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The Role of Cities in Meeting China’s Carbon Intensity Goal

Part 1: China's Low-Carbon City Plans

This piece was written in collaboration with Cui Xueqin, Fu Sha, and Zou Ji.

In 2009, China’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan set a goal to cut the country’s carbon intensity by 17 percent by 2015. Responsibility for achieving portions of this target has been allocated to provinces and cities. This three-part series explores the vital role of China’s municipalities in reaching the national carbon intensity goal. Part 1 presents low-carbon city targets and plans developed to date. Part 2 will explore some challenges related to designing city-level low-carbon plans and mechanisms to track progress towards them. Part 3 will present some possible solutions to these challenges.

Worldwide, cities are responsible for 60 to 80 percent of total energy consumption, and account for approximately the same proportion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As elsewhere, the growth of investment, consumption, and trade in China’s cities has been a major driver not only of economic growth, technological advances, and human development, but also of energy use and GHG emissions. In contrast to most western cities, where most emissions come from buildings and transport, industry still plays a major role in Chinese cities’ GHG emissions. Ongoing massive investment in urban infrastructure, as well as changing urban lifestyles, will also play a determining role in the future trajectory of China’s GHG emissions.

Because of China’s size, its national strategies and policies are typically interpreted and implemented at provincial and municipal levels. Key decisions regarding investment and consumption also take place at the local level. Cities, therefore, are crucial leverage points for implementation of national climate and energy strategies and policies in China.

China’s Five-Year Plan and Pilot Program

China’s national carbon intensity target will be disaggregated to provinces and then to cities. After the announcement of the target in November 2009, several cities began to develop low carbon action plans and carbon intensity targets in accordance with national goal. The launch of the National Pilot Program on Low-Carbon Provinces and Cities by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in July 2010 amplified this trend (see map below). The pilot program directs five provinces – Guangdong, Liaoning, Hubei, Shaanxi and Yunnan, and eight cities – Tianjin, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Xiamen, Hangzhou, Nanchang, Guiyang and Baoding – to:

  • include work on climate change in their local five-year plans and formulate low-carbon development plans
  • formulate supporting policies to facilitate low carbon development
  • accelerate the establishment of low-carbon industrial structure
  • establish a statistics and information management system for GHG emissions
  • actively promote low-carbon lifestyle and consumption patterns in order to reduce GHG emissions

As illustrated in the map1, the pilot areas – five provinces and eight cities – are scattered throughout the country from northeast to southwest. Some of the pilot areas, such as Guangdong Province, Shenzhen City and Hangzhou City, are highly developed, and their economies are dominated by the service industry. Others, like Shaanxi Province and Guiyang City, are still in the process of industrialization. The pilot areas, therefore, are both geographically and economically diverse, which should help ensure that their experiences will be broadly applicable.

The bottom-up approach to low-carbon development in this pilot program complements the top-down method of 12th Five Year Plan. The pilot program attempts to provide practical experiences and identify appropriate strategies and tactics for localized low carbon development.

In addition to these pilot regions, many other cities, such as Qingdao, Wuxi and Suzhou, have also undertaken a variety of approaches to build low carbon cities. These explorations will help to establish national guidelines for low carbon development, not only for pilot zones, but also for other cities.

Table: Low carbon development targets and actions proposed by Chinese cities

City Date Announced Name of Plan Targets and Actions
Baoding December 2008 Baoding city people's government views on building low-carbon city (Trial available here) By 2010, carbon intensity falls by more than 25% compared to 2005, with a goal of limiting CO2 emissions per capita to no more than 3.5 tons; added value of new energy industry accounts for 18% of added value of industrial enterprises above designated size.

By 2020, carbon intensity falls by more than 35% compared to 2010, with a goal of limiting CO2 emissions per capita to no more than 5.5 tons; new energy industrial added value accounts for 25% of added value of industrial enterprises above designated size.

Chengdu January 2010 Program of work for building low carbon city of Chengdu (available here) By 2015, carbon intensity falls to less than 1.15 tons per 10000 RMB, the city’s non-fossil energy accounts for more than 30% of total energy consumption, forest cover increases to more than 38%.
Wuxi March 2010 Low-carbon economic development planning of Wuxi (draft available here) Industry: carbon intensity falls by 45% compared to 2005, renewable energy consumption rate reaches 20%.

Transportation: urban transit ridership increases from 22% to 32%. Buildings: building energy consumption decreases by 45% compared to 2005, 100% of new buildings meet 65% energy saving rate standard.

Xiamen March 2010 The overall planning framework for low-carbon city of Xiamen (Outline available here) By 2020, the GDP of Xiamen is 7.14 times that of 2005, energy intensity decreases by 60% compared to 2005, total CO2 emissions are limited to 68.64 million tons.

By 2020, CO2 emissions from transportation, residential buildings, public buildings and production fields are respectively 12.3558 million tons, 6.5253 million tons, 12.6949 million tons and 30.2032 million tons.

Tianjin March 2010 Tianjin climate change program (available here) By 2010, carbon intensity is 2.0 tons/10000 RMB, energy intensity decreases to 0.85 tce/10000 RMB, 23.2% less than that of 2005; forest cover reaches 21%.

By 2015, carbon intensity is 1.69 ton/10000 RMB, 15.5% less than that of 2010; energy intensity falls by about 15% compared to 2010; forest cover reaches more than 23%.

By 2010, industrial CO2 emissions controlled at the same level as 2007, emissions from Agriculture and animal husbandry are lower than that of 2008.

Guiyang July 2010 Guiyang City low carbon development Action Plan framework (2010-2020)(Outline available here) By 2020, energy intensity is controlled between 1.3-1.4 tce, 40% less than that of 2010 2005.

By 2020, carbon intensity falls from 3.77 in 2005 to between 2.07-2.24.

Hong Kong September 2010 Hong Kong public consultation document on climate change strategy and action program (available here) By 2020, carbon intensity falls from 0.29 tons/10000 RMB in 2005 to between 0.12-0.15 tons/10000 RMB, decreasing by 50-60% compared to 2005.

By 2020, total carbon emissions decrease from 42 million tons to between 28- 34 million tons, decreasing by 19-33% compared to 2005.

By 2020, CO2 emissions per capita reduce from 6.2 tons in 2005 to between 3.6-4.5 tons, decreasing by 27-42% compared to 2005.

Nanchang October 2010 Nanchang city pilot implementation program of national low-carbon city (available here) By 2015, carbon intensity falls by 38% compared to 2005, non-fossil energy accounts for 7% of primary energy consumption, forest cover reaches 25%, growing stock volume reaches 3.8 million m3.

By 2020, carbon intensity decreases by 45-48% compared to 2005, non-fossil energy accounts for 15% of primary energy consumption, forest cover reaches 28%, growing stock volume reaches 4.2 million m3.

Source: The authors compiled based on publicly available information.

This post is the work of an Open Climate Network partner. The World Resources Institute is not responsible for the content or opinions expressed by the author.


  1. Drawn by the author based on the location of the pilot provinces and cities. 

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