Three Key Questions About China's Climate Commitments


China's announcement that it will cap its carbon pollution by 2030 - earlier if possible­­­­­ - and increase the share of non-fossil fuel in its primary energy mix to 20% by the same year, represents a major departure from China's previous position in the international climate negotiations (now underway again in Lima, Peru), and a vital step forward for the world's largest CO2 emitter. A number of questions have arisen about whether China is serious about meeting these targets, and how it will achieve them in the face of daunting challenges. Here are three reasons why we believe China is completely serious about tackling climate change and has the necessary tools to succeed in doing so.

1. Are there any signs that China is taking its climate commitment seriously?

From a political standpoint, the fact that President Xi Jinping made the commitment himself - at such a high-profile meeting of Asian world leaders - means that Xi has put an enormous amount of personal political capital on the line. This is the first time that a Chinese president has announced a climate commitment and it is also consistent with President Xi's latest major foreign policy address, in which he reasserted China's growing role as a global power in addressing the world's major problems.

China's climate commitment is backed by a series of detailed action plans, most recently a 40-page National Climate Change Plan for 2014-2020 (in Chinese), which was adopted in September 2014 but only made publicly available on November 4th. As explained in more detail in our last blog here, this Action Plan spells out a comprehensive new program to achieve China's 2020 carbon intensity reduction target and lay the foundation for the 2030 pledge.

Most notably, China's climate action plan calls for stabilizing total CO2 emissions from China's most highly polluting and energy-intensive industries -- steel and cement -- by 2020 at 2015 levels. The plan also calls for the development of CO2 emission standards for the power, metallurgy, iron, petrochemical, chemical, transportation and construction industries. This plan will be translated into binding requirements on Chinese industries, and efforts to develop those standards are already underway, undercutting the argument that according to its 2030 pledge, China does not plan to "do anything for 16 years".

China's climate commitments goals are also strongly supportive of, and being driven domestically by, the leadership's recognition of the political importance of addressing its air pollution problem. The major culprit is coal, which provides 66% of China's primary energy (as of 2013), and causes 50-60% of its PM 2.5 air pollution and 73% of its fossil-fuel related CO2 emissions.

China is taking serious action to cut its heavy reliance on coal. The September 2013 State Council Air Pollution Action Plan sets numerical targets for China's most polluted regions to reduce their coal consumption, as well as a national goal of reducing coal to less than 65% of primary energy by 2017. The 2014-20 Energy Development Strategy Action Plan has a further goal of reducing this to 62% or below by 2020.

The Energy Development Strategy Action Plan also has for the first time set a national coal consumption cap target of 4.2 billion tons for 2020, compared to about 3.6 billion tons in 2013. This is the first time that China has set a numerical coal consumption cap as part of an energy development plan, and NRDC's coal consumption cap project is seeking to make the target even tighter, based on environmental, health and other constraints, and to develop the implementation measures needed to meet the coal cap target and ensure it represents a peak in coal consumption.

Photo: Simon Lim/Greenpeace

Strikingly, China's coal consumption in the first three quarters of 2014 has fallen compared to the same period in 2013, and the data from October appear to show that this trend is continuing. As Greenpeace analyst Lauri Myllyvirta writes: "In October, Chinese coal production dropped 8.5 per cent, imports dropped 17 per cent (for the third month in a row), and coal-fired power generation dropped 6 per cent. This brought the coal production drop during the first 10 months of 2014 to 1.5 per cent and drop in imports to 8 per cent, while thermal power generation was still 0.1 per cent larger than last year."

2. To what extent can China enforce its stated policy?

Weak enforcement has long been the key barrier to improving China's environment. Yet the power of the Chinese government to enforce the handful of policies it considers top priority - whether it be the one-child rule, Internet censorship, or even cleaning up Beijing's air for last month's APEC conference (which was led by President Xi himself) - is undisputable. The key factor is political will. If China's government considers a policy to be essential to social stability, it will bring its maximum resources to bear in order to ensure that it is carried out.

