Analysts See ‘Marathon’ Ahead as China’s Five-Year Plan ‘Defers Heavy Lifting on Decarbonization’
China’s much-anticipated economic blueprint for the next five years stands pat on carbon reduction targets, leans heavily on “clean” coal and nuclear generation, and could lead to what one news outlet calls “a strong rise in greenhouse gas emissions” if the country doesn’t take further, faster action toward its promise to peak emissions before 2030 and hit carbon neutrality by 2060.
“As the first five-year plan after China committed to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, the 14th five-year plan was expected to demonstrate strong climate ambition, said Zhang Shuwei, chief economist at the Draworld Environment Research Centre. “However, the draft plan presented does not seem to meet the expectations. The international community expected China’s climate policy to ‘jump’, but in reality it is still crawling.”
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The five-year plan, released by Premier Li Kequiang at a National People’s Congress session “as heavy smog settled over Beijing,” contains “no target for limiting total energy consumption and no overall carbon emissions cap, which campaigners had been calling for,” Climate Home News reports. “This leaves room for emissions to continue to increase to 2025, deferring the heavy lifting on decarbonization until later this decade.”
The draft says China “will reduce its ‘emissions intensity’— the amount of CO2 produced per unit of GDP—by 18% over the period 2021 to 2025, but this target is in line with previous trends, and could lead to emissions continuing to increase by 1% a year or more,” The Guardian says. “Non-fossil fuel energy is targeted to make up 20% of China’s energy mix, leaving plenty of room for further expansion of the country’s coal industry.”
That “underwhelming” result “shows little sign of a concerted switch away from a future coal lock-in,” added environmental economist Swithin Lui, of the Climate Action Tracker and NewClimate Institute. “There is little sign of the change needed” to hit a net-zero emissions target.
“This is much closer to continuing current trends than getting on track to carbon neutrality,” agreed Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. “Clearly there’s no preparedness to put a stop to coal expansion.”
The final shape of the five-year plan is deeply disappointing to analysts who expected a commitment to peak emissions as early as 2025. “2025 seems possible, all the modelling by Chinese teams points to that, and it’s not too late,” said European Climate Foundation CEO Laurence Tubiana, one of the architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement, in the days leading up to the announcement. “But 2030 or around 2030 would be too late, there is no ambiguity about that.”
With fine details of the plan still taking shape, there’s scope for an outcome that is either worse or better.
“Unusually, this five-year plan did not set out GDP targets for the whole five-year period, but allowed for annual targets, with the first for this year a target of 6% growth. The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said that coupled with the emissions intensity target, this could allow the growth rate of China’s emissions to speed up even further, rather than slow down, as is needed,” The Guardian explains.
“There is, however, still scope for China to flesh out its plan with more detail on how it will increase clean energy generation, encourage industry to reduce emissions, and to adopt more stringent near-term targets on greenhouse gas emissions. Sectoral plans and other details will follow later this year.”
And “still to come is China’s national plan under the Paris climate agreement,” The Guardian adds, with China and the rest of the world’s governments under pressure to adopt faster, more ambitious emission reductions targets at this year’s UN climate conference, COP 26, in Glasgow.
Against those factors, Bernice Lee, research director for futures at Chatham House, framed the five-year plan as a starting point, not a final word. Chinese President Xi Jinping “has staked his political capital and future on delivering green and low-carbon growth at home, and his international reputation on fast climate action,” she told The Guardian. “The direction of travel is clear, even if it remains short on specifics.”
Which means this month’s announcement “is just the start of a marathon, not a sprint,” she added. “There will be much to play for in the coming months.”
But Bloomberg News says the plan leaves the toughest decisions to bureaucrats, rather than the politicians, and pushes deeper emissions cuts beyond 2030.
“China’s top officials largely delegated the difficult decisions to the different ministries and state-owned enterprises that oversee the country’s energy sector,” the news agency states. “In the coming months, the energy administration will provide specific targets for wind, solar, hydro, oil, and coal power use over the next five years. Provincial governments will have to say what they’re going to do. China will also release a five-year climate plan for the first time, led by the environment ministry.”
So far, the plan is consistent with a “two-speed approach” to carbon reductions put forward by researchers at Tsinghua University, Bloomberg adds. That group “suggested keeping emissions reduction small before 2035, leaving most of the hard work to the second half, when researchers argued cutting emissions—and by proxy slowing growth—will have less of an impact on a wealthier society. They also assume that China will by then be able to rely heavily on new clean energy sources such as hydrogen as technological breakthroughs will have made them cheap enough.”
But that approach “will allow the country’s powerful fossil fuel industries to build more capacity and further entrench their place in the nation’s economy,” the Bloomberg analysis states. “China mines and burns half the world’s coal, and any serious effort to tackle climate change will have to shrink the industry significantly. The five-year plan doesn’t lay out hard targets for cutting coal use, and instead says China will continue domestic production of fossil fuels like coal and oil.”
Li Shuo, Senior Climate and Energy Policy Officer at Greenpeace East Asia, said the plan raises more questions than it answers, reflecting “a sense of uncertainty” from Chinese policy-makers on the country’s post-pandemic economic performance and a changing geopolitical environment for climate decisions. Latest data from the International Energy Agency show China’s emissions rising 7% in December 2020 compared to the same month last year, in a post-pandemic recovery driven largely by coal consumption and steel and cement production through the second half of the year, Climate Home says.
“Considering China’s habit of under-committing and over-delivering five-year plans, these targets [in the five-year plan] will hopefully hedge against a surge in further emission growth,” Li Shuo told Climate Home. “But industrial groups will certainly point to the modest carbon intensity target as an excuse for business as usual.”
And “China’s economic recovery from the pandemic so far has been anything but green,” he added.
More broadly, the five-year plan “illustrates China’s struggle going forward,” Bloomberg writes. “On one hand, Xi wants to build what he calls an ‘eco-civilization’, and support for environmental protection is growing among the public. On the other, local governments are already finding ways around Xi’s green agenda and the fossil fuel industry continues lobbying hard for its expansion—for example, seizing on a power shortage this winter to argue for more energy security.”
Which means a key question is how effectively the environment ministry can convince other government departments and state-owned enterprises to buy in to Xi’s 2060 carbon neutrality target.
“Since taking on the task of reducing emissions in 2018, it has been relatively toothless, though it appears to have gained sway after Xi’s net-zero pledge. The five-year plan sets a target of ‘basically eliminating’ heavy air pollution by 2025, boosting forest coverage to 24%, cleaning up the nation’s rivers, and restoring wetlands. How far China goes in implementing these policies will be a sign of how effective the ministry is becoming.”
Meanwhile in the run-up to COP 26, the five-year plan is being interpreted as a snub to international climate diplomacy, with senior officials from the European Union and the United States searching for a “climate doctrine that works” to bring China onboard, Politico Europe reports.
“It is important for us to align ourselves now,” because “no one country can resolve this crisis,” said U.S. international climate envoy John Kerry, during a European tour to meet with EU Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and others.
“The science is screaming at us,” Kerry said, and “this decade must be the decade of action.”
Yet “it doesn’t seem like China sees a united front on this as the biggest of risks right now,” said E3G policy expert Jennifer Tollmann. “Is there a trade consequence for Chinese inaction this year? And is that something that the U.S. and the EU want to discuss jointly or not?”
Carbon Brief: Q&A: What Does China’s 14th Five-Year Plan Mean for Climate Change?
The Associated Press: China Sets Moderate New Energy Goals for Climate Change