China to prioritize ‘green development,’ but will it be enough to peak emissions this decade?

Science & Health

According to the UN, the world still needs to dramatically increase its climate commitments to avert disaster. China has promised that its emissions will peak by 2030 — and political meetings in Beijing may soon reveal detail on whether, and how, that is likely to happen.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Last week, UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa gave a dire warning that the world’s ambition to reduce carbon emissions was still far short of what is needed to avert disaster. “We are collectively wandering into a minefield, blindfolded,” Espinosa said, noting that the combined national climate action plans submitted so far would not even reduce global emissions by 1% by 2030 compared with those in 2010.

  • China, the U.S., and India — the top three emitting countries — have not yet submitted their action plans to the UN.
  • Last year, Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 made the unexpected announcement that China would aim to peak emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2060.
  • The details for China’s next few years, however, remain unclear.

China is expected to prioritize “green development” at the “Two Sessions” political gatherings that start in Beijing on March 4 and 5. The other expected top priorities, according to state news agency Xinhua, are “quality” economic development, “dual circulation,” and science and technology innovation.

What does “green development” mean for China?

It’s a broad term, but these are some of the important components:

  • Green finance: Chinese regulators are updating standards on what qualifies as a “green bond,” Caixin reports, hoping to encourage the finance industry to fund environmentally friendly projects.
  • Reduced steel and aluminum output: The Global Times cites a Ministry of Industry and Information Technology official who says the steel industry should be a “pioneer” in helping China to reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions.
  • Increased use of renewables: Along with production limits for polluting industries like steel, all provincial-level regions except Tibet “are to be given specific yearly targets for renewables’ share of their total power consumption for the years leading up to 2030,” Sixth Tone reported.
  • New-energy vehicles: Last year, the government set a goal that almost all new cars sold by 2035 would be battery-powered.
  • Carbon trading: “China wants online trading in its national carbon market to begin before the end of June,” per Bloomberg.

More detail for these and other parts of “green development” is expected to be revealed as part of the 14th Five-Year Plan, covering the years 2021–2025, which the “Two Sessions” will approve. According to Shanghai Daily, a new target for carbon intensity — emissions per unit of GDP — and “other climate-related targets such as energy consumption control” are also expected to be set by the government this month.

  • What remains to be seen: Whether it will all be ambitious enough to actually push China’s emissions down by the end of the decade. According to calculations by David Fickling at Bloomberg, for example, the existing commitments on building out renewables are still “inadequate to stop the rise in China’s emissions.”

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