China’s New Plans Deepen Action on Climate Change

Plans released in November show commitment to transitioning from coal to clean energy to address air pollution and climate emissions

Tangshanpeng Wind Farm/Land Rover Our Planet

This is part one of a two-part blog covering China’s new 13th Five Year Sub-plans on Climate, Environment and Power, written with Noah Lerner, Princeton-in-Asia Fellow in NRDC's Beijing office

With uncertainty hanging over the U.S.’s future climate contributions under the Trump Administration, three new Thirteenth Five Year sub-plans released recently by the Chinese government on controlling greenhouse gas emissions, environmental protection and development of the power sector provide assurance that China will continue to deepen its environmental and climate actions regardless of any change in U.S. policies. These sub-plans add concrete measures and targets to the climate goals outlined in China’s overall 13th Five Year Plan for Economic and Social Development released last spring. (See our previous analysis on that plan). The Greenhouse Gas Control and Environmental Protection plans reinforce what is happening on-the-ground in China as the country is likely to achieve its third year in a row of reducing coal consumption, contributing to a reduction of its carbon dioxide emissions by about 0.7% last year.

China’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Control Work Plan and Power Sector Development 13th Five Year Plans (FYPs) came out just as countries convened in November for the COP22 climate negotiations in Marrakesh, Morocco, while its Ecological and Environmental Protection 13th FYP (hereafter referred to as the Environmental Protection 13th FYP) was released later in the month. Covering a comprehensive set of policies, these documents lay out benchmark goals for 2020 that will put China on track to over-achieve its 2030 Paris goals, strengthen enforcement of environmental laws and standards, and continue its transition to low carbon energy. While challenges remain, including addressing the remaining pipeline of planned coal power plants that risk becoming stranded assets under China’s low carbon transition, the policies set a clear direction for continued action that will help reduce China’s and global greenhouse gas emissions, and improve environmental quality and public health in China. In this blog post, we discuss the significance of the GHG control and Environmental 13th Five Year Plans. The climate implications of the Power Sector plan will be covered in a second blog post.

China’s Roadmap for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions During the Next Five Years: Strengthening control of CO2 emissions and coal consumption

The State Council released its 13th Five Year work plan to control GHG emissions (Chinese) in early November just before the Marrakech COP, reaffirming China’s commitment to do its part in combatting global climate change. The plan begins by reiterating a key climate goal: China will peak its CO2 emissions by 2030 and make its best efforts to peak earlier. To do this, the work plan sets out a range of targets and policies related to controlling and reducing CO2 emissions, including reiterating goals to reduce China’s carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) by 18% by 2020 compared to 2015, reduce energy intensity by 15%, increase non-fossil energy to 15% of the energy mix (from 12 percent at the end of 2015), and increase forest stock volume and coverage to 16.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) and 23.04 percent, from 15.14 bcm and 21.66 percent as of 2015.

The GHG Control work plan also reiterates a total energy consumption cap target of 5.0 billion tons of coal equivalent and a coal consumption cap target of 4.2 billion tons for 2020. This 4.2 billion coal consumption cap target was included in the 2014-20 Energy Development Strategy Action Plan, but this is the first time that a 13th Five Year Plan has included the target. Both the GHG Control work plan and the Environmental Protection 13th Five Year Plan include strengthened policies on controlling coal consumption, given the importance of this task to controlling China’s GHG emissions and its PM 2.5 and other air pollution. The GHG Control work plan notes that severe air pollution regions and cities should continue to reduce their coal consumption after 2017, the final year of the 2013 Air Pollution Action Plan that established the original coal consumption reduction mandates for the Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei), Yangtze River Delta (Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu) and Pearl River Delta regions.

Recognizing that reducing coal consumption is key to improving air quality, the Environmental Protection 13th FYP (Chinese) adds a goal to reduce coal’s share of total energy consumption to 58 percent by 2020, compared to 64 percent in 2015. It also establishes specific coal consumption reduction targets for key air pollution regions: Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Henan and the Pearl River Delta are to reduce their coal consumption by about 10 percent by 2020, compared to 2015; while Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Anhui are to reduce their coal consumption by about 5 percent. Given the significant coal consumption in these regions, this will result in a reduction in coal consumption of about 140 million tons by 2020 if the regions all fulfill their targets. This would be equivalent to eliminating the annual coal consumption of South Korea, thus demonstrating the Chinese authorities’ continued focus on transitioning China’s energy structure from coal to cleaner energy.

