Climate change first emerged as a public policy issue in the 1980s, with growing evidence from scientists and calls for action from prominent politicians, including UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US Senator Al Gore. During this period, China was beginning to implement market-based reforms. Early attention to climate change in China was focused mostly on scientific issues and led by the State Science and Technology Commission. In 1990, the National Climate Change Coordinating Group was established to coordinate work on climate change by government ministries. Members included the State Meteorological Administration (which housed and administered the group), the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and others.1

In the early 1990s, China participated in global negotiations to establish a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In the negotiations, China gave high priority to text on “common but differentiated responsibilities”—the principle that all countries are responsible for taking action to prevent climate change but that responsibilities vary based on a country’s level of development.

In 1992, Premier Li Peng attended the Rio Earth Summit and signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities was included in the agreement. In his remarks at Rio, Premier Li highlighted several principles, including:

● economic development must be coordinated with environmental protection;

● protecting the environment is the common task of all mankind, but developed countries have greater responsibility; and

● international cooperation on the environment should be based on respect for national sovereignty.

In 1997, China joined more than 100 other nations in adopting the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed emissions limits on industrialized countries but not on China or other developing countries.2

In 1998, the National Climate Change Coordinating Group was moved from the State Meteorological Administration to the State Planning and Development Commission (the predecessor to NDRC) as part of a broader governmental reorganization. The move to the State Planning and Development Commission reflected the far-reaching implications of climate change as an issue.

The 10th Five-Year Plan (2001–2005) was the first to mention climate change, affirming the Chinese government’s commitment to addressing climate change and other global environmental issues. The plan contained several environmental targets (including for forest cover and air pollutants) but none for climate change or energy efficiency. The Chinese economy grew rapidly during this period, with a massive wave of industrialization but scant attention to energy efficiency, which worsened during the period of the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001–2005).3

In 2002, China ratified the Kyoto Protocol. It began actively participating in Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects in the years that followed. At the same time, air pollution became an increasingly significant problem in many Chinese cities. Some Chinese planners identified renewable energy as an industry with significant growth potential globally. In 2005, the National People’s Congress passed the Renewable Energy Law, which set national renewable energy targets and established feed-in tariffs for renewable energy.4

The 11th Five-Year Plan (2006–2010) was the first to include a binding target for energy efficiency. The target—a 20% improvement—was implemented in part by assigning energy efficiency targets to each province, with provincial and local leaders accountable for achieving them. Although GDP and other economic targets remained most important to these provincial and local leaders with respect to promotion opportunities, failure to achieve energy efficiency and environmental targets became a potential barrier to promotion for the first time. Evidence emerged that some provincial and local leaders were manipulating energy and environmental data to be seen as hitting their targets.5

During the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006–2010), climate change rose rapidly on the agenda of Chinese leaders. Important developments during this period included these:

● In 2006, the Chinese government released its first “National Assessment Report on Climate Change,” based on work by more than 20 ministries and government agencies. The report found that climate change posed serious threats to China.6

● In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fourth Assessment Report, which found that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that most of the recent increase in global average temperatures was probably due to human activities. Chinese experts participated in the IPCC process as Core Writing Team members, reviewers and review editors.7

● In 2007, news reports around the world indicated that China had become the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter the prior year.8

● In 2007, the National Climate Change Coordinating Group was elevated to become the National Leading Group on Addressing Climate Change (a higher level in the bureaucracy). Some provinces also established Leading Groups on Climate Change.

● In 2007, the Chinese government issued the National Climate Change Program, a 60-page report on Chinese climate policies.

