Chinese premier Li Keqiang recently unveiled the country's plan for combating climate change. While it could have been more ambitious, the plan shows China's leaders are serious about changing the country's development path. It critically undermines those in the West who claim that climate action should be delayed because China is doing nothing.
With China accounting for nearly 30 per cent of global CO2 emissions in 2013, its actions have profound global implications. China’s plan contains a commitment that its CO2 emissions will peak by 2030 or earlier, and that it will reduce the carbon intensity of the economy by between 60 per cent and 65 per cent by 2030. It also contains significant targets for non-fossil energy and forests.
Although most of these were unveiled as part of a joint US-China climate agreement last November, the significance of last month’s announcement lies also in the fact that China made this pledge in the framework of United Nations climate talks leading to a major summit in Paris this December.
China has pledged to make "best efforts" to peak earlier than 2030. This should be interpreted in the light of its approach to target-setting. By and large, it underpromises and overdelivers. China's influential Energy Research Institute projects that the peak could come as early as 2020– 2022.
China’s target for non-fossil energy is also significant. It plans to increase renewables and nuclear from 11.4 per cent in 2014 to 20 per cent of primary energy by 2030. This equates to adding 800-1,000 gigawatts, equivalent to the entire current US generating capacity.
There are already promising signs. Chinese consumption of coal – which currently makes up 66 per cent of primary energy consumption – declined in 2014.
There are also uncertainties, however. Most important is China’s future GDP growth, which will significantly affect the level and timing of its emissions peak. Another critical unknown is what happens after its emissions peak: will they plateau for some time, or decline?
China’s most significant policy lever is its five-year plan process. Government officials’ career prospects depend on meeting their five-year plan targets, so they strongly shape government behaviour. In a departure, the forthcoming 13th five-year plan (2016– 2020) is expected to include a cap on coal consumption and energy-related CO2 emissions.
China is moving ahead with other policies, including trialling low-carbon city experiments as well as emissions trading pilot schemes. The government has announced its intention to roll out a national emissions trading scheme by early 2017, though many Chinese policy experts are deeply sceptical about this time line.
China has begun this transition at a far earlier level of economic development compared with western countries. It may be an economic powerhouse but its per-capita GDP stands at just under $7,600 (€6,925). It is expected to add 250 million people to its cities over the next 15 years, all aspiring to more energy-intensive lifestyles.
China’s leaders “get” climate change but this is not the primary driver of policy. Concern over air pollution has been much more significant in recent years. Premier Li declared a “war on pollution” last year, and rapid steps have been taken to clean up air quality. Since this involves closing down coal power plants and heavy industry, it also benefits the climate.
China also has energy security concerns, though these are less severe than a decade ago. Transitioning from fossil fuels is seen as a way to enhance energy security.
More broadly, China’s climate plan is part of its medium-term economic restructuring. Its leaders recognise that the past model of development based on energy- intensive heavy industry cannot continue, and China is also keen to capture low-carbon growth markets.
The importance of the plan also lies in its global political consequences. For a country that so jealously guards its independence, it was significant that China framed these domestic targets as its contribution to UN talks leading to the Paris summit.
Transparency and accountability remain critical issues, however. One of the most important functions performed by international agreements is to enable countries to be more certain of others’ actions. A key unknown for the Paris talks is what China is prepared to accept in terms of external review of its emissions data.
Cleaning up decades of pollution in China will not happen overnight, but its climate plan shows the country is moving decisively towards a lower-carbon development path.
Dr Diarmuid Torney is a lecturer in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and author of European Climate Leadership in Question: Policies toward China and India (MIT Press, 2015).