How is China tackling climate change?
China’s domestic climate change policy
China’s climate change strategy has evolved significantly over the last decade and in September 2020 China’s president Xi Jinping announced that the country would aim to be carbon-neutral by 2060. This was seen as a significant step for the country and for global climate action.
Previously, climate policy was included in China’s energy consumption and economic development policy, but from around 2010 China began to formulate specific mitigation and adaptation policies. These are included in China’s Five-Year Plans (as well as other documents), which are where the Chinese Communist Party sets out its social and economic development initiatives. Its 12th Five-Year Plan, for 2011–2015, set out energy- and climate-related national targets for the first time. These included a 16% reduction in energy intensity (the quantity of energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product [GDP]) and a 17% reduction in carbon intensity (the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP) over the period.
In 2016, China submitted its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, in which it pledged to peak carbon emissions by 2030. Ahead of the COP26 UN climate conference in November 2021, China submitted its updated NDC, reiterating its previous target for the peaking of emissions and officially confirming its new target of becoming carbon neutral by 2060. However, some studies suggest that China could and should peak much earlier to increase the likelihood of reaching its neutrality target by 2060. To ensure the implementation of its climate pledges, in May 2021 China set up a new ‘Leading Small Group’ to provide high-level coordination between different departments and local governments on climate strategies, policies and plans. The ‘1+N’ climate policy framework is of particular importance, setting out overarching principles and action plans for different policy areas and sectors.
Government action is being supported by the finance sector. For example, the People’s Bank of China is considered a pioneer in terms of incorporating climate consideration into its policy and regulatory framework and was a founding member of the Network for Greening the Financial System.
China’s energy transition
Coal still dominates China’s energy mix, although its share in the country’s primary energy consumption reduced over the last decade, from 69.2% in 2010 to 56.8% in 2020. This is still high when compared internationally. China is investing heavily in renewable energy and its cumulative installed wind capacity accounted for 39% of the global share and its solar capacity for 36% in 2020. In June 2022, a new plan set out targets to increase total renewable energy consumption to 1 billion tonnes of standard coal equivalent (tce) (from 0.68 billion tce in 2020) and the share of non-fossil fuel energy to 20% of primary energy consumption by 2025 (from 15.9% in 2020), which could help reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 2.6 billion tonnes annually. China has also committed to stop building new coal power plants abroad.
China’s government has invested heavily in the development and rollout of electric vehicles, and has provided significant subsidies and incentives to the sector. By June 2022 there were nearly 10 million new energy vehicles (NEVs) in the country, which include battery electric, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell vehicles, more than half the world’s estimated total of 16 million. China published an industry development plan in 2020 to further support the NEV industry and improve its market competitiveness.
Adaptation in China
China is increasingly recognising its vulnerability to climate change – it faces threats from sea level rise, severe weather events and melting glaciers. The country’s adaptation plans cover areas including infrastructure, cities, agriculture, forests and grasslands, water resources and health. China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment published the National Strategy on Climate Adaptation 2035 in February 2022, to strengthen adaptation actions and improve the climate resilience of its natural ecosystems as well as economic, health and social systems.
China supports the UN-led climate adaptation processes, including the adoption in 2015 of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on climate change. In the context of China-Africa cooperation, China has expanded its focus in Africa from climate mitigation to adaptation and resilience, investing in renewable energy, disaster risk management, sustainable agriculture, and biodiversity conservation. And as part of global efforts in ecosystem restoration, China has committed to planting and conserving 70 billion trees by 2030 within its own territory.
China is chairing the UN Biodiversity Conference, CBD COP15, in 2022, to negotiate a post-2020 global biodiversity framework. The aim is to set out an ambitious plan to “implement broad-based action to bring about a transformation in society’s relationship with biodiversity and to ensure that, by 2050, the shared vision of living in harmony with nature is fulfilled”. This will have climate adaptation and mitigation benefits too, as China promotes the use of nature-based solutions such as afforestation.
China’s role in global climate action
What happens in China is fundamental to the world’s transition to net zero emissions and the possibility of meeting the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. China is currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, its share of global emissions being nearly 31% in 2020. It is clear from the global aggregate emissions requirements that the Paris temperature target cannot be reached unless China peaks its carbon emissions as soon as possible and meets its commitment of achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
China is a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. China’s updated NDC (of October 2021) pledges to uphold “multilateralism as well as the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, equity and respective capabilities”. It also says that China will “promote and lead the establishment of fair and equitable, mutually beneficial global climate governance system”.
China created the South–South Climate Cooperation Fund in 2015 and pledged around CNY 20 billion (US$ 3.1 billion) to strengthen international climate cooperation through the ‘10-100-1000’ initiative. This refers to supporting developing countries to tackle climate change by developing 10 pilot low-carbon industrial parks, 100 climate mitigation and adaptation projects and 1,000 climate-related capacity-building activities. Various announcements have been made about deepening cooperation on climate change through the major multi-country infrastructure project the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For example, in 2022 China declared it would increase green development jointly with BRI countries in priority areas including infrastructure, energy and climate change. Following China’s announcement that it would stop building new coal power plants abroad, a report on BRI investments found that in 2021 no coal projects received financing. However, some studies argue that the BRI’s environmental policies should bring in more specific regulation to strengthen the commitment to ‘greening’ the initiative.
China works with the EU on climate change via a partnership established in 2005 to provide a high-level political framework for cooperation and dialogue and the two powers have signed joint statements for enhanced dialogue since, in 2010 and 2015. Over the past decade or so, China and the EU have strengthened their cooperation on long-term emissions reduction strategies, emissions trading, low-emission transport, low-carbon cities, climate-related technology and investment in clean energy projects, among others. In September 2020, China and the EU announced the establishment of a joint High-Level Environment and Climate Dialogue (HECD).
Despite rising US–China tensions, climate change has been an area of cooperation between the world’s two largest emitters. They formalised their climate change cooperation via the landmark U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change in 2014, which was instrumental for the successful negotiations of the Paris Agreement. Further joint statements were made in 2015 and 2016 to strengthen collaboration. And during COP26 in November 2021, the U.S.–China Joint Glasgow Declaration was released, to shape how the two nations work together on enhancing climate action in the 2020s.
China has launched a Global Development Initiative to accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals through partnerships, with climate change being one of eight key areas for cooperation. China is also participating in multilateral initiatives such as co-chairing the G20 sustainable finance working group, together with the US, for the development of the G20 sustainable finance roadmap.
This Explainer was written by Chunping Xie, Lucie Qian Xia and Alice Bian with review by Danae Kyriakopoulou, Georgina Kyriacou and Natalie Pearson.