More than Numbers: China’s New Climate Plans

November 23, 2021

Shouting slogans and setting goals alone won’t work… China is taking actions in addition to making commitments,” remarked China’s Special Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua in a recent press conference held during COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Xie highlighted the country’s recent progress in working towards its 2030 carbon peaking and 2060 carbon neutrality targets, emphasizing, “China has supporting policies for its climate goals, as well as actions, investments, timetables and roadmaps.”

What are these supporting policies that Xie alluded to? In May 2021, China established a  carbon peaking and neutrality working group under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) as the first step to institutionalize its climate pledges. In October 2021, China’s State Council issued the two main guiding documents that serve as the timetable and roadmap for achieving its near- and long-term climate targets -- the Working Guidance for Carbon Dioxide Peaking and Carbon Neutrality (“Working Guidance”) and Action Plan for Achieving Carbon Peaking Before 2030 (“Peaking Action Plan”). In addition to the domestic overarching policy documents, China also submitted two key climate documents to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): its updated 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and its Mid-Century Long-term Strategy (LTS). 

China issued four key climate documents in succession in October, however, they were largely regarded as “disappointing” and seen as a “missed opportunity” by the international community. This is in part because they summarized previously-stated targets, instead of introducing new ones. It is true that most of the numeric targets in these plans were first mentioned in the 14th Five-Year-Plan issued in March 2021, or in President Xi’s two speeches in September and December of 2020. Table 1 summarizes the targets that first appeared in these four new policy documents. Indeed, these new numbers are limited, and they don’t represent any enhancement in China’s climate ambitions. However, the significance of these new policies should not be measured solely by numeric targets.

Table 1: The targets in China’s recent climate policies

Policy Significance Targets
Serves as the "1" in China's "1+N"
Climate policy mechanisn

Share of non-fossil reaches 80% in total energy consumption by 2060.

Oil consumption plateaus during the 15th Five-Year-Plan period.

Accelerate the pace of reducing coal use.

Action Plan

Serves as part of the “N” in China’s "1+N”
climate policy mechanism and details the roadmap to achieve carbon peaking in 2030, in areas
including energy transition, energy efficiency, industrial sector carbon peaking, urban
planning, transportation, circular economy, innovation, carbon sinks, public participation and subnational actions.

40 gigawatts of newly-installed hydro capacity in each of the 14th and 15th Five Year Plans.

Clean energy vehicle sales reach 40% in 2030.

All new urban buildings should meet green building standards by 2025.

Updates China’s original NDC submitted in 2015 with new 2030 climate targets The same targets as what President Xi announced in the Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020.
Elaborates China’s long-term climate goals focusing on 2060 carbon neutrality. Same targets as previous policies.

The working guidance and peaking plan show how China envisions fulfilling its carbon peaking and neutrality pledges. They integrate the information from China’s economic plans, sectoral decarbonization documents, and senior officials’ speeches during the past year, and set an overall pathway for the upcoming decades. This medium- and long-term policy framework links milestones and approaches in different sectors with China’s major climate targets, and cements the growing role of NDRC in China’s climate policies. It’s also worth mentioning that nature-based solutions have become a central component in these long-term plans, which effectively connects China’s environmental and climate goals.

The main question for observers now is whether or not this integrated roadmap has the adequate level of detail and ambition that can lead China to carbon peaking and neutrality. The final missing pieces in China’s overall plans -- sectoral implementation plans that will be released in the upcoming months -- will be key to shedding more light on this question.