The migration to China’s cities during the past several decades may be the largest movement of humanity ever. China’s urban population has grown by more than 500 million people since the mid-1980s, due mainly to migration from the countryside. At least six Chinese cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Shenzhen) have populations of more than 10 million people. At least 120 Chinese cities have populations of more than 1 million people.[1]

Roughly 60% of China’s population now live in urban areas. By 2030, roughly 70% of China’s population—more than 1 billion people—are expected to live in urban areas.[2]

The urbanization of China has significant implications for emissions of heat-trapping gases. The urbanization process—with construction of buildings, roads and other infrastructure—is energy intensive and produces significant carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In addition, Chinese urban residents typically emit more CO2 per capita than rural residents. Studies have found that:

  • cities contribute roughly 85% of China’s CO2 emissions,[3]
  • Chinese urban residents emit roughly 1.4 times more energy-related CO2 on average than Chinese rural residents,[4]
  • 100 million people moving from the countryside to cities in China increases CO2 emissions an average of 200 million tons per year over five years,[5] and
  • the wealthiest 5.3% of the Chinese population, almost all of whom live in cities, have carbon footprints nearly four times greater than the Chinese average.[6]

A 2019 study found that per capita CO2 emissions in Chinese cities peak at a per capita GDP of approximately US$21,000 (2011 PPP). Above that level, as Chinese cities get wealthier, per capita emissions tend to decline.[7]


The Chinese government promotes urbanization as a matter of policy. The National New Type Urbanization Plan (2014–2020) calls for an additional 100 million people to move from the Chinese countryside to cities by 2020. The Plan states that “domestic demand is the fundamental impetus for China’s development, and the greatest potential for expanding domestic demand lies in urbanization.” These policies were reiterated and further developed as part of the 13th Five-Year Plan.[8]

As part of its approach to urbanization, the Chinese government promotes “green development” and attention to “ecological principles” in city planning. China’s “eco-cities” programs have a long history, dating back to at least the 1990s. GDP growth has generally been the main priority of municipal officials, but programs to promote green development are widespread and policy documents often identify environmental sustainability as an important objective.[9]

Low-carbon development has been part of China’s green cities programs for more than a decade. In 2008, low-carbon city pilot projects were launched in Shanghai and Baoding. In 2010, NDRC issued the Notice on Carrying Out Pilots of Low-Carbon Provinces and Cities, calling for dozens of low-carbon city pilots to be launched around the country. In the next few years, the Chinese government launched two batches of low-carbon city pilot projects around the country. In 2012, Su Wei, then Director General of the Climate Change Department at NDRC, wrote,

China’s cities will play an increasingly larger role in...China’s efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The economic and technical roadmap for urban development will have important “lock-in effects” on China’s future energy demand and GHG emissions, making it essential, in the process of urbanization, to accelerate shifts in economic development patterns; increase the use of low-carbon, energy-saving, and environmentally friendly technologies; and strengthen low-carbon and eco-city development.[10]

In 2016, the 13th Five-Year Plan for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions highlighted low-carbon urban development as a core part of China’s strategy for controlling emissions. The plan calls for low-carbon transit systems, energy efficient urban buildings, methane recovery at municipal landfills and more.[11]

Also in 2016, the State Council and Communist Party Central Committee released urban development guidelines giving priority to the development of mass transit and calling for “the construction of energy-saving cities.”[12]

In 2017, China launched its third batch of low-carbon cities pilot projects, covering 45 more cities. Specific targets and peak years were announced.[13]

The Chinese government’s policies to promote low-carbon cities fall into at least three broad categories.

First, the Chinese government makes extensive use of pilot projects to promote low-carbon urbanization. Pilot provinces and cites are required to prepare low-carbon development plans, establish greenhouse gas emissions statistical systems and enforce greenhouse gas emissions control targets. The Chinese governments reports on these pilots in its Biennial Update Reports to the UNFCCC and annual Actions for Addressing Climate Change, among other places.

  • According to China’s First Biennial Update Report (December 2016), CO2 emissions per unit of GDP in these pilots fell 19.4% from 2010 to 2014—faster than the national average.[14]
  • According to China’s Second Biennial Update Report (December 2018), there are now more than 400 provincial pilot low-carbon communities.[15]

The 13th Five-Year Plan calls for expanding low-carbon pilot projects to 100 cities and roughly 1,000 communities, as well as applying the lessons learned in these pilots more broadly. China’s Nationally Determined Contribution (submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015) highlights low-carbon cities, saying that China will implement low-carbon pilot projects in cities, towns and communities.[16]

The Innovative Green Development Program maintains a database with extensive information on activities in China’s low-carbon pilots.[17]

Second, the Chinese government sets specific goals with respect to low-carbon urbanization.

The 13th Five-Year Plan, for example, includes the following goals for 2020.

  • Green buildings should account for 50% of new construction in urban areas.
  • Carbon dioxide emissions of urban passenger transport vehicles should be 12.5% lower per unit of passenger volume than in 2015.

