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Policy Experts Provide Insights into China’s Leadership Transition

This post was co-authored by Dominique Labaki, an intern with WRI's External Relations department.

Last Friday, experts from the ChinaFAQs Network and top media representatives participated on a press call on climate and energy policy under China’s incoming president, Xi Jinping, and other new leaders. The participants focused on the drivers underlying China’s energy and climate policies and actions. Key issues included whether the country can sustain its renewable energy growth, confront rising coal demand, and follow through on its climate change targets in the 12th five-year plan. All of these issues are emerging as the country faces its first major economic slowdown in more than a decade. This blog post highlights experts’ discussion during the press call.

New Leadership and the 12th Five-Year Plan

Kenneth Lieberthal, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development at Brookings, opened the discussion. As he explained, nearly 70 percent of China’s top leadership positions are expected to change in November, but the make-up of the Standing Committee of the Politburo remains uncertain. In Lieberthal’s view, China’s new leaders will first focus on domestic challenges, primarily around re-balancing the economy. Especially with economics at the forefront, Lieberthal noted that enacting some elements of China’s 12th Five-Year Plan may face pushback from local leaders. Given this challenge, it may be difficult for China to move quickly with its domestic energy goals, including around lowering emissions.

As he explained, “The real results in terms of carbon emissions are likely to hinge to a substantial extent … on the degree of success in this sectoral rebalancing of the economy.”

Lieberthal noted that climate change – which poses a global challenge – could be a potential “positive bridge” between the U.S. and China, but “it could also play the other way.”

Renewable Energy

Joanna Lewis, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, discussed key initiatives in China’s 12th Five-Year Plan that focus on clean energy and the push to a more innovation-driven economy.

As she explained, China has been moving to balance its energy mix by increasing investment in renewable energy, such as solar and wind. China invested more than $54.4 billion in clean energy in 2010 –more than any other country. Its goal is to increase the share of non-fossil fuel-based energy use to 11.4 percent in 2015.

China’s target in the 12th five-year plan is to expand its wind and solar energy capacities to more than 100 gigawatts and 20 gigawatts respectively by 2015. Longer-term plans set goals of more than 200 gigawatts of wind and 50 gigawatts of solar by 2020.

Wind and solar still represent a small share of China’s total electricity generation, but generation exceeds that of many other countries.

As Lewis indicated, “China has the largest market in the world in this area, but it’s facing significant challenges right now integrating wind into its power system.”

The Future of Coal in China

Ailun Yang, an energy expert at WRI, said that China is widely known for its heavy reliance on coal; however, less discussed is the fact that the country is facing new constraints with regard to this energy source. In particular, China’s government is confronted with increasing local pressures due to environmental and health issues around coal use. Furthermore, economic conditions are also working against China’s massive coal industry. For example, due to rising coal prices and fixed electricity prices, coal plants have been losing money, causing investment in coal to falter and the construction of many new coal-fired power plants to be delayed. Yang explained that, in fact, there has been a significant decline in the number of new coal plants being built.

For more on the challenges facing China’s coal industry read Yang’s blog post: “What is the Future of King Coal in China?”

Taking Climate Change Seriously

Deborah Seligsohn, a climate and energy advisor to WRI, rounded out the call by highlighting that China’s economic restructuring can be compatible with environmental protection, including around action to address climate change. China’s efforts to control emissions will be “good for climate change, the planet, and other environmental issues that they have to grapple with,” Seligsohn said.

She discussed the main drivers behind China’s energy and climate actions, including the country’s desire to: restructure its economy; increase innovation and development of new technologies; move toward greater environmental protections; and meet its targets in the 12th five-year plan.

Seligsohn concluded that “there is strong agreement [among Chinese officials] that part of development is being both cleaner and more technologically sophisticated and having a more diverse economy.”

China’s Energy Future

The discussions held during the call point to one key takeaway: Together, these underlying factors may indeed push China toward a lower-carbon energy future. These changes are unlikely to occur quickly, but we’ll all be watching closely to see if China’s new leadership is able to manage a transition to clean energy while ensuring the country stays on a solid growth pathway.

Listen to the recording of WRI's press call on "China's Leadership Transition and Implications for Energy and Climate.

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