In January 2024, the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council jointly issued an Opinion (in Chinese) on comprehensively developing a “Beautiful China.” This notion was first brought up at the 18th Party Congress in late 2012 and has since been championed by President Xi Jinping. This new document spells out what it means in much more detail and sets a series of concrete targets for 2027 and 2035.
The guidance and targets set in the Opinion are aligned with a number of recommendations from CCICED.
The Opinion is important in many ways. The numerical targets it sets are critical to quantifying environmental objectives with a clear timeline. Secondly, it applies a whole-of-government and whole-of-the-economy approach to addressing environmental and social objectives. Finally, the strong emphasis of the top leadership on “Beautiful China” shows that environmental objectives are now becoming a core requirement of all social and economic development.
“‘Beautiful China’ shows that environmental objectives are now becoming a core requirement of all social and economic development.”
New targets first raised in this Opinion include the following:
Electric vehicles (EVs) Make Up 45% of New Car Sales by 2027. Research estimates that this rate equals an annual increase of 15 million EVs. Previously, there were provincial-level targets on EV market penetration, such as in Shanghai, Shandong, Hainan, etc. This Opinion provides the first national-level target. Just a few weeks ago, China’s National Development and Reform Commission, National Energy Administration, and two other authorities issued an opinion on integrating EVs and power grids. That Opinion is another signal on boosting the EV and battery industries, upgrading grids, and consuming more power generated by renewable energy, with the aim of achieving zero greenhouse gas emissions directly from source.
60% “Zero-Waste Cities” and 40% “Beautiful Villages” by 2027. By 2035, all cities should be “zero-waste,” and a “beautiful countryside” should be basically realized. Previously, there was a target on piloting 100 zero-waste cities, but no target for a percentage of all cities. The “Beautiful Villages” concept is also an important notion on synergizing rural revitalization with environmental protection.
- PM5 shall fall under 28 µg/m3 by 2027, and under 25 µg/m3 by 2035. This is a step up from the 2025 target stated in the Air Quality Improvement Plan issued by the State Council last year. This would be a further improvement, although still far from World Health Organization guidelines, which state that annual average concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 5 µg/m3.
- 90% of surface water quality shall reach “good” levels by 2027. The previous target was 85% by 2025 in the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s water planning document issued last year.
Some targets were already set in other documents, mainly nature-related targets, for example, to keep the national ecological protection red line area above 3.15 million km2, to keep terrestrial nature protection area above 18% of total land area, and targets on forest coverage rate and water soil retention rate. Including them in this document still adds value. Compared to separate numbers scattered in documents issued by various departments, the integration into this Opinion enables higher-level coordination by the leadership and State Council and elevates their level of importance.
On top of these helpful targets, the Opinion also highlights some newly emerging issues. For example, the recycling of solar photovoltaic waste, wind turbine waste, and power batteries is addressed in the circular economy paragraph. Control of new pollutants is mentioned several times. Methane and other non-CO2 greenhouse gases are mentioned in the carbon paragraphs, echoing the Sunnylands Statement issued by China and the United States in November 2023, which was also a global topic at the 28th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28).
Environmental Code Set to Become Groundbreaking Climate Legislation
The main goals of this Opinion are divided into three phases:
- By 2027, China will deeply promote its green and low-carbon development, reduce the total amount of major pollutants, optimize land-use protection, and strengthen its ecosystem service function.
- By 2035, green production and green lifestyles will be widely formed, carbon emissions will decrease steadily after peaking, biodiversity and stability of ecosystems will be significantly improved, and the goal of a “Beautiful China” will be basically achieved.
- Looking ahead to the middle of the 21st century, key sectors will be deeply decarbonized, the ecological environment will be healthy and beautiful, and “Beautiful China” will be comprehensively achieved.
The Opinion is made up of seven chapters that cover key environmental topics comprehensively and practical direction for implementation:
- Green transition. Improve spatial planning and ecological zoning systems. Promote carbon peaking and neutrality.
- Pollution control on sky, water, and soil. Tighten control on solid waste and new pollutants.
- Ecosystem diversity and stability. Promote the construction of national parks, strengthen regulation on ecological restoration.
- Ecological security, including nuclear safety, biosafety, and climate adaptation capacity.
- Sample area construction of “beautiful city” and rural ecological revitalization.
- All-society approach and a green and low-carbon lifestyle.
- Strengthen systems support, including legal, fiscal, financial, technology, and digital support.
“Having clear targets, such as the share of electric vehicles by 2027, gives clear guidance to all actors.”
In terms of supporting mechanisms, the rule of law is fundamental. This is in line with a clear trend in the past years and means that the Opinion provides a solid basis for upcoming legislation and strengthened judicial enforcement. Specifically, the Opinion asks to accelerate the compilation of the environmental code and the making and revision of laws in the environment, resource, and energy fields. The environmental code is likely to be China’s first real climate legislation, as it is foreseen to have a full chapter on climate change. The Opinion also mentions that public interest litigation, judicial protection, and compensation for environmental damage shall be promoted. The preventive role of the environmental impact assessment system shall be improved. Environmental disclosure will be strengthened and environmental, social, and corporate governance systems–so-called ESG–will be explored.
Sectoral Guidelines to Follow?
The “Opinion on Comprehensively Developing a “Beautiful China” is an important milestone. It can be compared to the EU Green Deal and the “Fit for 55” packages in Europe, which also specified medium- to long-term targets and were coupled with tangible supporting policies.
The value of setting such targets has been discussed in high-level EU–China exchanges in the past years. Having clear targets, such as the share of electric vehicles by 2027, gives clear guidance to all actors, including ministries, manufacturers, investors, local governments, allowing them to develop their implementation strategies.
Now, with this comprehensive document in place, it is possible that further sectoral policy guidelines will follow, making up a 1+N framework for building a “Beautiful China”.
The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of CCICED.