● In 2008, NDRC released its first white paper on climate change—“China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change 2008.”9

In late 2008, the global financial crisis struck. Within months, the Chinese government launched an RMB 4 trillion (roughly $600 billion) economic stimulus plan. Some elements, including support for solar power manufacturing, fit well with the growing attention to low-carbon development. However, other elements underscored the far greater priority the leadership attached to sustaining economic growth in the face of a global recession and unprecedented instability in financial markets. The stimulus package included vast energy-intensive construction projects and support for industries heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Environmental regulations were sometimes suspended to facilitate rapid spending. The stimulus package led to emissions increases and slowed progress on energy efficiency across the economy.10

The 2009 Copenhagen Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC received enormous global attention. Just before the conference, China announced its first-ever carbon specific goal: to lower carbon intensity by 40%–45% from 2005 levels by 2020. Premier Wen Jiabao traveled to Copenhagen, where he met with US President Barack Obama and other world leaders. The negotiations were chaotic and the Copenhagen conference was widely considered to be a failure. China and other leading emitters received considerable criticism in the global media for the failure to reach a more ambitious agreement.11

In February 2010, in the wake of the Copenhagen conference, top leaders from the Chinese central government and provinces convened for a week-long meeting on low-carbon development. President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and members of the Politburo participated. Later that year, NDRC announced that five provinces and eight municipalities had been chosen for low-carbon development pilot projects.12

During 2010, officials in many provinces realized they were at risk of failing to achieve the energy efficiency targets in the 11th Five-Year Plan. To achieve the targets, many officials ordered short-term shutdowns of factories and power plants. The shutdowns provided evidence of the seriousness with which many officials treated the targets.13

In October 2010, the Chinese government announced plans to promote seven “strategic emerging industries,” including alternative energy, new energy vehicles, and environmental and energy-saving technologies. The government offered financial incentives for investments in these industries and set quantitative targets for each industry’s contribution to GDP. Related to this, Chinese policymakers gave increasing attention to promoting the innovative capabilities of the Chinese economy more broadly, focusing on educational and institutional reforms that could promote innovation. In the years that followed, low-carbon development was increasingly seen as part of a strategy for investing in industries of the future and enhancing China’s capacities for innovation.14

The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011–2015) was the first to include an explicit climate change target. The plan included a chapter on climate change and called for a 17% cut in carbon emissions per unit of GDP (as well as a 16% cut in energy consumption per unit of GDP). To help achieve this target, the State Council released a Work Plan for Controlling Greenhouse Gas Emissions during the 12th Five Year Plan period.15 Significant developments during this period included these:

● At the end of 2011, the Chinese government chose seven provinces for pilot carbon dioxide emissions trading projects. The projects were launched and implemented in the years that followed, eventually covering more than 10,000 businesses and roughly 6% of China’s CO2 emissions.16

● In 2012, low-carbon development, the “green economy” and “ecological civilization” were all heralded by the Chinese leadership at its 18th Party Congress.17

● In 2013, the Chinese government released its first National Climate Change Adaptation Plan.18

● In September 2014, NDRC released the National Plan on Climate Change (2014–2020). The plan identified key principles, policies and targets for fighting climate change.19

● In November 2014, China and the United States jointly announced steps each country would take to combat climate change agreement during a summit meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama. As part of the announcement, China pledged to peak carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early. The agreement made headlines around the world (and was widely seen as a catalyst to reaching agreement at the Paris climate conference the next year).20

● In June 2015, China submitted its Intended Nationally-Determined Contribution (INDC) to the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In its INDC, China pledged to achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030, making best efforts to peak early. It also pledged that, by 2030, it would (1) lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60%–65% from the 2005 level, (2) increase the share of nonfossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% and (3) increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level.21

China was an active participant in the Paris climate conference in December 2015. President Xi Jinping participated in the opening ceremony, declaring climate change “a shared mission of all mankind” and joining other world leaders in announcing a commitment to double funding for research and development on clean energy. The Paris Agreement reflected work by the Chinese delegation, led by chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua, to find common ground on challenging issues, including the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Official Chinese news sources reported that China worked closely with other countries during the conference “to ensure the agreement was adopted.”22

The Chinese government has been unwavering in its support for the Paris Agreement. (The announcement by US President Donald Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement did not change that position.) President Xi Jinping has described the Paris Agreement a “hard-won achievement…in keeping with the underlying trend of global development” and “milestone in the history of climate governance” that “we must ensure is not derailed.”23 In his high-profile remarks to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, President Xi said, “Taking the driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change, China has become an important participant, contributor, and torchbearer in the global endeavor for ecological civilization.”24


