China's new 2030 climate target will contribute to a lower and earlier emissions peak for China and the world

China Peak Scenarios - 2.png

China formally submitted its climate pledge for the post-2020 period in preparation for the new international climate agreement to be finalized this December in Paris. A number of these details were announced as part of the US-China climate agreement last November, but China has now added a carbon intensity reduction target to its 2030 goals. China's climate commitment, and action underway to cap coal consumption and continue to expand clean energy, puts it on a path to cut more dangerous carbon pollution, and earlier, than many previously expected. This will bring enormous health, environmental and economic benefits to the people of China, and help the world stem the worst impacts of climate change.

For its climate pledge, China proposed: (1) a peak in carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier; (2) a continued carbon intensity reduction target reaching 60-65% below 2005 levels by 2030; (3) an increase in non-fossil energy sources to represent at least 20 percent of total energy by 2030; and (4) a target to increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters on the 2005 level. The carbon intensity reduction target is important for providing an indication of the level at which China may peak its CO2 emissions.

China's CO2 peak will be earlier than many predicted

As a part of the U.S.-China agreement, China's President Xi Jinping committed to even deeper cuts in the country's climate pollution than many expected was achievable just a few short years ago. In fact, prior to the announcement many experts predicted that China's emissions would not peak for several more decades. The International Energy Agency's reference scenario, for example, projected that China's CO2 emissions wouldn't peak until well after 2040, and other estimates followed a similar trend (see figure). Now China has promised to peak its carbon emissions within 15 years, and to make its best efforts to peak before then.

New carbon intensity target and a national coal cap policy should lead to a lower and earlier peak

This new carbon intensity reduction target of 60-65% below 2005 levels by 2030 could lead to emissions significantly lower than previous estimates. And under a national coal cap policy that is under serious discussion in China - to cap coal consumption at 4.2 billion tons or less by 2020 - CO2 emissions in China could potentially peak by 2025 at an even lower level than the CO2 intensity target might imply. According to two new studies by the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC) - one of China's most important think tanks - released on June 10th as part of the China Coal Cap Project coordinated by NRDC, China's CO2 emissions could peak by 2025 if it enacts a strong national coal cap policy that controls coal consumption to four billion tons by 2020 and 3.5 billion tons by 2030 (see figure). This is a similar finding to a recent study from researchers at the London School of Economics which looked at some of the structural changes occurring in the country and found that emissions could peak by 2025 or sooner. These overall numbers could be even lower if China's GDP doesn't grow as fast as projected as a number of independent analysts estimate a potential lower GDP growth rate.

China Reduction Scenarios - 2.png

This earlier and lower coal consumption peak and CO2 peak are quite possible, as addressing China's overuse of coal has become a key focus for the government as part of its efforts to address China's severe air pollution. Coal consumption accounts for 50-60 percent of China's PM2.5 pollution nationwide, and the government has already enacted regional coal consumption caps for the key air pollution regions. Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei and Shandong, some of the largest coal-consuming provinces, have announced targets to reduce their coal consumption by a total of 83 million tons by 2017 compared to 2012 levels. Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong (for its industrial Pearl River Delta) will announce their 2017 coal reduction targets by the end of June. And the State Council - China's cabinet - has already established a national coal consumption cap target of 4.2 billion tons for 2020 in the Energy Development Strategy Action Plan released last November.

Already coal consumption is showing credible signs of reaching its peak. China's coal consumption fell by 2.9 percent in 2014, the first drop in 14 years, according to official Chinese energy statistics. This occurred even as China's GDP grew by 7.4 percent. And the first quarter of 2015 saw a similar declining trend in coal consumption.

China's new climate targets should help it to peak its CO2 emissions earlier and lower than previous estimates, speed its transition to clean energy, and help secure a strong international agreement this year.

This post was co-written with Han Chen and Alvin Lin; it benefited from analysis by NRDC intern Wusi Fan.


Note: Figure on emissions implications of carbon intensity target and coal cap assumes the GDP growth rates included in these estimates. Some analysts estimate a lower GDP growth rate might occur. For example, the GDP growth rate assumed in the Coal Cap project scenario for 2013-2020 is 7.6%, whereas Citigroup is predicting 6.7% rate of real GDP growth. The "low ambition INDC" assumes that the weaker of the 2020 and 2030 carbon intensity targets are met. The "high ambition INDC" assumes that the stronger of the 2020 and 2030 carbon intensity targets are met. The "Coal Cap Policy Scenario" shows energy-related CO2 emissions assuming a coal cap of 4 billion tons for 2020 is introduced.

Note: The first and second figures were updated as the black lines should have been labelled from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), not the International Energy Agency (IEA).