In 2017, China was the world’s leading emitter of heat-trapping gases by a wide margin. Its policies for limiting emissions will have a significant impact on the global climate for decades to come.
From a historical perspective, China’s status as the world’s leading emitter is relatively recent. During most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese emissions were modest. Then, in the early part of this century, as the Chinese economy boomed, Chinese emissions began to skyrocket, overtaking those from the United States around 2006. China’s cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution are less than half those from the United States or Europe. (Carbon dioxide, the leading heat-trapping gas, stays in the atmosphere for many years once emitted.)
China’s leaders have declared that the impacts of climate change “pose a huge challenge to the survival and development of the human race” and that China is “one of the most vulnerable countries to the adverse impacts of climate change.”1 The Chinese government has adopted short- and medium-term goals for limiting emissions of heat-trapping gases and a wide-ranging set of policies that contribute to meeting those goals. Those policies are shaped in part by other objectives, including promoting economic growth, cutting local air pollution and developing strategic industries.
This Guide examines Chinese climate change policies. It starts with a review of Chinese emissions. It then explores the impacts of climate change in China and provides a short history of the country’s climate policies. The bulk of the Guide discusses China’s principal climate policies, explaining the policy tools the Chinese government uses to address climate change and related topics. Appendices provide background on institutions that shape climate policy in China.
What are “climate policies”? Monetary and fiscal policies a ect emissions and could therefore qualify, as could policies on many other topics. This Guide does not catalog all policies that could a ect emissions or the climate, but instead focuses on policies most directly related to climate change, including those on energy, transportation, urbanization, forestry, climate adaptation and climate diplomacy.
In choosing policies to focus on, I am guided in part by international convention and in part by governments’ extensive reporting on this topic. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions submitted by more than 160 nations to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change show a broad international consensus that policies on energy, transportation, urbanization and forestry, among others, are considered “climate policies.” The Chinese government’s o cial documents on climate change show the same.
Several official documents are important resources for anyone interested in China’s climate policies. Every year the National Development and Reform Commission publishes a report on China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change.2 These reports provide detailed information on a range of topics. Other key sources for understanding China’s climate policies include:
China’s First Biennial Update Report on Climate Change, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2016;3
Work Plan for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the 13th Five-Year Plan, issued by the State Council in October 2016;4 and
China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in June 2015.5
Several themes run through these documents, including strong support for low-carbon development and commitments to cutting coal use, scaling up non-fossil energy, promoting sustainable urbanization, investing in industries of the future and participating actively in climate diplomacy.
Implementation is fundamental to any policy. This is especially true in China, where policy implementation can be a considerable challenge. Key ministries may fail to coordinate. Resources for enforcement may be lacking. Policies designed to achieve different objectives may conflict. The priorities of provincial leaders may not align with policies from Beijing. For these reasons and more, stated policies—while important—are just part of the picture when it comes to understanding the Chinese response to climate change.
The organization of this Guide reflects that. Most chapters start with a section of background facts. This background provides context and can help in forming judgments on the impacts of policies to date and potential impacts of policies in the years ahead. Where implementation has been especially challenging or successful, that is highlighted.
This Guide can be read in parts or as a whole. Individual chapters are designed to stand alone and provide readers with information on discrete topics. The Guide as a whole is designed to provide an understanding of China’s response to climate change and the implications of that response for China and the world.
This is a “living document.” Many of the facts and policies it describes will change in the months and years ahead. As that happens, this Guide will be updated. New editions of the Guide will be released regularly. New and expanded chapters will be included as part of those revisions.
I welcome comments on and updates to the material in this Guide. Please send comments and updates to ChineseClimatePolicy@sipa.columbia.edu.
- David Sandalow
1. People’s Republic of China, “Intended Nationally-Determined Contribution” (June 2015) at p.1, http://www4.unfccc.int/ndcregistry/PublishedDocuments/China%20First/China%27s%20First%20NDC%20Submission.pdf; UNFCCC, “First Biennial Update Report on Climate Change” (December 2016) at p.1, https://unfccc.int/sites/ default/files/resource/chnbur1.pdf.
2. The October 2017 edition is at http://www.cma.gov.cn/en2014/news/News/201711/P020171122611767066567.pdf.
3. People’s Republic of China, “First Biennial Update Report on Climate Change” (December 2016), https://unfccc.int/process/transparency-and-reporting/reporting-and-review-under-convention/biennial-update-reports-0.
4. State Council, “Work Plan for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the 13th Five-Year Plan” (October 27, 2016), http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/content/2016-11/04/content_5128619.htm. See also Alvin Lin, “China’s New Plans Deepen Action on Climate Change” (December 19, 2016), https://www.nrdc.org/experts/alvin-lin/chinas- new-plans-deepen-action-climate-change.
5. People’s Republic of China, Enhanced Action on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (June 2015), http://www4.unfccc.int/ndcregistry/PublishedDocuments/China%20First/ China%27s%20First%20NDC%20Submission.pdf.