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China’s Climate Action Is Well Underway

With the release of the U.S. post-2020 climate action proposal last month and proposals expected soon from other countries, the international climate change negotiations are intensifying. These proposals, known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), will form the basis of a new international climate agreement to be finalized in December of this year.

A key factor in this dynamic is China’s November commitment to peak its emissions and scale up non-fossil energy, which has shifted the global debate on climate action. While many are now looking for a formal proposal from China, which is expected to be submitted this summer, China is already taking action on multiple fronts to shift to a low-carbon path.

Climate Action from World’s Major Emitters

China and the United States are the world’s top emitters, though China’s per capita emissions are still significantly lower than those of the United States. Encouragingly, these big emitters are responding with serious action. Last November, the United States pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025—a pledge reiterated in its formal proposal—while China announced targets to peak its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030—with the intention to try to peak early—and increase its non-fossil fuel share of energy use to around 20 percent by 2030.

The U.S.-China joint announcement sent a signal to the world that a global climate solution is possible. Moreover, the actions that China has taken and its plans for further action lay to rest criticisms that the country isn’t serious about climate action or moving away from coal use.

What Steps Is China Taking to Achieve Pledges and Provide Leadership?

China is already making strides towards its stated goals by:

  • Placing a price on carbon: Drawing on the experiences of its seven city- and provincial-level carbon-trading pilots, China has begun planning to launch a national-level emissions trading system next year, starting with provinces that have established the necessary technical infrastructure.

  • Limiting and reducing coal use: A 2012 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory projected that, based on current trends and market policies, China’s coal consumption will peak in 2020. China’s State Council has announced a plan to limit coal consumption to around 4.2 billion tons by 2020 and limit coal to a maximum of 62 percent of primary energy use that year. Some observers expect the Chinese government to place a cap on CO2 emissions in its 13th Five Year Plan, which is expected to be released next March.

  • Scaling up non-fossil energy: In addition to its 2030 non-fossil pledge, China is targeting an 11.4 percent non-fossil share of energy use by 2015 and a 15 percent share by 2020, and has set near-term targets for wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power. China also aims to roughly double its wind capacity to 200 gigawatts (GW) by 2020, and more-than-triple its solar capacity to 100GW by the same date.

  • Improving energy efficiency: China has set targets to increase the energy efficiency of its economy and of coal-fired power plants. The country has closed down many old, inefficient factories, and is implementing policies to promote energy efficiency among enterprises and in the electricity sector.

  • Rebalancing the economy: China’s leaders recognize the need to shift away from energy-intensive industries toward services like finance and telecommunications in order to maintain economic growth above 7 percent annually. Economic trends suggest China may be on course for such a shift.

Reasons for Action

China, the United States and other countries around the world increasingly recognize the benefits and urgency of action. As former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson recently said, the risks of climate change are “much more perverse and cruel than we saw with the financial crisis.”

China’s pledges will require early, stronger and continuous action. For instance, to meet its non-fossil pledge, China will need to build capacity greater than its entire current coal-fired capacity.

Importantly, China’s action on climate is motivated by strong national interests. Recently, China’s leading weather official warned that the impacts of climate change are already damaging the Chinese economy, with “losses equivalent to 1 percent of China’s economic output” in this century. Concerns about energy security, efforts to reap the economic benefits of clean energy, the economic imperative of restructuring and public concern about air pollution—reflected in the popularity of the documentary Under the Dome—are encouraging China to limit its energy use, reduce emissions and invest in clean energy.

While all major emitters will need to do more to prevent the most dangerous impacts of climate change, the actions of the United States and China are clearly growing in ambition. Their progress can inspire greater movement both internationally and domestically.

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