You are here

Report from Cancun: China’s Climate Progress Since Copenhagen

An overview of China’s evolving domestic climate policy.

This post originally appeared on

As negotiators arrive in Cancun for the next round of global climate talks, speculation once again hovers around China’s positions. China is a tough negotiator, and we can once again see it expressing concern about its core issues, including developed country mitigation commitments, technology transfer and the adequacy of financing. But as we look to negotiating positions, it is also worth stepping back for a minute to reflect on what China is doing domestically and how China’s efforts to promote energy efficiency and low carbon technologies can contribute to the global effort to combat climate change.

China’s commitments for emissions control over the next decade – its 40-45% carbon intensity reduction target by 2020, as well as forestry and renewable energy goals – are not contingent on the international negotiations or on commitments by any other country. China bound its commitment domestically through a State Council decision even before last year’s Copenhagen meeting, and it has said that the 40-45% carbon intensity reduction target will also be incorporated into its 12th Five Year Plan to be adopted by its National People’s Congress in March 2011. The Five Year Plan is the key tool for directing policy at all levels of government.

In arriving at Cancun, China would appear to have quite a bit to offer, and yet it often ends up appearing defensive.

In the past year China has been moving forward on domestic policy implementation, and key developments include:

  • Reforming the Renewable Energy Law to address problems with how new sources are added to the grid by funding more rural grid development and reinforcing fines on grid companies that don’t purchase renewables as required.

  • Adding new requirements to improve energy intensity performance. China’s goal for the 11th Five Year Plan (2006-end 2010) is a 20% reduction in energy intensity. This has proven a challenge, especially because of China’s massive stimulus plan after the global economic downturn. During 2010 the Chinese government has responded by increasing the number of companies under rigorous energy efficiency plans, shutting down additional inefficient plants and equipment, and giving local governments new targets for energy efficiency, among other programs.

  • Major improvements in energy efficient transportation, including the world’s largest high-speed rail program and new construction of both subway lines and bus rapid transit systems in dozens of cities. By next year it will be possible to travel the over 800 miles from Beijing to Shanghai by rail in 4 hours or about 200 miles per hour, as compared with 12 hours now. That means that China has made rail genuinely competitive with much more carbon-intensive air travel.

  • Improvement in energy efficiency standards in areas ranging from industry to buildings to appliances. Standard-setting doesn’t get the kind of attention that carbon markets and negotiations do, but it is the true nuts and bolts of improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions.

  • Investing in clean technology. China continues to invest heavily in wind, solar and nuclear power, as well as in experiments in carbon capture and storage. China is widely expected to soon overtake the United States in total installed wind capacity.

  • Exploring new policy options, including carbon taxes and carbon markets. China already uses a range of policy instruments to control the growth of greenhouse gases, including targets and quotas (from goals for renewable and nuclear energy, to the energy/carbon intensity goals), standards, and financial support for new technologies. It is now looking at new market-based mechanisms. It is widely expected that there will be experiments with these new approaches during the 12th Five Year Plan period, 2011 – end of 2015, although most do not expect to see them as early as 2011.

  • Increasing the political support for climate policy . China’s Communist Party Plenum included a full paragraph supporting climate policy. While the statement did not break new ground in terms of policy concepts, it raised the political profile of climate policy in a country where local governments pay close attention to the central government’s political priorities.

There is broad political consensus within China that measurement and reporting are crucial for ensuring domestic goals are met.

  • Improving its own measurement and information systems. Despite the contentiousness of international discussions about measurement, there is broad political consensus within China that measurement and reporting are crucial for ensuring domestic goals are met. The Party Plenum document lists improving these systems among the climate policies needed, and in fact the Chinese government has been working on these systems over the past year as it gets ready for its new Five Year Plan goals. What is even more striking is that we are now hearing demands for better systems not just from the central government officials charged with monitoring local performance, but from the localities that want to ensure they get credit for the changes they make. I attended a UK-sponsored seminar of central and local officials with climate responsibilities and local officials said, we know what to do, we want to make sure that it is measured properly so we get credit. This reflects a real change in local awareness both of the policies, but also of what they can do and creates bottom-up pressure for these improvements in monitoring.

So in arriving at Cancun, China would appear to have quite a bit to offer, and yet it often ends up appearing defensive. Part of the reason is illustrated in the discussion posted by the China Dialogue Beijing Office Director Meng Si on November 29. Meng interviews China’s Climate Minister Xie Zhenhua, who speaks frankly about China’s growing understanding of the importance of transparency, but also about his frustration in getting China’s message out into the press. All sides of the climate debate seem to understand the importance of transparency, and Xie showed interest in using that to help resolve issues surrounding measuring and reporting. One point to keep in mind is that greater transparency is also needed on accounting for developed country emissions reductions and on the financial support to be given to developing countries. My WRI colleagues suggest new approaches to these issues in two new papers on accounting and climate finance.

As Chinese negotiators have become more open with the press, the Chinese press has also become more interested in the climate negotiations. China’s major dailies and television stations now send reporters to the major climate meetings, and a number are now providing continuous web coverage. Interest in the issue is strong in China in part because many see the opportunities from improving efficiency and investing in new technologies, rather than focusing only on the costs.

Stay Connected