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, mainly due to migration from the countryside. At least six Chinese cities
(Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Shenzhen) now have populations of
more than 10 million people. More than 100 Chinese cities have populations of more than 1
Roughly 54% of China’s population now lives 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 process of urbanization—with the construction of buildings, roads and other
infrastructure—is energy intensive and produces significant CO2 emissions. In addition, urban
residents emit more CO2 per capita than rural residents. One study found that Chinese urban
residents emit roughly 1.4 times more energy-related CO2 on average than Chinese rural
residents. Another study found that 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. (Urban buildings are more energy efficient than rural buildings on average, but this
was offset by high emissions from urban industries and the urban transport sector.)3
There are significant methodological challenges associated with rigorously comparing
CO2 emissions between cities. Data sets are often poor, and different studies define urban
boundaries for purposes of greenhouse gas accounting differently, especially with regard to
imported electricity and other energy flows. Nevertheless, a number of studies suggest that
some Chinese cities have high per capita CO2 emissions by global standards, with findings
including the following:
● In 2011, CO2 emissions in Wuhan were 15.2 tons per person and in Shanghai 13.1 tons
per person. In 2012, CO2 emissions in Beijing were 18.2 tons per person (although this
figure is likely significantly lower today due to the recent phaseout of coal within
● In 2012, CO2 emissions in Paris were 10.9 tons per person and in New York 6.5 tons
per person. In 2014, CO2 emissions in Tokyo were 4.9 tons per person.
The Chinese figures reflect the presence of CO2-intensive heavy industry in China’s cities.4
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 have been reiterated and further
developed as part of the 13th Five-Year Plan.5
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. 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.” In
practice GDP growth has generally been the primary concern of urban planners, but attention to
environmental sustainability is often identified in policy documents as an important objective.6
In the past decade, low-carbon development has emerged as an increasingly important component of China’s green cities programs. 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. Within the next few years, China launched two batches of low-carbon city pilots 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." 7
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.8
The Chinese government’s policies to promote low-carbon cities fall into at least three broad
First, the Chinese government makes extensive use of pilot projects to promote low-carbon
urbanization. Pilot provinces and cities are required to prepare low-carbon development plans,
establish greenhouse gas emissions statistical systems and enforce greenhouse gas emissions
control targets. NDRC monitors activities in these pilots closely and reported on those
activities in detail in China’s Biennial Update Report (2016). According to the Biennial Update
Report, the carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) in these pilots fell 19.4% from
2010 to 2014—faster than the national average.9
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 Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (submitted to the UN Framework
Convention on Climate Change in 2015) also highlights this topic, saying that China will
implement low-carbon pilot projects in cities, towns and communities.10
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.11
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).12
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 now part of the program.13
1. Joe Myers, “You knew China’s cities were growing. But the real numbers are stunning,” World Economic Forum
(June 20, 2016), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/china-cities-growing-numbers-are-stunning/;
Lang Fang, “The great sprawl of China,” Economist (January 22, 2015), https://www.economist.com/news/
2. State Council, “China unveils landmark urbanization plan,” http://english.gov.cn/policies/policy_watch/2014/08/23/
content_281474983027472.htm; Myers, “You knew China’s cities were growing” (June 20, 2016).
3. 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, https://repository.usfca.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgireferer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1016&context=envs; Axel Baeumler, Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez and Shomik Mehndiratta, eds. “Sustainable low-carbon city development in China,” World Bank (2012), https://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTNEWSCHINESE/Resources/3196537-1202098669693/4635541-1335945747603/low_carbon_city_full_en.pdf-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), https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/zhu/files/nclimate3165_1.pdf.
4. Zhao, Ruixi, and Yan Li. “Greenhouse Gas Inventory Accounting for Chinese Cities: A Preliminary Study.”
International Review for Spatial Planning and Sustainable Development (2016) at p.101, https://www.jstage.
jst.go.jp/article/irspsd/4/4/4_88/_pdf; Stephanie Ohshit et al., “The Role of Chinese Cities in Greenhouse Gas
Emission Reduction,” Stockholm Environment Institute (September 2015) at p.1, https://www.sei-international.
Shan et al., “CO2 emissions inventory of Chinese cities,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions (March 1,
5. 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), http://www.businessinsider.com/hereschinas-big-plan-to-move-a-population-the-size-of-the-phillippines-from-farms-to-cities-2015-7; Yongyu Shao, “Current State of China’s National New-Type Urbanization Construction and Deployment of New Reinforcement Measures,” One Mizuho, https://www.mizuhobank.com/fin_info/cndb/economics/monthly/pdf/R512-0091-XF-0105.pdf.
6. CPC Central Committee and State Council, Urban Development Guidelines (February 2016), http://news.
xinhuanet.com/politics/2016-02/21/c_1118109546.htm; CC Huang, “Why China’s New Urbanization Guidelines
Are A Major Milestone For Urban Sustainability” (March 2, 2016), http://energyinnovation.org/2016/03/02/
chinas-new-urbanization-guidelines-major-milestone/; Yip, Stanley CT. “Planning for eco-cities in China: Visions,
approaches and challenges,” in 44th ISOCARO Congress (2008), http://www.isocarp.net/data/case_studies/1162.
pdf; World Bank, “China: A New Approach for Efficient, Inclusive, Sustainable Urbanization”(March 26, 2014),
7. Axel Baeumler, Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez and Shomik Mehndiratta, eds. “Sustainable low-carbon city development
in China.” World Bank (2012) at p.xxii, https://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTNEWSCHINESE/
Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), “China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change”
(October 2017), https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/P020171122611767066567.pdf.
8. Biliang Hu, Jia Luo, Chunlai Chen and Bingqin Li, “Evaluating China’s low-carbon cities,” East Asia Forum
(September 6, 2016), http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2016/09/06/evaluating-chinas-low-carbon-cities/; State
Council, “Notice on Issuing the Work Plan for Greenhouse Gas Emission Control during the 13th Five-Year Plan
Period” (October 27, 2016), http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/content/2016-11/04/content_5128619.htm.
9. China Climate Change Info Net, “The People’s Republic of China First Biennial Update Report on Climate
Change” (December, 2016) at p.61–62, http://www.ccchina.org.cn/archiver/ccchinacn/UpFile/Files/
Default/20170124155928346053.pdf; NDRC, “China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change” (October 2017).
10. State Council, “Notice on Issuing the Work Plan for Greenhouse Gas Emission Control during the 13th FiveYear
Plan Period” (October 27, 2016) at 5(c), http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/content/2016-11/04/content_5128619.
htm; National Development and Reform Commission, “Enhanced Actions on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (June 30, 2015), http://www4.unfccc.int/ndcregistry/PublishedDocuments/
11. 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).
12. 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), https://
Department of Transportation, “US-China Cooperation” (October 21, 2016), https://www.transportation.gov/r2ze/
US-China-Cooperation; C40 website, http://www.c40.org/cities; Liz Schlegel, “Chinese and U.S. Cities Collaborate to Advance Climate-Smart Low-Carbon City Development” (June 7, 2016), http://www.iscvt.org/chinese-and-us-cities-collaborate-to-advance-climate-smart-low-carbon-city-development/; The White House, “US-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change” (March 31, 2016), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-pressofce/2016/03/31/us-china-joint-presidential-statement-climate-change.
13. 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 08, 2016), http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/06/23-chinese-cities-commitpeak-carbon-emissions-2030.