For more than thirty years, the Chinese government has maintained social stability by offering its citizens a bargain: the citizens would support government policies as long as the country continued its breakneck pace of economic growth. That bargain is now wearing thin, as choking levels of coal-driven air pollution are cutting life expectancy by as much as five years, rivers are running dry, and toxic chemicals are contaminating China's agricultural lands and food supply. The continuing outcry over China's "airpocalypse," along with the increasing number of environmental mass protests in China, has led the government to the inescapable conclusion that getting serious about pollution has become essential to maintaining social stability.

The same is true for climate change. According to China's own scientists, China faces "extremely grim" ecological and environmental conditions from global warming, including a drop in grain output of up to 20 percent, sea level rise engulfing coastal cities, and increasingly severe storms, flooding and droughts. These warnings have brought climate change to the forefront of the government's agenda, as it knows such dire impacts could have a huge impact on people's lives and social stability.

Armed with the necessary political will to tackle climate change and environmental pollution, China has an increasing number of tools at its disposal to confront the main obstacles to progress: strong vested interests, including powerful state-owned enterprises (SOEs) as well as local governments with financial interests in polluting industries; and a lack of implementation and enforcement capacity. These enforcement tools include:

  1. the ability to rate the performance (and thus determine the career prospects) of every city mayor, provincial governor and SOE head on how well they meet their allocated climate and environmental targets;
  2. a new environmental penalty system, slated to go into effect on January 1, 2015, in which enforcement officials can assess higher penalties that will continue to accumulate at the same level for every day the violation continues;
  3. the ability to withhold energy efficiency subsidies and other rewards from companies who fail to obtain permits for their CO2 emissions in the carbon market pilots;
  4. a host of new requirements for companies to disclose environmental information; and
  5. a whole new system allowing qualified NGOs to bring public interest litigation against environmental violators.

In addition, a key new environmental regulation, begun in January 2014, requires China's top 15,000 polluters, across the power sector and heavy industry, to report their air emissions in real-time to environmental authorities, which then publicly releases the data. This regulation has the capability to revolutionize environmental enforcement and environmental pollution transparency, giving a powerful new tool to environmental regulators and the public to understand who is violating pollution standards and whether they are taking actions to correct their violations.

If China were to require these 15,000 largest polluters to also publicly report their real-time CO2 emissions and work to ensure the accuracy of this data, it would have a powerful enforcement tool for ensuring compliance with GHG standards and coal consumption targets.

China continues to strengthen environmental enforcement across the board. Earlier this week, the General Office of the State Council issued a Notice on Strengthening Regulatory Law Enforcement. The Notice provides for five policy measures designed to strengthen environmental regulatory enforcement in all aspects, punish environmental violations strenuously, timely solve prominent environmental problems that endanger scientific development and public health, and promote environmental quality improvements.

3. Will China cheat?

Although some companies and local government leaders will undoubtedly try to underreport their CO2 emissions and coal consumption, the central government is working hard to improve its capacity to monitor, report and verify GHG emissions. This work is an essential building block for all of China's climate initiatives, especially its plans to develop a national carbon market beginning in 2016.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the fact that China has every incentive not to cheat on its climate commitments. To the contrary, the New Climate Economy Report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found that by peaking its CO2 emissions around 2030 while continuing and accelerating its efforts on economic restructuring, energy efficiency, renewable energy development and air pollution control,

"China can effectively balance multiple goals of economic development, energy security and environmental quality, and achieve multiple policy objectives simultaneously. We find that such a target can greatly reduce dependence on fossil fuels and imported energy, and improve energy structure without increasing energy cost. In this scenario China's economy would be less susceptible to energy price changes as well...With appropriate policy design, the target could be consistent with low GDP cost, even before including the environment and health benefits of action. When the quantifiable benefits of reduced air pollution are considered, a large portion of GDP cost can be offset."

The seriousness of China's commitment was vividly illustrated by a conversation I had with a very senior Chinese government official at a conference in southern California. Looking outside the window at clear blue skies, the official said, "We simply must clear up China's air pollution. When I was a boy growing up in Beijing, I could stand in Tiananmen Square and see the beautiful mountains to the west of the city. Now, when I stand in the same place, I can't even see the portrait of Chairman Mao!"

This post was coauthored by Alvin Lin, NRDC China Climate and Energy Policy Director, and Susan Finder, author of the Supreme People's Court Monitor.