China is positioning itself as a global climate leader, and its actions have an enormous impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. Discouragingly, a rise in coal consumption drove Chinese CO2 emissions to a new high in 2017, which will likely be exceeded again in 2018.
The recently concluded IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C found that coal needs to exit the power sector by 2050 globally if warming is to be limited to this level, and efforts by China to reduce coal in the next few years will be critical to this. The world’s largest emitter, China is simultaneously, and almost paradoxically, the largest consumer of coal and the largest solar technology manufacturer, and the choice it makes between the technology of the past versus the future will have a lasting effect on the world’s ability to limit warming to 1.5°C. China’s emissions, like the rest of the world’s, need to peak imminently, and then decline rapidly.
With current policies, CO2 emissions in China may level off in the next few years, but total greenhouse gas emissions are projected to rise until at least 2030.
Even so, China is on track to meet or exceed its 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) , which the CAT rates “Highly insufficient.” China’s NDC is not ambitious enough to limit warming to below 2°C, let alone to 1.5°C as required under the Paris Agreement, unless other countries make much deeper reductions at comparably greater effort.
Despite the return to increasing emissions in 2017, China’s top climate official, Xie Zhenhua, has announced that China met its 2020 carbon intensity target in 2017, three years ahead of schedule. CAT analysis based on official Chinese GDP data confirms this. If China maintains this intensity level (or lowers it) over the next three years, it will achieve the intensity element of its 2020 pledge. Under current policies, China is also likely to achieve its (more stringent) 2020 target to limit fossil fuels, but neither of these targets are compatible with limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C.
Given that China is on track to achieve or overachieve its climate targets, its next step as a global climate leader could be to set an example by submitting a strengthened NDC to the Paris Agreement by 2020. (For details on China’s NDC, see “pledges and targets” section).
On 3 September 2016, China ratified the Paris Agreement, and it has policies in place to reach its NDC goals. These policies are currently centred around the targets set in its NDC, which include a commitment to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 at the latest, lower the carbon intensity of GDP by 60%–65% below 2005 levels by 2030, increase the share of non-fossil energy carriers of the total primary energy supply to around 20% by that time, and increase its forest stock volume by 4.5 billion cubic metres, compared to 2005 levels.
China’s NDC’s targets, if reached, would result in GHG emission levels of roughly 14.4–16.6 GtCO2e/yr in 2030. The NDC carbon intensity targets on their own would lead to 2030 emission levels of 14.7–16.6 GtCO2e/yr. As the intensity targets are likely to be reached automatically if the non-fossil targets are achieved, and our rating is based on achieving all NDC targets, we do not address the intensity targets separately here. (China’s intensity target on its own would also result in a “Highly insufficient” rating.)
However, this range also implies that China’s NDC and its national actions are not yet consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C, let alone 1.5°C unless other countries make much deeper reductions and comparably greater effort than China. We therefore rate the emission levels estimated for 2030 resulting from the most ambitious aspects of the NDC as “Highly insufficient.”
Our analysis shows that China will achieve both its 2020 and 2030 pledges. Current policy projections show that total greenhouse gas emissions will rise to between 14.4–15.8 GtCO2e/yr in 2030. Under the most optimistic assumptions, CO2 emissions (including process emissions) could flatten between now and 2030, under more pessimistic assumptions, they will continue to rise, reaching between 10.8 and 12.2 GtCO2/yr in 2030.
China is implementing significant policies in multiple sectors to address climate change, and also aiming to restrict coal consumption. China’s 13th Five-Year Plan stipulates a maximum 58% share of coal in national energy consumption by 2020 (NDRC, 2016), among other energy related targets. China is implementing an emissions trading system, which is expected to start in 2019, and has also announced a mandatory renewable energy certificate scheme that sets targets for renewable energy for each province individually.
However, the Chinese government abruptly reduced subsidies for solar projects in 2018 and lifted a 2-year ban on new coal-fired power plant construction.
China has not yet implemented sufficient policies addressing non-CO2 GHG emissions (CH4, N2O, HFCs etc.) Under current policy projections, 23 – 25% of China’s GHG emissions in 2030 will be non-CO2 emissions. As the NDC acknowledges that addressing these gases is important, further policy action may be expected to address non-CO2 emissions as well.