China Has a Grand Carbon Neutrality Target But Where Is the Plan?

Lambert here: The same might be asked of others, of course.

By Alicia García-Herrero and Simone Tagliapietra, both Senior Fellows at Bruegel. Originally published at Bruegel.

As the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter, China will make or break the global quest for climate neutrality by the middle of the century – the only way to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C. Consequently, President Xi’s announcement in September 2020 of China’s new objective to peak CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 was broadly welcomed. But President Xi offered no detail on how China could turn this vision into reality, and an examination of China’s current plans shows clearly the goal will not be achieved without major changes.

Following Xi’s announcement of the goals at the United Nations General Assembly, some details of how China might approach its targets were provided at the December 2020 Climate Ambition Summit. Here, Xi outlined preliminary elements of the new Nationally Determined Contribution that China is due to submit – like all other Paris Agreement signatories – ahead of COP26 in late 2021. Xi stated that China would aim by 2030 to cut carbon intensity per unit of GDP by more than 65% from 2005 levels (compared to the existing target of 60%-65% by 2030), and would increase the share of non-fossil fuels in energy consumption to 25% by 2030 (compared to the existing target of 20%).

As a continuation of the progress already being made by China, rather than an acceleration, these preliminary targets raised doubts about the feasibility of China peaking its emissions before 2030 and securing carbon neutrality by 2060. China’s continued investments in coal, the primary component of the county’s energy mix, have reinforced those doubts (Figure 2).

Instead of cutting its reliance on coal, China put 38 gigawatts (GW) of new coal-fired power capacity into operation in 2020, equal to the entire coal-fired power generation capacity currently installed in Germany. While one could argue that the pandemic made 2020 a difficult year for China to focus on climate, it remains to be seen when and how China will reveal how it intends to peak emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

The most obvious place to look for such information is China’s 14th Five Year Plan (FYP), which was announced at the National People’s Congress in March 2021. Five Year Plans are the main guiding force behind policy in China at all levels of government. Unfortunately, on climate measures, the 14th FYP falls short. It essentially outlines a continuation of existing trends, rather than an acceleration of climate action. Strongly focused on the development of the manufacturing sector (notably through strict targets on state-led innovation), the plan mentions neither a coal cap, nor an emissions cap (Table 1).

The 14th FYP simply commits to reducing the carbon and energy intensity of China’s GDP growth. Current estimates are that China’s emissions will continue to rise every year, at a rate of 1% to 1.7% until 2025. It should also be noted that the 14th FYP makes several references to the development of coal, emphasising its clean and efficient utilisation. This is consistent with the broader structure of the plan, which is strongly oriented towards ensuring China’s self-sufficiency in the context of an increasingly hostile external environment and, in particular, US-China strategic competition. In other words, the 14th FYP does not include a coal-consumption reduction target, nor a clear target for emissions to peak by 2025. Interestingly, the plan also makes no reference to the target of 1,200 GW of solar and wind installed power capacity by 2030, mentioned by President Xi in December 2020.

The lack of specific targets for the 2020-2025 period in the 14th FYP is worrisome, but does not mean President’s XI‘s commitment made at the UN is unachievable. It could still be achieved with much more stringent measures to cut emissions between 2025 and 2030, or with more stringent measures within the 14th FYP at central and local level, even if not imposed in the FYP. However, China’s recent economic history shows local government pushing for higher rather than lower growth, hampering progress in cutting carbon emissions.

More detailed measures on energy, renewable energy, coal and electricity from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment are expected in late 2021/early 2022. It might be within these measures that we finally see a ‘coal cap’ for 2021-2025. As if this were not enough, both Chinese and international climate modelling studies state that China’s emissions should peak by 2025 at the latest for China to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 (see for example a December 2020 study coordinated by the Energy Foundation China and the University of Maryland, which highlighted the dangers of locking-in high-emission assets and the need for rapid action). If China’s emissions do not peak quickly, achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 will be challenging.


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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Some Guy in Shanghai


    China has zero interest in making climate progress. Nothing about China’s development is green or sustainable or an alternative to American-style wastefulness. The central planners clearly want widespread car ownership, for example, while construction of redundant shopping malls and apartment buildings continues. People talk about Chinese “ghost cities”, but nobody talks about the abandoned and partially abandoned shopping malls that exist in places where people live.

    Add to that the country’s absolute mania for coffee, fast food, and meat products and I will not take anything the government says about climate or the environment seriously.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      One of the saddest aspects of China’s decision making is that it went all in for a car economy. Of all countries that could have avoided it (dense cities, lots of bike lanes, excellent public transport), it could have gone the other way. But they actively encourage mass car ownership, which has made the already grim Chinese cities even more unbearable. My first visit to Beijing was in 1998, and I remember been somewhat awestruck by the scale of the streets and how empty and quiet they are, with just flocks of cyclists making their way across the giant intersections (11 chariots wide, according to tradition). But now China has the absolute worst of car cultures, where every street is a miasma of pollution and the worst driving on the planet. I feel so sorry for the old folks I see pretty much penned into their immediate neighbourhoods as its just too stressful to cross a street if you are not an athlete.

      Another unfortunate aspect is the obsession with meat. My closest Chinese friend insists on bringing her own meat with me when she comes to my place for dinner (I’m vegetarian). Having daily meat in Chinese culture means you’ve ‘made it’, and the government knows full well not to interfere with that. But mass pork consumption is killing the Chinese countryside, and probably the Amazon rainforest too.

