China's Recent Steps Towards Meeting Its Climate Commitments

Despite some recent U.S. press reports to the contrary, China is not sitting still when it comes to addressing climate change. A number of high-level statements and reports released in China over the last week have sent this message loud and clear.

Today marked the start of China’s annual legislative session. Various official statements released over the course of this past week indicate that low-carbon development and clean energy will be top legislative priorities in China throughout the coming year. Below are four indicators of China’s commitment to a course of action on greenhouse gas emissions and clean energy in the coming session. My colleagues and I will continue to blog on climate and environmental developments during the NPC legislative session as they arise.

1. Highlights from the First Day of the National People’s Congress Session

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) is currently engaged in a two-week long meeting to establish the nation’s priorities. While the discussions are still ongoing, two preliminary developments are already worthy of note:

  • Premier Wen Jiabao opened the session with a “State of the Union” style address about what achievements China made in 2009 as well the direction China should be heading. (Here is the link). In his speech he noted that climate change had been a key priority in 2009 and that China will continue to take strong measures to implement its 2020 carbon intensity goal. He also noted that China had made progress in implementing its energy intensity goal and that China will actively support its rapidly developing clean energy sector.
  • The NPC is considering whether to adopt a proposal that focuses on low-carbon development as its No. 1 Resolution. The No. 1 Resolution is often considered one of the most influential documents in the legislative session.  The proposal recommends that building a low-carbon economy should be a top government priority, including greening governmental offices and their activities by using recyclable materials and energy efficient lighting and transportation (Chinese only).

2. Post-Copenhagen Roundup Conference

Last Wednesday, China convened a high-level conference in Beijing to discuss its post-Copenhagen strategy and policy in fighting climate change. Several top climate change officials spoke at the event, and a number of my colleagues from NRDC’s Beijing office were present. (A transcript of the event is available here in Chinese only).

Su Wei, the Director General of the Department of Climate Change, spoke about the progress made at Copenhagen and the path forward from China’s perspective. One of the themes he emphasized is that a global consensus emerged from Copenhagen that climate change is caused by human activity and that global political action is needed to fight it.

Here is our in-house, unofficial translation of some of his key remarks made at the conference:

Su Wei highlighted three significant achievements that came out of Copenhagen:

  • First, Copenhagen “raised people’s awareness about the problem of climate change…Copenhagen represented an unprecedented common political effort on a global scale to address climate change…. After Copenhagen, climate change is now a topic that everyone knows about and everyone is talking about.”
  • Second, “a political consensus emerged from Copenhagen on the need to control greenhouse gas emissions. It also confirmed that global economic development must be headed in the direction of low-carbon development. And it also indicates that a new round of economic competition and technological change has started. Although skepticism regarding the science of climate change continues to exist, the mainstream view is that climate change is caused by human activity. Especially during the last 200 years during the process of industrial development, the large quantity of emissions produced by developed countries without restraint is what has created the current climate change problem. On this point there is a fundamental consensus. One of the main outcomes of Copenhagen is to confirm this consensus and to confirm that each country must take strong actions to control greenhouse emissions according to the principle of ‘common but differentiated’ responsibilities- each country must make a contribution to address climate change.”
  • Third, Copenhagen “confirmed the principles and structure for the international cooperative effort to address climate change. The principle is that developed and developing counties must have “common but differentiated responsibilities” and the principle of fairness must be applied to tackling climate change…”

Su Wei also identified four key aspects of China’s policy and strategy going forward for tackling climate change:

  • First, “We must balance economic development and environmental protection… We must make addressing climate change one of the key national strategies in China’s economic and social development.
  • Second, “Addressing climate change does not only concern the Chinese people, but it affects the welfare and long-term development of all people in every country. Therefore, we must rely on practical and effective international cooperation to fight the challenge of climate change. We must uphold the UN Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol’s fundamental framework and uphold the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and the Bali Action Plan. We must also demonstrate to the world the Chinese people’s sense of responsibility and spirit of dedication.”
  • Third, “The core issue in addressing climate change must be sustainable development”.
  • Fourth, China must “actively research low-carbon technologies. In addressing climate change, technology has an extremely critical and core role… We must research low-carbon technologies, increase the scale of green investment, advocate for green consumption, promote green growth…We must strengthen energy conservation, improve energy efficiency, clean coal and renewable energy, advanced nuclear, as well as research and development in other low-carbon and no-carbon emission technologies…and implement corresponding policy measures, including economic policy, tax, pricing and finance.”

Su Wei concluded with this remark: “Our country’s goal of controlling greenhouse emissions, is not just a promise that we are making to the international community that demonstrates our people’s sense of responsibility and spirit of dedication, but it is also about our country moving forward with a scientific view of development and we must continue unwaveringly on this path of sustainable development because its an absolute necessity.”

3. Plans to Implement Carbon Intensity Reductions

On Friday last week, China’s chief planning agency (NDRC) issued a report affirming China’s plan to push forward with its commitments to reduce its carbon intensity under the next Five Year Plan.

As I’ve previously blogged about, China has set a target of reducing its carbon emissions per unit of GDP (“carbon intensity”) by some 40-45% by 2020 based on 2005 levels. In order to meet this target, China will need to build upon the work it has already done during the 11th Five Year Plan period (2006-2010) to reduce its energy use per unit of GDP (“energy intensity”). China’s top officials are now sitting down to formulate the country’s main priorities for the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), and we’ve been watching closely for China to release the details of how it plans to carry through on its climate pledges.

Based on the NDRC report released last Friday, we now have confirmation that carbon intensity targets will in fact be included in the 12th Five Year plan and that these targets will be “binding” as we expected. This is a positive development because it signifies that China’s is moving forward with its pledge to reduce its carbon intensity and it will be a top national priority as promised. My colleague, Alex Wang, has blogged about the significant role that national plans can play in driving orchestrated, nationwide action in China. In short, setting nationally “binding” targets is one of the most effective institutional tools available in China’s governance system. Based on the serious manner in which China has pursued its current targets over the last five years, I believe that China will live up to its pledges to reduce its carbon intensity.

4. Renewable Energy Program Announced

Official media reports this week announced that China is preparing to unveil a ten-year program to invest billions of dollars into China’s already booming clean energy sector (click here for Chinese). As part of its suite of pledges evolving out of Copenhagen, China committed to increasing the share of non-fossil sources of energy (such as hydro, wind, solar, biomass and nuclear) in its primary energy consumption to 15% by 2020. According to Secretary Zhang Guobao, the plan, which should be released soon, will outline the path for implementation of clean- and renewable-energy projects. Just a few weeks after the Copenhagen summit ended, China started working towards this pledge by amending its Renewable Energy Law, which now includes provisions that will ensure that renewable energy account for an increasing amount of China’s total energy consumption. Increasing its clean energy resources has been one of the key pillars of China’s strategy to address climate change, and this strategy comes with the added benefit of increased energy security as well as the creation of 1.2 million jobs in China’s renewable energy sector as of 2008.


China is moving forward on the implementation of its commitments, recorded as part of the Copenhagen Accord. The playing field is dramatically different than it was just two months before the December climate negotiations and will undoubtedly only continue to progress. I will continue to blog more about China’s next five year plan as more details emerge.