Such goals are intended to help guide urban planners and may be among the metrics used to evaluate the performance of municipal officials. In some cases, the central government makes funding available to meet such goals, either through grants or preferential financing from the China Development Bank and other policy banks.[18]

Third, the Chinese government participates in a wide range of international programs on low-carbon cities. These include programs between central government ministries and counterparts in other national governments, “sister city” programs between Chinese cities and cities abroad, and programs run by international organizations such as the Climate-Smart, Low-Carbon Cities (CSLCC) program funded by USAID under the US-China Joint Agreement on Climate Change. Such programs facilitate shared learning on best practices and tools for promoting low-carbon urban development. Examples include bilateral programs with the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore and others, as well as the C40 program (a network of megacities committed to addressing climate change).[19]

China’s Alliance for Peaking Pioneer Cities has received considerable attention (and in some respects falls into all three categories just above). The 13th Five-Year Plan encourages cities to strive to peak emissions before the national goal of 2030. At least 23 cities and provinces with 27.5% of China’s GDP and 16% of its CO2 emissions are part of the program.[20]


[1] UN Department of Economics and Social Affairs/Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects 2018—China (accessed August 23, 2019). City population estimates vary, depending in part on whether people within city limits or in broader metropolitan areas are being counted. See Rolando Yee, “The Largest Cities in China,” World Atlas (July 9, 2019); Yu Xiaoming, “Around 90 Chinese cities see urban population top one million,” China Daily (May 7, 2018); Joe Myers, “You knew China’s cities were growing. But the real numbers are stunning,” World Economic Forum (June 20, 2016); Lang Fang, “The great sprawl of China,” Economist (January 22, 2015).

[2] National Bureau of StatisticsStatistical Bulletin on National Economic and Social Development in 2018 (February 28, 2019) at table 1; Joe Myers, “You knew China’s cities were growing. But the real numbers are stunning,” World Economic Forum (June 20, 2016).

[3] Zhu Liu and Bofeng Cai, High-resolution Carbon Emissions Data for Chinese Cities (June 2018) at p.1.

[4] Stephanie Ohshita, Lynn K. Price, Nan Zhou, Nina Khanna, David Fridley and Xu Liu, The Role of Chinese Cities in Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction, Stockholm Environment Institute (September 2015) at p.4.

[5] K. Feng & K. Hubacek “Carbon implications of China’s urbanization,” Energy, Ecology and Environment (February 25, 2016).

[6] Dominik Wiedenhofer, Dabo Guan, Zhu Liu, Jing Meng, Ning Zhang and Yi-Ming Wei, “Unequal household carbon footprints in China,” Nature Climate Change (December 19, 2016).

[7] Haikun Wang et al., “China’s CO2 peak before 2030 implied from characteristics and growth of cities,” Nature Sustainability (July 29, 2019). This an example of the “environmental Kuznets curve.”

[8] State Council, “China unveils landmark urbanization plan”; Chris Weller, “Here’s China’s genius plan to move 250 million people from farms to cities,” Business Insider (August 5, 2015).

[9] NDRC, China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change (November 2018) at pp.24–28; David Bulman, Governing for Growth and the Resilience of the Chinese Communist Party, Harvard Kennedy School (April 2016); Jing Wu et al., Incentives and Outcomes: China's Environmental Policy, National Bureau of Economic Research (February 2013).

[10] Su Wei, Foreword, in Axel Baeumler, Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez and Shomik Mehndiratta, eds. Sustainable low-carbon city development in China, World Bank (2012) at p.xxii.

[11] Biliang Hu, Jia Luo, Chunlai Chen and Bingqin Li, “Evaluating China’s low-carbon cities,” East Asia Forum (September 6, 2016); State Council, Notice on Issuing the Work Plan for Greenhouse Gas Emission Control during the 13th Five-Year Plan Period (October 27, 2016).

[12] CPC Central Committee and State Council, Urban Development Guidelines (February 2016); CC Huang, “Why China’s New Urbanization Guidelines Are A Major Milestone For Urban Sustainability” (March 2, 2016); Stanley CT Yip, “Planning for eco-cities in China: Visions, approaches and challenges,” in 44th ISOCARO Congress (2008); World Bank, China: A New Approach for Efficient, Inclusive, Sustainable Urbanization (March 26, 2014).

[13] NDRC, Notice on Launching the Third Batch of National Low Carbon Cities Pilot Projects (January 24, 2017);.

[14] People’s Republic of China, First Biennial Update Report on Climate Change (December 2016) at pp.61–62.

[15] People’s Republic of China, Second Biennial Update Report on Climate Change (December 2018) at p.41; NDRC, China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change (November 2018) at pp. 24-28.

[16] State Council, “Notice on Issuing the Work Plan for Greenhouse Gas Emission Control during the 13th Five-Year Plan Period” (October 27, 2016) at 5(c); People’s Republic of China, Enhanced Actions on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (June 30, 2015).

[17] Innovative Green Development Program, Policy Mapping (accessed August 23, 2019).

[18] State Council, “Notice on Issuing the Work Plan for Greenhouse Gas Emission Control during the 13th Five-Year Plan Period” (October 27, 2016).at 4(a) and 4(b).

[19] Xinting Chen, “Bilateral Collaborations in Sino-foreign Eco-cities: Lessons for Sino-Dutch Collaboration in Shenzhen International Low-carbon Town,” master’s thesis, Delft University of Technology, Delft (2012); C40 website; Liz Schlegel, “Chinese and U.S. Cities Collaborate to Advance Climate-Smart Low-Carbon City Development” (June 7, 2016); The White House, “US-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change” (March 31, 2016).

[20] State Council, “Notice on Issuing the Work Plan for Greenhouse Gas Emission Control during the 13th Five-Year Plan Period” (October 27, 2016).at 5(b); Wee Kean Fong, “23 Chinese Cities Commit to Peak Carbon Emissions by 2030,” World Resource Institute (June 8, 2016).

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