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Guide to Chinese Climate Policy: REVIEW

International Affairs Academy

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July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded. The Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization said, “July has rewritten climate history, with dozens of new temperature records.” Temperatures soared around the world, including in China. A prominent Chinese scientist predicted that such heat waves would become the “new normal” in the decades ahead.1 The first edition of the Guide to Chinese Climate Policy was released in July 2018 (the third hottest month ever recorded). My goal was to provide an objective, factual report on climate change policies in the world’s largest emitter. Since then, trends in China’s response to climate change have been mixed. On the one hand:

● In 2018, China’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading heat-trapping gas, rose roughly 2.5%. This was the largest annual increase in five years.

● In 2018, roughly 30 GW of new coal-fired power capacity was added in China (roughly 60 midsized coal plants). Capacity additions for coal-fired power plants continued at the same pace in the first half of 2019.4

● China’s public financial institutions continued to lead the world in financing new coalfired power plants abroad.5 On the other hand:

● In 2018, China again led the world in renewable power deployment, adding 43% of the world’s new renewable power capacity.

● In 2018, China again led the world in electric vehicle deployment. Roughly 45% of the electric cars and 99% of the electric buses in the world today are in China.

● In 2018, seven of the world’s nine nuclear power plants that connected to the grid for the first time were in China.

● In December 2018, the Chinese delegation played an important role in helping shape a global consensus on steps to implement the Paris Agreement at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-24) in Katowice, Poland.

● On several occasions, including in July and August 2019, China’s leaders publicly reiterated their commitment to fighting climate change.

Political tensions between China and the United States escalated dramatically during the past year. Challenges related to the China-US trade war focused China’s leaders on economic stability and energy security. Some observers noted that climate change appeared to be a lower priority as a result. Others noted that the Chinese government has used its commitment to limiting emissions and acceptance of climate science to draw contrasts with the Trump administration, positioning itself favorably in the eyes of many around the world. Climate change is a big topic. It involves natural systems, energy systems, financial systems, political systems and more. Not surprisingly, China’s response to climate change is complicated and multifaceted. In some ways, China is a leader when it comes to fighting climate change. In other ways, China lags. Yet this is clear: there is no solution to climate change without China. China’s transition to a low carbon economy will have far-reaching consequences not just for China but the entire world. The 2019 edition of the Guide to Chinese Climate Policy provides an updated resource for anyone interested in China’s response to climate change. I hope you find it useful.

In 2018, China was the world’s leading emitter of heat-trapping gases by a wide margin. Its policies for limiting emissions will have a significant impact on the global climate for decades to come. From a historical perspective, China’s status as the world’s leading emitter is relatively recent. During most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese emissions were modest. Then, in the early part of this century, as the Chinese economy boomed, Chinese emissions began to skyrocket, overtaking those from the United States around 2006. China’s cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution are roughly half those from the United States. (Carbon dioxide, the leading heat-trapping gas, stays in the atmosphere for many years once emitted.) China’s leaders have declared that the impacts of climate change “pose a huge challenge to the survival and development of the human race” and that China is “one of the most vulnerable countries to the adverse impacts of climate change.”1 The Chinese government has adopted short- and medium-term goals for limiting emissions of heat-trapping gases and a wide-ranging set of policies that contribute to meeting those goals. Those policies are shaped in part by other objectives, including promoting economic growth, cutting local air pollution and developing strategic industries.

This Guide examines Chinese climate change policies. It starts with a review of Chinese emissions. It then explores the impacts of climate change in China and provides a short history of the country’s climate policies. The bulk of the Guide discusses China’s principal climate policies, explaining the policy tools the Chinese government uses to address climate change and related topics. Appendices provide background on institutions that shape climate policy in China. What are “climate policies”? Monetary and fiscal policies affect emissions and could therefore qualify, as could policies on many other topics. This Guide does not catalog all policies that could affect emissions or the climate, but instead focuses on policies most directly related to climate change, including those on energy, transportation, urbanization, forestry, climate adaptation and climate diplomacy. In choosing policies to focus on, I am guided in part by international convention and in part by governments’ extensive reporting on this topic. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions submitted by more than 160 nations to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change show a broad international consensus that policies on energy, transportation, urbanization and forestry, among others, are considered “climate policies.”

The Chinese government’s official documents on climate change show the same Several official documents are important resources for anyone interested in China’s climate policies. Every year the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) publishes a report on China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change. These reports provide detailed information on a range of topics. Other key sources for understanding China’s climate policies include:

● China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in June 2015;4 ● Work Plan for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the 13th Five-Year Plan, issued by the State Council in October 2016;5 ● China’s First Biennial Update Report on Climate Change, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2016;

● China’s Second Biennial Update Report on Climate Change, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2018;

● China’s Third National Communication on Climate Change, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2018.8 Several themes run through these documents, including strong commitments to low-carbon development, cutting coal use, scaling up clean energy sources, promoting sustainable urbanization and participating actively in climate diplomacy. Implementation is fundamental to any policy.

This is especially true in China, where policy implementation can be a considerable challenge. Key ministries may fail to coordinate. Resources for enforcement may be lacking. Policies designed to achieve different objectives may conflict. The priorities of provincial leaders may not align with policies from Beijing. For these reasons and more, stated policies—while important—are just part of the picture when it comes to understanding the Chinese response to climate change. The organization of this Guide reflects that. Most chapters start with a section of background facts. This background provides context and can help in forming judgments on the impacts of policies to date and potential impacts of policies in the years ahead. Where implementation has been especially challenging or successful, that is highlighted.


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