Regulatory Policy

China’s Climate Realpolitik

Employees on the production line at a television factory in Shenzhen, China, August 8, 2019. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
Western pundits fell for China's carbon-neutrality pledge, but its recent economic plan puts paid to their hopes.

When Xi Jinping pledged to the United Nations last September that China would be carbon neutral by 2060, credulous Western media outlets and climate commentators seized an opportunity to level criticism at emissions policies in the United States. China was taking the initiative and filling a leadership vacuum, they asserted.

The New York Times called the announcement “a tectonic shift,” writing that China was “pledging to lead by example, setting itself goals befitting a country that aspires to be a superpower.” Vox approvingly described China as “becom[ing] more active in international institutions long dominated by Western countries.” It was “us[ing] climate as a way to upstage the U.S.”

But with its March release of a new five-year plan (FYP), the 14th in its history, China has embarrassed its climate cheerleaders in the West. Beijing’s plan institutes no carbon cap, no coal phase-out, and no roadmap by which it will execute upon Xi’s words. Despite the carbon-neutral-by-2060 pledge, the FYP emphasizes the importance of coal to China’s continued development, not the emissions that come with its use.

What the 14th FYP Includes

While publication of specific sector and provincial plans will follow the national document later in the year, the product that emerged from the annual political confab in the capital dashes the thinly veiled hopes of some in the West that China’s authoritarian model will deliver us from the evil of climate change. Among the 20 “main indicators of economic and social development” the FYP sets, only four pertain to energy and climate.

Two indicators — each deemed “binding,” as opposed to the looser “indicative” categorization given to other indicators — suggest that serious action will be taken, but they look less meaningful upon closer inspection. Those indicators are that China will reduce its energy consumption per unit of GDP by 13.5 percent and that it will reduce its carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 18 percent in the five-year period.

Hitting these indicators would, in fact, only continue China’s existing growth trends, which have seen China’s carbon emissions per unit of GDP, also known as carbon intensity, fall as its economy diversifies and becomes less centered upon heavy industry. China’s carbon intensity fell by nearly 19 percent from 2015 to 2020, so the new goal represents a slackening in the rate of change, not an acceleration.

And by stipulating that the reductions need only be relative to GDP, China leaves itself unconstrained in absolute terms. Analysis by Lauri Myllyvirta of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air shows that even if it achieves these indicators, China’s carbon emissions will continue to climb through the period of the FYP. In the United States, by contrast, both carbon intensity and absolute emissions are on long-term downward trends.

The remaining main indicators pertaining to energy and climate are that China has set a minimum annual threshold for general energy production and that it will increase its forest coverage from 23.4 percent to 24.1 percent, which, among other benefits, will help draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

What the 14th FYP Omits

While the FYP proposes to reduce China’s share of total energy consumption from fossil fuels from 84 percent to around 80 percent by 2025, it includes no specific goal for shrinking the percentage that coal contributes to its total energy use. That number currently stands at more than 57 percent, whereas the United States uses coal for 11 percent of its total energy.

China, in no uncertain terms, runs on coal. The People’s Republic is both the world’s biggest producer and biggest consumer of the black sedimentary rock, with a staggering two-thirds of its electricity coming from the resource. According to data aggregated by David Sandalow of the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, China accounts for more than half the world’s coal consumption and generates one-fifth of the world’s total carbon emissions through its use of coal alone. With coal at the heart of its economy, it should come as no surprise that China is the world’s biggest emitter, pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2019 (28 percent of the global total) than the United States (14 percent) and the 27 member states of the European Union (8 percent) combined.

The 14th FYP indicates the status quo will not change in the near term.

Since lifting a ban on new coal power plants in 2018, China has gone on a building spree. A February 2021 paper from Global Energy Monitor reports that China has approximately 250 gigawatts of new coal-fired generating capacity permitted or under construction. That additional increment exceeds the entire coal fleet the United States has in operation and it will come on top of China’s existing 1,095 gigawatts of coal capacity. China emphasizes that its new plants are of the more efficient supercritical and ultra-supercritical varieties, but even if every Chinese plant were to emit 35 percent less carbon dioxide than an American counterpart per unit of energy, as coal backers claim is possible of the new technology, the total emissions would still swamp the reductions taking place elsewhere in the world.

Interestingly, none of these facts contradicts China’s Paris climate agreement nationally determined contribution (NDC). An NDC essentially sets out what a country is doing to combat climate change and China’s has two main components: a carbon intensity target (which, for the reasons given above, is extraneous) and a commitment to reach an emissions peak no later than 2030.

The NDC and the new FYP give China the flexibility to continue using low-cost coal electricity to expand its economic output and, one could argue, give it an incentive to increase emissions in absolute terms all the way up to its NDC deadline of 2030. According to the Paris agreement watchdog group Climate Action Tracker, China could emit 30 percent more carbon dioxide in 2030 than it did in 2015 and still meet its Paris targets. The 14th FYP makes this scenario more probable. “In terms of the climate, initial indications from China’s 14th Five Year Plan are underwhelming,” said Swithin Lui, Climate Action Tracker’s China lead, “and shows little sign of a concerted switch away from a future coal lock-in.”


What Western media outlets and climate commentators have been confronted with this month is what we might call klimarealpolitik. Today’s CCP stakes its claim to legitimacy as a ruling entity on its record of securing tangible economic benefits. Climate change fits into that paradigm to the extent that climate policies can contribute to those tangible benefits and can support the country’s pursuit of restored global preeminence. On that basis, China aims to lead the world in solar-panel and battery production while simultaneously augmenting its growth with coal.

No doubt, many climate scientists and analysts inside the CCP and state apparatus view global warming as a potential threat to well-being. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the party in practice continues to place its greatest focus on making China rich, even if that adds to the climate challenge and makes it more difficult to reach Xi’s 2060 carbon-neutrality pledge. What the 14th five-year plan shows is that if it is to move on climate, China will do so on its own terms.


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