China five-year plan hints at deeper carbon cuts

World’s largest carbon polluter may arrest rising emissions sooner than thought, says five-year economic plan, but details on boosting renewables remain light

Remko Tanis Follow 18th CPC Congress Beijing Nov 2012 China's leaders at the start of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China

Lawmakers passed the 13th five-year plan on Wednesday. China’s leaders at the start of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing (Flickr/ Remko Tanis)

By Alex Pashley

China has revealed it may strengthen its climate targets, signalling an earlier peak in carbon emissions.

The world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter said it would “implement and enhance” its climate strategy in its 13th five-year plan released on Thursday.

China committed to arrest CO2 growth before 2030 and boost clean energy to 20% of its energy mix in its contribution to the Paris climate agreement.

The admission in the lengthy document would make China the first major emitter to state it will ramp up its climate ambition in the next five years.

“The word ‘enhance’ is particularly strong in this instance, and as with much of the government’s communication, is carefully chosen,” said Li Shuo, senior climate policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia.

The EU has refused to deepen a 2030 target to cut emissions 40% on 1990 levels after a lack of consensus among its members.

The 2016-2020 plan is the 13th development blueprint set out in China’s command economy. It sets targets for a range of economic and social indicators from GDP growth to hazardous air pollution.

The 195 countries that signed the Paris climate agreement agreed to review national climate pledges at five-year intervals to cap global warming to “well below 2C” and “pursue efforts” to hold it to 1.5C this century.

Some analysts question if China’s emissions have already topped out – 14 years early – on falling coal use and a surge in renewable power.

Leading forecaster the International Energy Agency said China’s energy-related emissions fell 1.5% in 2015. Coal consumption declined for a second straight year by 3.7%, according to the statistics bureau.

Green push

China already has a 2020 goal of 15% of energy to be supplied by non-fossil sources. Targets exist to raise installed nuclear to 58 gigawatts, solar PV from 43GW in 2015 to 150-200GW and wind from 145GW to 250GW.

China has said it will cap its energy consumption, and lay-off 1.8 million workers from its steel and coal sectors, as it battles air pollution and its economy shifts away from heavy industry.

“We have selected the steel and coal sectors to start with the effort of cutting overcapacity and at the same time we will also avoid massive layoffs,” China premier Li Keqiang told reporters in Beijing.

Report: China top officials outline greener five year plan 

Elsewhere the plan – which forms a blueprint for development through 2020 – outlined a cap for energy consumption of 4.3 billion tonnes of ‘coal equivalent’. China burnt through over 4bn last year, and that will act as a ceiling. 

State news agency Xinhua called it the “greenest” one ever. “The newfound zeal for green development comes against a backdrop of China’s economic shift from the old “growth at all cost” model, which has left air, water and soil tainted, to a sustainable one,” it said.

China will target a 15% reduction in energy per unit of GDP by 2020 on 2015 levels (down from 16% in 2010-15), and aim to cut carbon intensity 18% (up from 17%) in the same period.

That aligns it with a 2030 target to cut carbon intensity by 60-65% while the economy seeks to expand at least 6.5% a year.

That results in a “significant slowdown” in annual emissions growth from 5.4% registered from 2005-2014, to a 2.3% rate over the next 5 years, the London-based Carbon Tracker NGO projects. 

Emissions of two key pollutants, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide must fall 15% by 2020. Air quality of all cities must meet “good” or “excellent” standards 80% of the time.

Report: China’s Five Year Plan to radically tighten air pollution targets 

There will be lay-offs as the country heads towards “de-industrialisation and urbanisation,” premier Li said, with some 1.8 million workers in steel and coal sectors expected to lose their jobs.

Planners want to remove 100-150 million metric tons of steel to reduce a supply glut. As for coal, a ban on new coal mines is in place for the next three years, while the government aims to cut capacity by 1,000 mt over the plan by closing old mines and consolidating companies. 

Redundancy on that scale won’t be easy, said Hongmei Li, an editor at energy service Platts, who said there was no industry “to accommodate such a huge workforce” amid fears of social unrest. 

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