In the lead-up to climate negotiations in Paris later this year, nearly 40 countries (including 28 in the European Union) have submitted to the United Nations their proposals for post-2020 climate action, also known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). China is expected to join their ranks soon.

As the world’s largest emitter, an ambitious and comprehensive INDC from China is particularly critical, both for reducing the country’s impact and for the greater climate action such ambition would inspire internationally.

Here are a few issues to consider before China releases its new climate action plan:

1) China Set the Stage with Joint U.S. Announcement

Last November, China issued a joint statement with the United States to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, saying that it would peak its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions around 2030, while making “best efforts to peak early.” It will also increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent by 2030, more than double its 2013 level of 8.8 percent1. The United States pledged to reduce its emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, a commitment formalized in the U.S. INDC. The nations reached this accord bearing in mind that China’s historical and per capita emissions are still much lower than the United States’, even as its annual emissions have grown.

China’s peak year goal is expected to form the core of its INDC, though additional elements may be included.

2) China’s Climate Commitment Will Build on Significant Existing Efforts

Peaking emissions in or before 2030 is challenging, but achievable in light of the significant efforts China has made over the last few years. Motivated by national interests such as energy security, air pollution and expected climate impacts, China made several gains:

  • In 2013, China launched a $277 billion investment in improving air quality, instituted regional bans on new coal-fired power plants, invested more in renewable energy than any other country (21 percent of the global total), and installed nearly 13 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic projects, about 50 percent more than any other country installed in a single year.

  • According to preliminary data for 2014, coal production and consumption fell for the first time in 14 years.

  • In 2013 and 2014, China launched seven pilot emissions trading schemes, and plans to scale the policy up to the national level.

  • China continues to be the world's largest investor in low-carbon energy, investing around $90 billion last year, more than one-quarter of the world's total and nearly double the United States’ $50 billion.

The chart below demonstrates the remarkable growth in China’s renewable energy use as compared to other countries thus far:

In light of these efforts, some analysts argue that China’s economy has achieved a fundamental structural change that may allow emissions to peak earlier than 2030. Deep reductions following the peak, however, will require further reform.

3) Three Key Elements Will Be Important to Watch

The INDC is an opportunity for China to lay out details on its future climate action, in particular:

  • Peak-Year Pledge: Committing to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 was a significant – even historic – milestone for China. The INDC is an opportunity for China to offer further details about this proposal. We will be looking for more information that indicates the level at which China expects to peak its emissions, and under what circumstances it may be possible for emissions to peak earlier than 2030.

  • Expanding Goals: The emissions peak year and the 20 percent non-fossil energy goal will likely form the core of China’s INDC. It’s not clear that the INDC will go beyond this to propose further mitigation goals, but a post-2020 emissions-intensity goal or a landscape restoration goal could shed further light on China’s future emissions trajectory. Moreover, information on how China will address emissions of non-CO2 gases (like methane and hydrofluorocarbons) – which now outstrip the total GHG emissions of countries like Japan and Brazil – would be welcomed by the international community.

  • Getting from Here to There: To meet its non-fossil pledge, China will need to install 800-1,000GW of non-fossil fuel electricity generation capacity, greater than its current coal-fired capacity and almost the total current capacity of the United States. Scenarios such as those published by IEA, and the joint study by MIT and Tsinghua University, show that to peak by 2030, China will need to make significant near-term efforts, such as capping coal use and putting a price on carbon. By articulating how it plans to achieve these goals, China can help build further support among international stakeholders for a successful agreement in Paris.

It is encouraging that China has put climate action and clean energy high on its national agenda. The targets announced in November are the latest important steps China is taking on both of these priorities. When China submits its post-2020 plan, the world should have more clarity about how the country will meet these serious commitments – and help everyone understand how far we are from achieving the ambitious, global emissions reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

  1. The number was 9.8 percent before a revision of total energy consumption data was made in early 2015. The 8.8 percent is calculated by authors based on the revised data, assuming non-fossil energy consumption remains the same. ↩︎