By Charlie Bevis
China is responsible for a quarter of global emissions and therefore will be the cornerstone of a successful response to the climate crisis . Consequently, as we await China’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, this article analyses the progress made towards its first NDC and evaluates what commitments we might expect in an updated pledge (a translation of China’s first NDC, can be found here).
China’s progress on their first NDC
Overall, China has made commendable progress towards meeting its first NDC.
Targets to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per unit of GDP and install solar photovoltaic (PV) were surpassed years ahead of schedule whilst others, such as wind energy generation, are progressing on schedule [2,3]. This success owes much to Beijing’s mobilization of cheap finance and the use of novel technology, both of which drastically reduced the cost of renewable energy generation .
Still, China’s targets have been labeled unambitious. A report by the Asia Society Policy Institute found that its NDC targets, including peaking CO2 emissions by 2030, would maintain China’s emissions ‘far above’ levels compatible with a 1.5°C degree Paris Agreement pathway . Consequently, there has been cautious optimism about the pledges that China may incorporate into its next NDC.
Predictions for China’s Updated NDC
A ban on new domestic coal-fired power stations.
As coal-fired power stations are the single largest source of China’s CO2 emissions, this ban would be a major boost to carbon reductions . Unfortunately, and despite a promise not to fund new coal-fired power stations abroad, this ban is highly unlikely . China fears the financial cost of disrupting its mammoth coal industry, encompassing 3,000 power stations, and has historically upheld it with massive stimulus to prevent stagnation . Moreover, China’s determination for self-sufficiency means that it will not wean itself off coal until it has substantially increased its own domestic non-fossil fuel energy capacity .
Enforcing a carbon pricing mechanism on the energy sector.
In the absence of a ban on new coal stations, a carbon pricing mechanism is the next best alternative. This would set a price per ton on CO2 emitted, driving down the profitability of coal and redirecting finance to cleaner energy generation .
The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air predicts that this could reduce China’s coal capacity from 1,200 GW in 2020 to 680 GW by 2030 . Without it, coal capacity might remain as high as 1,020 GW over the next decade, underscoring the mechanism’s effectiveness .
A carbon pricing mechanism is far more likely than the fore-mentioned ban. It would be less disruptive and China’s 14th Five-Year-Plan expressed openness to such a measure .
Ensuring 50% of energy consumed is from non-fossil fuels by 2030.
Optimism for this goal stems from China’s dominance of the renewable energy sector. It is the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy and has surpassed its own renewable generation targets .
Yet this pledge is still unlikely. President Jinping promised only last year to maintain a 25% renewable energy consumption target for 2030 . Nonetheless, earlier this year, China’s National Energy Administration stated that renewables would account for 50% of energy capacity by 2025 . Whilst these are different measures – capacity is potential generation whereas energy consumption is actual power generated – it is not unfathomable that with such immense capacity, renewables and nuclear could also account for 50% of the energy consumed by 2030.
A commitment to reach peak economy-wide CO2 emissions by 2025.
This would demonstrate China’s grasp of the urgency of the climate crisis and take a more ambitious stance than the current projected peak of 2030. Research from London’s School of Economics has found it to be a ‘feasible’ goal whilst several studies have concluded that this will be necessary to achieve China’s 2060 carbon neutrality promise .
However, China has shown little interest in bringing the peak forward with President Jinping restating the 2030 target as recently as September 2021 . This does not mean the peak will not come sooner; rather, it might be that China does not want to commit to a deadline it might not achieve.
The introduction of reduction targets for non-CO2 GHG emissions
The Innovative Green Development Program has suggested that China’s 2030 GHG emissions peak has so far inspired action tied to energy-related CO2 . They argue that by issuing targets on hydrofluorocarbons and methane emissions, China could inspire reforms across other industries too .
It is difficult to say how likely this pledge is. As China has set deadlines for an emissions peak and carbon neutrality, GHG-specific reduction targets would only clarify rather than revise such aims. However, China has not engaged with Biden’s methane reduction pledge, suggesting a desire to remain focused on CO2 emissions .
Looking ahead to China’s next NDC
Due to China’s contribution to global GHG emissions, its updated NDC will be a reliable prediction of the success of the climate fight over the next five years. We hope that the urgency of the climate crisis inspires the country to take some of the bold, ambitious pledges explored in this article.
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