strategic decision, he said, and maintain focused on key sectors and critical links to promote solid efforts to realize the carbon goals, paving a green, low-carbon, environment-first pathway of development that fits China’s situation.
Han called for prioritizing in-depth research of major problems on carbon peaking and carbon neutrality in order to formulate operable policy measures. He also stressed the need for an orderly coal phase-out. Coal power should be deployed in a rational manner with deep understanding of the dynamics between the overall supply and demand to ensure efficient and clean use of coal and guarantee energy security. He stressed further promoting renewable energy development, accelerating the construction of a new energy supply and consumption system and encouraging the development of distributed power generation by new energy resources. A market-oriented mechanism for facilitating carbon peak and carbon neutrality should be built while improving the electricity pricing mechanism. The carbon emissions trading market should be optimized. He mentioned the urgency to strengthen basic capacity building and establish a uniform and standardized carbon emission accounting system to move away from “dual control” of energy consumption to the “dual control” of total carbon emissions and intensity. Low-carbon technologies shall be further developed and applied, said Han. Han also underscored the coordination of local authorities and relevant departments in achieving carbon peaking and carbon neutrality goals.