Central planning vs. local sustainable implementation
At the end of 2020, China officially pledged to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and to become carbon neutral in 2060, a decade later than other regions, like the EU. A concrete roadmap on how to achieve this transition, however, has not yet been published. And while the recent National 14th Five-Year Plan, China’s guiding document for social and economic development for the years 2021–2025, continues the trend of past FYPs to pursue environmental protection, sustainable development and the fight against climate change, it remains vague in detail. Proclaimed targets include focusing on restructuring China’s industrial base, pushing innovative technologies, continuous reform of the energy sector and fighting climate change. Providing the overarching political and developmental framework is President Xi’s vision to build an “ecological civilization,” a concept that in 2012 has even been inscribed in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution.
Absent from the National 14th FYP, though, is an absolute cap on carbon emission or any clear limit at which level carbon emissions are expected to peak prior to 2030. At the same time, the 14th FYP omits any quantified development goal in terms of percentage of GPD growth, as was specified in former plans, giving the government some leeway with economic growth targets to offset any fallout from reduced production and the energy system reform to stem carbon emissions. Experts hope that the sector specific plans, e.g., by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, will contain quantitative targets regarding carbon emissions.
To spur implementation of measures from previous FYPs and related documents, a number of pilot cities and regions were chosen to trial new technologies as well as market-based incentive programs for energy saving and carbon dioxide emissions reduction. These included promotion of new energy vehicles for private and public mobility as well as China’s Emissions Trading System. The latter has started to roll out nationwide with a focus on the power generating industry and is expected to include more sectors as the system matures over time.
The challenge lies in the reconciliation of central government goals versus provincial, regional and local needs and interests. Critics have highlighted the shortcomings of past central government-defined quantitative targets for provincial and local government to fulfill, e.g., quotas for air quality, for energy consumption reduction, for use of “clean” energy, for carbon intensity etc. In the past, quantitative targets have led to devastating consequences in some instances, when local officials, lacking expertise, capacity and knowledge, tried to achieve them. Local, undifferentiated implementation of business shutdowns to achieve a specific number of “blue sky days” resulted in shutdowns not only of polluting factories, but also of small-scale businesses, destroying people’s livelihoods. Targets that asked for a defined acreage and canopy cover of reforestation areas resulted in new forests of fast growing but water-thirsty poplar trees in arid areas, exacerbating already existing water scarcity.
Challenges exist in the implementation of China’s energy system reform, a mammoth task as it needs to take into account the different development status of regions across China as well as solve technical issues with grid-distribution and curtailment rates for renewable energy. The government has set national and provincial targets for “clean” energy – incl. natural gas, nuclear power as well as the renewables hydro, wind and solar power – production and consumption to wean the country off fossil fuels as primary energy source. Yet, coal and its downstream industries remains a viable provider of economic opportunity in many provinces, among them the largest coal-producing provinces of Mongolia (391 million tons/year), Shaanxi (210 million tons/year) and Shanxi (133 million tons/year). Here, the coal industry receives indirect and direct subsidies which do not reflect the actual costs of coal to the economy and society, and subsidies for environmental abatement equipment reduce the cost of using coal. While provincial and local governments understand the need to cap and reduce coal consumption to meet the mandatory centrally set coal reduction and air quality targets, they continue to rely on coal as their main economic activity. Closing local coal-based industry – from coal mining to steel and cement production – and replacing it with renewable energy, less polluting and innovative industries that can provide employment in these structurally weak regions will be key to China’s roadmap to a low-carbon transition.
Understanding the obstacle
China’s sheer size and complexity – both in land and population – as well as the uneven economic development situation make it a mammoth task to provide decent livelihoods and keep social harmony and peace for all. Where economic opportunity abounds, like in the affluent coastal areas, the glitzy cities of Shanghai, Tianjin or Shenzhen, local governments have an easier game in implementing central government air pollution or emission targets, as workers released from shut-down factories can find other job opportunities than in structurally weak and heavy industry-based regions. There are even differences in needs and interests between provinces, cities and districts, where a district government may hope for more investment into their heavy industry, while the city or provincial government hopes to move all heavy industry into a centralized industrial park, away from the citizens who live close by and work there. Where alternative job opportunities are lacking, the old industries will be harder to close down or change.
On the other hand, the current absence of a clear GHG or carbon emissions cap and quantitative targets at which to peak emissions leaves room for emissions to grow unfettered, peak at an extreme high level, then create challenges for the path to achieving carbon neutrality even by 2060. The higher the peak, the harder it will become to achieve carbon neutrality.
Local strategies and capacities needed to support central government climate targets
Experts and scholars are increasingly considering a cap on carbon emissions to be a prerequisite to achieve China’s ambitious climate goals. Having a quantitative target will make visible the gaps between current emissions, the largest emitting sectors and industries as well as those areas which need to see drastic cuts to emissions, in order to make achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 a reality. Whether the sectoral 14th FYP of the Ministry of Environment and Ecology will contain such a cap will need to be seen throughout 2021. The target should be carried forward until 2030 in the following national FYPs to ensure all government bodies bear responsibility in achieving the cap.
Furthermore, China’s centralist approach may impede success by applying one-size-fits-all solutions that are inconsistent with local needs and circumstances. A transition in energy supply and consumption must go hand-in-hand with a local consultation process that includes affected regions and communities. A more participatory decision-making process to define how to roll out new technologies, how to reskill workers to fit into the new energy and production framework, how to allocate sufficient resources and how to spend them, may support more sustainable change. In addition, building capacity to handle and scale up new, less carbon intensive technologies not only holds valid for released workers, but even locally involved officials will also need new skills and better scientific, social and economic knowledge. Capacity building and education, promoting scientific knowledge and skills to operate an inclusive multi-stakeholder decision-making process may enable local officials to better understand and translate national policies into local strategies and to develop plans to transition away from coal-intensive industries while creating alternative livelihood opportunities.
And finally, all of the above need to be accompanied with a clear monitoring system that ensures real-time data reg. emissions, employment rates, skills rates etc. to measure the effect of any program or plan.
The State Council, Share your ideas with China’s Premier (in English)
Premier Keqiang Li
Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China
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Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security
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Li, Yifei; Judith Shapiro. China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet, October 2020
Heggelund, G.M. China’s climate and energy policy: at a turning point?. Int Environ Agreements 21, 9–23 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-021-09528-5
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard China Country Manager Annette Wiedenbach