China: The 2021 Climate Year in Review

China: The 2021 Climate Year in Review


  • Adoption of 14th Five Year Plan, a Development Model Promoting Advanced Clean Technologies, that Pollute Less and Save Energy
  • Roll Out of Emissions Trading Program
  • Extreme Weather Patterns in China’s Hinterland Trigger Greater Emphasis on Developing Climate Adaptation and Resilience Programs
  • Commitment to End All Financing of Coal-Based Power Plants Outside of China
  • China Submits Revised Paris Agreement NDC to Peak Carbon Dioxide Emissions Before 2030 and Achieve Carbon Neutrality Before 2060



Policies and programs lay foundation for accelerated decarbonization of China and beyond 

In March 2021, the Chinese government adopted its 14th Five-Year-Plan which centers on two key themes: strengthening China’s domestic socio-economic foundations and supporting technology and innovation. To bridge the immense wealth and development gap between urban centers and the rural hinterland, China has introduced the “dual-circulation model” which aims at building a unified domestic market and strengthening the domestic demand potential while weaning the country off its reliance on Western imported technology.

Sustainability continues to play a role, albeit less pronounced than in the previous FYP, as expressed in the underlying principles to create an ecological civilization and achieve common prosperity. These principles point to China’s target to achieve a more just transition away from the previous development model based on heavy production enabled by cheap labour, to a model based on cleaner and more advanced technologies, that pollute less and use less energy. In addition, the new plan contains no concrete targets for growth of gross domestic product (GDP) thus allowing other measures to play a greater role in assessing the performance of individual officials and regional or local governments. The National Development and Reform Commission as the owner of the FYP will be overseeing and monitoring progress of implementation as well as the development of sector specific plans such as the “14th Five-Year Plan” National Cleaner Production Promotion Programme.

In early January 2021 China’s Emissions Trading Program commenced its nationwide roll-out with the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) publishing key ETS policy documents stipulating allowances and allocations for relevant industries. The first stage includes some 2,200 power sector companies, but the scheme will ultimately include more than 6,000 production companies from different industries. In mid-2021 the Chinese national ETS started trading on the trading platform operated by the Shanghai Environment and Energy Exchange (SEEE). The ETS is expected to contribute to the effective control and gradual reduction of carbon emissions in China and to the achievement of green and low-carbon development. The scheme is estimated to cover more than four billion tons of CO2, accounting for approximately 40% of national carbon emissions. Oversight of the systems implementation has been transferred from the National Development and Reform Commission to the Ministry of Environment and Ecology (MEE), which is also tasked with further developing the ETS principles as insights on its performance are gained over time.

A wake-up call as to the importance to strengthen climate resilience in previously relatively unaffected areas were the heavy flooding of cities in China’s center caused by freak rainstorms in July 2021. Torrential rains over a period of three days unloaded the equivalent of a year’s worth of rainfall; this travesty caused major flooding in Zhengzhou city and the surrounding towns of Henan Province, killing more than 70 people, affecting some 9.3 million people, and causing economic damage worth 82 billion yuan (US$12.7 billion). Prior to the rains, Henan and its capital Zhengzhou were suffering from a heatwave. Also in July, typhoon In-Fa made landfall in China’s eastern province Zhejiang, just south of Shanghai, causing heavy flooding, the evacuation of residents, the closure of Shanghai’s two airports and a purported 3.35 billion yuan (IS$516 million) in damage.

Weather patterns in China’s commercial heartland have become more extreme over the past decade with ever more scorching summers and rainstorms of a ferocity previously unknown to the country. Thus, the topic of how to prepare China’s cities better for unexpected weather events and improving resilience has moved up the agenda for both MEE as well as local governments. Local governments are working with universities on resilience programs, for example the city of Hangzhou which works with academia and industry on finding sponge city solutions to mitigate the impact of increased rainfall.

A development with more wide-ranging global impact was China announcement in September 2021 at the U.N. General Assembly in New York to end all financing of coal-based power plants outside of China, heeding criticism by international organization that China’s flagship development program “Belt and Road Initiative” was undermining the world’s carbon neutrality efforts by heavily investing in coal-based projects in developing countries. A Greenpeace study recommends that “China’s public finance institutions could develop as much as 679.69 gigawatts (GW) of solar power and 26.55 GW of wind power by 2030, effectively cutting 1.8 billion tons of carbon emissions and creating 310,000 new jobs.” This would be a first step in helping developing countries on a development path away from fossil fuels and carbonization.

All of these are puzzle parts in China’s roadmap to realizing a set of newly revised Nationally Determined Contribution which the government submitted to the UNFCCC end October 2021. China pledges to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060, bringing the pledge closer to the 2050 carbon neutrality goal of other countries. These new strategic targets were proclaimed in addition to pledged made at the end of 2020 to lower CO2 emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) by over 65% from the 2005 level, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25%, increase the forest stock volume by 6 billion m3 from the 2005 level, and bring its total installed capacity of wind and solar power to over 1.2 billion kW. While the wording remains vague and steers clear of any commitments to be carbon neutral by 2050, it is nonetheless significant when considering China’s cautious approach to achieving results in climate change mitigation.

Rather than over promising, China has in the past preferred to set goals it deems realistically achievable, but then overachieving those goals and readjusting as developments unfold.

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager Annette Wiedenbach



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