      One of the many lost opportunities of the past few decades was that China could have picked other development directions. But they chose to go the full Asian Tiger model, making growth their God. Countries like Japan and South Korea and Taiwan have spent the past few decades trying to ameliorate the worst societal/environmental damage caused by their rush for growth, but its not an easy task.

      1. upstater

        The automobile facilitates a huge portion of the FIRE sector everywhere. It is what enables big box retail and the basic highway infrastructure for motorized freight transport, warehousing and fulfillment centers. All manner of housing centers on the car. Land becomes a consumable. The financial industry drives this process everywhere and it is ultimately irreconcilable with sustainability or CO2 reduction, no matter how many EVs are built.

        My uncle consulted with the electric industry in China in the mid 1980s and met some senior governmental officials. He said “what ever you do, don’t embrace the automobile culture like the west”. The officials reacted as if he was crazy…

        1. PlutoniumKun

          The irony is that they’ve encouraged a car centric culture while simultaneously restricting consumer spending through macro controls. I haven’t seen any official figures on it, but I’d guess that middle income Chinese spend a far higher proportion of their disposable income on their cars than in other countries as they don’t have the same access to (official) credit. Its hugely damaging and would have been all too easy to avoid. The number of cars per person in China is about a quarter of the US, but is catching up fast, which is a pretty horrifying thing to contemplate.

          Unfortunately, the next big growth country, Vietnam, seems to be doing the exact same thing.

    2. rjs

      re: “I will not take anything the government says about climate or the environment seriously.”

      ditto for the USA…

    3. guerre

      As someone who spends a lot of time in both the US and China, I don’t know if I fully sign on.

      For my coworkers, buying a car(outside of Shanghai-Suzhou) seems to be the big marker of ‘making it’ in your 30s, and that’s after you’ve already bought your second flat.

      Complete reverse of US. Everyone I know has own at least 1 car by their 30s, often keeping the old car when they buy a replacement. Of course buying a home in your 30s is the big marker of ‘making it’ but it is equity, not a depreciating assets like an old ford.

      As long as you can buy appreciating real estate in china and scooters are socially acceptable , their car culture is really a mere facsimile.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    The problem for china is that despite the regular 5 year plans, they don’t really do central planning – the ‘Plan’ is more a series of targets along with vague exhortations which they then give major discretion to local governments at all levels to try to meet targets, with competition actively encouraged. This competition can be very effective when it comes so stimulating growth, but its not so good when it comes to something less easy to quantify, such as environmental protection. Also, despite its enormous expenditure on infrastructure, its noticeably weak on some aspects of national infrastructure – it doesn’t, for example, have a particularly good nationwide series of electricity grid connections, which makes it very difficult to get power from the inland wind and solar resources to the big cities of the coast. And despite its high speed rail network, its goods rail network is fragmented and dated. The focus in China is always on infrastructure that either looks flashy (big bridges) or provides immediate economic returns (roads and subways on urban fringes on public lands), less so on items that are needed to reduce pollution impacts.

    China is serious about climate change, because its leaders are generally technocrats, not ideologues, and the entire country’s existence depends on careful managing of water, both scarcity and too much (floods). The impact of climate change is all too obvious in the headwaters of the key river systems of China. But there has to be a fear that China will decide that short term growth will somehow compensate, and that some sort of dramatic feat of engineering will in the end protect the country.

    One noticeable absence from the discussion is nuclear energy. China has typically invested in a wide range of reactors, both domestic and foreign, tried and tested and novel. The assumption was that they’d decide on a winner and then use its massive economies of scale to churn out copies of whichever design was considered most suitable. But that hasn’t happened, despite regular promises over many decades of a major roll-out of new plants. Its anyones guess why not – its certainly nothing to do with fear of accidents or greenie campaigning. The likely reason is that they’ve simply realised that the cost can’t be pushed down and its just too expensive compared to the alternatives.

  3. Coldhearted Liberal

    China’s commitment to emissions peaking in 2030 is not new. It was first announced in 2009 for the Copenhagen conference.

    So now they may have more details, but the level of ambition doesn’t seem to have gone up.

  4. dummy

    China will never abide to any plan but pay lip service to be left alone for as long as they are taking advantage of the system. Its amazing how naive western politicians and media are about china, whatever comes out of their mouth is lies more lies and more deceit and lies.
    That we continue to hope they will honor their commitments its a sign of our decline and weakness as well a witness to china’s rise.

  5. cbu

    I’m not sure what more China can do.

    Fusion reactor:

    Solar power:

    Wind power:,despite%20the%20Covid%2D19%20pandemic.&text=Most%20of%20the%20world's%20new,power%20capacity%20built%20at%20sea

    China’s supercritical coal plants:

    China out front in global race to eliminate CO2 emissions:

    China’s high speed trains are powered by electricity. China has by far the most electric buses. China also has one of the largest EV market in the world. China produces one third of the world’s hydrogen and is in the initial phase of setting up the hydrogen infrastructure. All of these needd time. Rome was not built in one day.

  6. Tenar

    Since China’s carbon neutrality announcement there’s also been quite a bit of discussion in climate policy circles about which GHGs it covers – i.e. only carbon dioxide, a subset of greenhouse gases, or all GHGs. This is a broader issue that goes beyond China’s carbon neutrality target and applies to “net zero” targets in general. Countries are using their own definitions and accounting methods, making it a challenge to understand just what is and isn’t covered by a given target. There was a recent Nature commentary “Net-zero emissions targets are vague: three ways to fix” that sums this issue up quite nicely:

  7. Keith McClary

    Some Canadian Cons are demanding that China switch from coal to “green” Canadian Liquefied Natural Gas. Of course, if China became dependent on that, the Cons would be threatening to turn off the taps.

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