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Climate Change

China’s Climate Pledges: Stronger Immediate Action Needed

by Barbara Finamore
May 05, 2021

In March China released its anticipated 5-year plan which lays out the country's economic development framework. Climate change was expected to play a major role in the plan's underpinnings, but did the results meet the expectations?

The United Nations warns that, given current CO2 emissions levels, we are headed towards a catastrophic rise of 3°C in global temperatures this century. To limit this rise to 1.5°C, we must cut emissions by around 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero emissions levels by mid-century. Countries have begun to strengthen their climate targets, as called for by the Paris Agreement, but a large emissions gap still remains. We need strong climate action now along with ambitious long-term goals.

China’s 2015 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) included a pledge to peak its CO2 emissions around 2030 and make best efforts to peak earlier. Yet it did not set a target level at which emissions would peak. This fact, along with Beijing’s decision to delegate coal plant approval authority to the local level, led to a rush of new coal plant construction. The coal industry, anticipating future restrictions on its core business, proposed massive new coal conversion projects in western China, and actively pursued opportunities to build coal plants abroad under the Belt and Road Initiative.

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Compounding the situation, concerns in recent years about a slumping economy led Beijing to relax earlier restrictions on coal plant approvals in provinces with overcapacity or resource constraints. These economic concerns intensified in 2020 with the global pandemic. Last year, the country jump-started its recovery with investment in fossil-fuel infrastructure and built over three times as much new coal-fired capacity as the rest of the world combined. Coal is now responsible for over 70 percent of China’s CO2 emissions.

In September 2020, President Xi announced that China will aim to peak its CO2 emissions “before 2030” and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. If achieved, the carbon neutrality pledge would lower global warming projections by an estimated 0.2 to 0.3° C, making it the world’s single largest climate commitment to date. Reaching carbon neutrality will require decarbonizing everything from power generation and heating to industry and transportation. In addition to phasing out coal, rapidly scaling up existing clean technologies, and massively improving its energy efficiency, China will need to develop potentially transformative next-generation technologies such as green hydrogen.

It is not yet clear whether the 2060 carbon neutrality pledge includes non-CO2 emissions, although Xi Jingping later stated that China will ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, phasing down hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) production and consumption, and tighten regulations over other non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.

In December 2020, Xi Jinping provided further details on how China intends to strengthen its NDCs under the Paris Agreement, though these commitments have not yet been formally submitted to the United Nations.

These 2030 targets include:

  • Reducing carbon intensity by “over 65 percent” compared to 2005 levels (up from 60-65 percent),
  • Increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to “around 25 percent” (up from “around 20 percent”),
  • Increasing forest stock volume by 6 billion cubic meters above 2005 levels (up from 4.5 billion cubic meters)
  • Increasing the total installed capacity of wind and solar power to over 1,200 gigawatts (GW) (new target).


his photo taken on December 11, 2017 shows a general view of a floating solar power plant in Huainan, a former coal-mining region, in China's eastern Anhui province.; Getty

A general view of a floating solar power plant in Huainan, a former coal-mining region, in China's eastern Anhui province.;


These targets are not major enhancements of China’s existing NDCs. The new goal of increasing wind and solar installed capacity to 1,200 GW, while ambitious, is basically in line with the country’s recent trajectory. China is already the world leader in renewable energy investment, installed capacity and generation. Research shows, however, that the country could achieve 60 percent higher levels of wind and solar penetration by 2030 at a lower overall cost than business as usual, while reducing harmful air pollution, cutting water use and creating green jobs.

China’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025), which was released in March 2021, does not provide much detail on how China intends to meet its CO2 peaking and carbon neutrality targets. The Plan does not include 2025 targets for coal or energy consumption, CO2 emissions, or wind and solar capacity. Even its goal of reducing China’s carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) by 18 percent is difficult to assess, since the Plan does not include a five-year GDP target.

At the April 2021 Leaders Summit on Climate, President Xi Jinping, for the first time, called for restrictions on China’s unbridled coal expansion. He said that China will strictly control coal-fired power generation projects, strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th Five-Year Plan period, and phase it down in the 15th Five-Year Plan period (2026-2030). Though further details are not yet available, the power sector has gotten the message. Xi Jinping’s statement was the headline story on most power news accounts in China, according to carbon analyst Yan Qin.

A Chinese mine worker warms herself over a coal stove coal as she takes a break at a mine on November 25, 2015 in Shanxi, China. A history of heavy dependence on burning coal for energy has made China the source of nearly a third of the world's total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the toxic pollutants widely cited by scientists and environmentalists as the primary cause of global warming.; Getty

A Chinese mine worker warms herself over a coal stove coal as she takes a break at a mine in Shanxi, China. A history of heavy dependence on burning coal for energy has made China the source of nearly a third of the world's total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the toxic pollutants widely cited by scientists and environmentalists as the primary cause of global warming.;


More detailed sectoral five-year plans will be released later this year or early 2022. They will cover energy and energy savings, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, renewable energy, coal, electricity, and energy-intensive industrial sectors such as iron and steel, cement, and aluminum. These sectoral plans will likely include caps on total coal consumption and coal-fired power capacity. Experts are now vigorously debating how strong such targets should be, especially in light of Xi Jinping’s recent statements.

In an April 2021 Joint Statement Addressing the Climate Crisis, the United States and China committed to cooperate with each other and other countries to tackle the climate crisis with the seriousness and urgency it demands. They agreed to work together to raise global ambition on climate mitigation, adaption, and support. They also pledged to continue discussions on a range of concrete actions in the 2020s, including near-term measures to reduce emissions from coal, oil, and gas. Cooperation, as well as healthy competition, between the world’s two largest emitters will help to accelerate both nations’ response to our climate emergency.

In the meantime, it is clear that China’s CO2 peaking and carbon neutrality targets have become top national priorities. Beijing is now developing an action plan for capping CO2 emissions by 2030, as well as a long-term strategy aimed at reaching carbon neutrality. Provinces have already completed their own peaking action plans, many with earlier target dates. The steel industry, a major source of emissions, announced a preliminary goal of capping emissions before 2025 and reducing them 30 percent from the peak by 2030. The government officially launched the world’s largest nationwide emissions trading scheme in February 2021.

The next few months will provide key details on how quickly China plans to move forward towards achieving its climate pledges. There is room for China to strengthen its official NDCs before the COP 26 climate negotiations to be held in Glasgow this November. Doing so will help China boost productivity, protect the environment, and harness the power of innovation to drive its green economic, energy and industrial transformation.

Barbara Finamore is a senior leader and environmental advocate with over four decades of experience in environmental law and clean energy policy. In 1996, she founded the China Program of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the first clean energy program launched in China by an international NGO. She helped to develop China’s first energy codes for residential and commercial buildings, first research and development program for fuel cell vehicles, first utility-based programs for demand-side management, and first nationwide emission control regulations for the shipping industry. 

Ms. Finamore has served as a Senior Attorney and the Senior Strategic Director for Asia at NRDC, the President and Chair of the Professional Association for China's Environment (PACE), and the co-founder and President of the China-U.S. Energy Innovation Alliance. Ms. Finamore also worked for the U.S. Departments of Justice and Interior, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Center for International Environmental Law. She is currently a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. In 2017, Ms. Finamore was named a member of Foreign Policy’s “The U.S.-China 50”, a group of 50 individuals who are powering the world's most complex and consequential relationship. She is the author of “Will China Save the Planet?” (Polity Press). Ms. Finamore holds a J.D. degree with honors from Harvard Law School.


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