Also under focus is reducing coal consumption in China’s cities, requiring all prefecture-level cities that do not meet China’s air quality standards to achieve an 18% reduction in their average annual PM 2.5 levels by 2020. The Environmental Protection 13th FYP specifically calls on China’s 10 cities with the worst air quality, to continue to implement their plans to reduce coal consumption. The use of “dispersed coal,” i.e., the coal for residential heating and cooking and small-scale industrial boilers, mainly in rural areas, also comes under aim, given its disproportionate contribution to air pollution. In Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei, for example, studies have found that cleaning up dispersed coal emissions could reduce PM 2.5 levels by up to 32%. The GHG Control work plan and Environmental Protection plan set targets to reduce dispersed coal use by replacing it with natural gas and electric heating, expanding district heating and green buildings, and upgrading and phasing out smaller inefficient boilers. Urban areas with district heating and natural gas networks are to ban the use of dispersed coal.  

Given that China’s coal consumption was 3.96 billion tons in 2013 and has continued to fall in 2014, 2015 and this year, we believe the 4.2 billion ton and 58% coal consumption cap targets can be achieved and even improved upon. The China coal consumption cap project’s research for the 13th Five Year Plan coal cap policy recommends a 2020 coal cap target of 3.5 billion tons and 55 percent of total energy consumption, achievable by reducing excess industrial capacity, expanding energy efficiency and non-fossil energy, and implementing fiscal, tax and market measures to account for coal’s environmental and climate impacts. Strengthening implementation of national, sectoral and local coal cap targets to reduce coal consumption to 3.5 billion tons (compared to the study’s reference scenario of 3.9 billion tons) would reduce PM 2.5 emissions by 1 million tons and prevent 71,000 premature air-pollution-related deaths per year, while helping China contribute greatly to addressing global climate change by avoiding 850 million tons of CO2 emissions.

The GHG Control work plan includes several other key measures to address coal consumption and develop low carbon models, as well as address other non-CO2 GHG emissions:

  • Large power generation companies must achieve a fleet-wide average of 550 grams of CO2 emissions per kWh by 2020, which requires that they continue to expand their low-carbon generation resources such as wind and solar while limiting the operation of their coal power plants. This strengthens the 2015 target of 650 grams of CO2 emissions per kWh. According to the 13th Five Year Plan for Electricity Development, Chinese coal power plants in 2015 consumed an average 318 grams of coal equivalent per kWh, emitting 890 grams of CO2 per kWh, while a wind or solar farm emits zero. Based on 2016 electricity generation data, the Chinese electricity system as a whole in 2016 emitted about 620 grams of CO2 per kWh. While the 550 grams of CO2 per kWh is a significant target, there is a need for greater transparency, including a regular scorecard on how power generators are doing in meeting this target.
  • The work plan directs economically developed regions to peak earlier than the national 2030 target, including supporting efforts by the 23 Chinese member cities of the Alliance of Peaking Pioneer Cities (APPC) to set targets and develop plans to peak early. It also sets specific carbon intensity reduction targets of 12-20.5% for each province, and calls for establishing 50 pilot “near-zero emission zones,” expanding the current low-carbon cities program from 42 to 100 cities, and establishing 80 low-carbon industrial zones. It also calls on certain heavy industry sectors to peak their CO2 emissions by around 2020.
  • Finally, the plan notes that China will establish a national carbon market next year, which will cover all enterprises that emit over 10,000 tons of coal equivalent in eight major industries. By pricing carbon, China is seeking to expand the role of market forces in developing, manufacturing and operating low carbon energy sources, technologies and practices. The work plan calls for strengthening monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) at the national, local and enterprise levels, and developing a complete carbon cap-and-trade system by 2020 with active trading, strict management, and transparency.
  • Importantly, China’s GHG Control work plan is looking beyond CO2 to strengthen policies to control other GHG emissions, including methane and HFCs. This includes reducing methane emissions in the agricultural sector and in municipal waste and sewage treatment. In line with the recent Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the State Council’s GHG Control work plan also calls for developing an action plan to control the emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), man-made “super greenhouse gases” used as refrigerants and other applications. The plan also sets new targets for controlling emissions of one type of HFC, HFC-23, a greenhouse gas with 14,800 times the warming effect of CO2, requiring that all HFC-23 emissions basically be destroyed according to the standard, and reducing HCFC-22 production and consumption (HFC-23 is a by-product of HCFC-22) so that production in 2020 is 35% less than that in 2010.

With the GHG Control and Environmental Protection 13th Five Year Plans, China is showing its commitment to deepening policies to reduce coal consumption, develop low carbon technologies and policies, and pursue a path towards cleaner development. Key to this energy transition will be greening the electricity sector. In our next blog, we review the 13th Five Year Plan for power sector development and the challenges and policies needed to develop a low-carbon power sector.

About the Authors

Alvin Lin

Climate and Energy Policy Director, China program

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