China’s top climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua recently said that China could “far surpass” its carbon intensity goal for 2020 — a 40 to 45 percent cut in carbon intensity from 2005 levels — and that it is possible China could cut carbon intensity by 50 percent. This would put China on a strong pathway to meet its 2030 commitment under the Paris Agreement, of a carbon intensity reduction of 60 to 65 percent by 2030 and a carbon dioxide peak before 2030. The new targets in China’s Five Year Plan could help China exceed these targets and achieve an earlier emissions peak at a much lower level.
China’s carbon intensity reductions under the Five Year Plans
Carbon intensity — the ratio of carbon emissions per unit of GDP — continues to decrease as China’s energy use shifts away from coal towards a greater reliance on clean energy. Both trends will only intensify in the years to come, because China is aiming for a greener and more service-oriented economy. This is in contrast to China’s earlier reliance on heavy industry — which was responsible for the rapid growth in China’s emissions in the 1990s and 2000s.
In China’s 13th Five Year Plan for Economic and Social Development, the government has stated that it will aim for a further carbon intensity reduction of 18 percent. During the 12th Five Year Plan, a reduction of 20 percent was achieved, surpassing the target set at the time. If the carbon intensity reduction target for the 13th Five Year Plan is reached, the reductions could most certainly result in carbon intensity reductions of at least 50 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels — surpassing the target China has submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Coal consumption caps, air pollution, and falling emissions
Thanks to strong air pollution policies and regulations on coal consumption, China’s carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion are estimated to have fallen last year. This is due in large part to a 3.7 percent drop in physical coal consumption in 2015, following a peak in China’s coal consumption in 2013. Further drops in coal consumption are anticipated under the 13th Five Year Plan, as China undertakes structural shifts in the economy away from heavy industry towards services, higher-value manufacturing and consumer spending. Thanks to structural transformations planned for China’s economy, it is estimated that China’s overall emissions could peak earlier than 2025.
Rapid clean energy growth
China’s clean energy transition will be accelerated by the 13th Five Year Plan. From 2010 to 2015, China has increased its share of non-fossil energy (renewable and nuclear) from 9.4 percent of primary energy consumption in 2010 to 12 percent in 2015. In 2015, China now has the largest installed capacity of wind and solar in the world, and the largest share of global investment — accounting for one-third of global investment in clean energy. The goal is to increase the non-fossil share of energy consumption to 15 percent by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030. The 20 percent target has been enshrined in the climate commitment China has submitted to the UNFCCC as part of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Renewables in China are growing so rapidly that serious innovations and investments in the electricity grid are underway to integrate renewable energy to the grid — so that the new capacity does not go to waste.
Post-Paris momentum and accelerated global action
In December 2015, 195 countries committed to national climate targets — with all countries playing their part to reduce emission and limit global temperature increases that could lead to catastrophic climate impacts. What we need to see this year is action by all parties that they are taking their commitments seriously. In China, the 13th Five Year Plan for 2016–2020 shows a level of commitment on climate action from the largest emitter in the world. The Five Year Plan is a policy document with significant impacts for the nation’s energy use and emissions.
Serious effort will need to be made to achieve the goals of reducing coal consumption, lowering carbon intensity, and accelerating the integration of renewables into the national energy mix. Serious challenges exist, including managing unemployment and resistance from entrenched interests in the fossil fuel industries. Fortunately, there are big plans for growing the low-carbon economy, including policies to promote renewables in China. If China achieves the carbon intensity targets laid out in its Plan, and exceed its Copenhagen target, then the likelihood of reaching and potentially exceeding its 2030 target increases significantly.
This is yet another reason that the Paris Agreement should be regarded as a significant advance and framework for future climate action, as it calls for all countries to regularly improve their climate targets. China potentially could and should increase its target for 2030 sometime in the coming years, based on the successes in reducing emissions and improving carbon intensity during the 13th Five Year Plan.
Countries are starting to recognize the necessity and benefits of a low-carbon transformation — thanks to the falling costs of clean energy and the growing acknowledgement of the many, previously-unrecognized economic, environmental and social costs of fossil fuels — in addition to their climate impacts. With a deadline of 2020 for countries to submit new commitments, China and other nations can set a positive example by stepping up their commitments in line with their changing national circumstances and trends in clean energy and efficiency.