1. See Ye Qi and Tong Wu, “The Politics of Climate Change in China,” WIREs Climate Change (June 14, 2013) at p.307,; Iselin Stensdal, “Chinese Climate-Change Policy1988–2013: Moving On Up,” Asian Perspective (January–March 2014) at p.120,

2. See Premier Li Peng’s speech at the Rio Earth Summit (June 12, 1992),; C2ES, “China’s Strategic Priorities in International Climate Change” (2008),

3. National People’s Congress, “Tenth Five-Year Plan” (March 15, 2001), gongbao/2001-03/19/content_5134505.htm; Qi and Wu, “Politics of Climate Change” (June 14, 2013) at p.307.

4. Stensdal, “Chinese Climate-Change Policy 1988–2013” (January–March 2014) at p.120; Joana Lewis, “China’s Strategic Priorities in International Climate Negotiations,” Washington Quarterly (Winter 2007–2008); Feng Wang, Haitao Yin and Shoude Li, “China’s Renewable Energy Policy: Commitments and Challenges,” Energy Policy (2010),

5. See Qi and Wu, “Politics of Climate Change” (June 14, 2013) at pp.307 and 311; Da Zhang, Valerie J. Karplus, Cyril Cassisa and Xiliang Zhang, “Emissions trading in China: Progress and prospects,” Energy Policy (2014) at p.10,; Yana Jin, Henrik Andersson and Shiqui Zhang, “Air Pollution Control Policies in China,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (December 2016),

6. Chinese Academy of Sciences, National Assessment Report on Climate Change (January 8, 2007), http://english.,’s_National_Assessment_Report_on_Climate_Change_I_Climate_change_in_China_and_the_future trend,’s_National_Assessment_Report_on_Climate_ Change_II_Climate_change_impacts_and_adaptation,’s_National_Assessment_Report_on_Climate_ hange_III_Integrated_evaluation_on_policies_of_China_responding_to_climate_change.

7. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2007 – Synthesis Report” (2008) at pp.92–95,

8. See, e.g., “China overtakes US as world’s biggest CO2 emitter,” Guardian (June 19, 2007), https://www.

9. See Zhang, Karplus, Cassisa and Zhang, “Emissions trading in China” (2014); Williams, “China’s Climate Change Policies” (July 2014); Qi and Wu, “Politics of Climate Change” (June 14, 2013).

10. Jin, Andersson and Zhang, “Air Pollution Control Policies” (December 2016); Qi and Wu, “Politics of Climate Change” (June 14, 2013) at p.306.

11. Malcolm Moore, “China announces carbon target for Copenhagen,” Telegraph (November 2009), http://www.

12. Qi and Wu, “Politics of Climate Change” (June 14, 2013) at p.305; NRDC, “From Copenhagen Accord to Climate Action: Tracking National Commitments to Climate Action,”

13. See Zhang, Karplus, Cassisa and Zhang, “Emissions trading in China” (2014) at p.10; Kevin Lo and Mark Y. Wang, “Energy conservation in China’s Twelfth Five-Year Plan period: Continuation or Paradigm Shift?,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews (2013) at p.501,; Isabel Hilton, China’s Green Revolution (undated) at p.5 --

14. Simon Rabinovitch, “China Outlines Strategic Industries,” Financial Times (August 4, 2011),; US-China Business Council, “China’s Strategic Emerging Industries” (March 2013),

15. “China: 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) for National Economic and Social Development” https://policy.; State Council, “Work Plan for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Control during the 12th Five-Year Plan Period,” (2011),; Qi and Wu, “The Politics of Climate Change in China” (June 14, 2013) at p.304; Lisa Williams, “China’s Climate Change Policies – Actor and Drivers,” Lowy Institute (July 2014) at p.13,

16. Zhang, Karplus, Cassisa and Zhang, “Emissions trading in China” (2014) at p.12.

17. Qi and Wu, “Politics of Climate Change” (June 14, 2013) at pp.302 and 307.

18. NDRC, “National Climate Change Adaptation Plan” (2013),

19. NDRC, “China’s National Plan for Climate Change (2014-2020),”

20. NDRC, “China’s Policies and Actions on Climate Change (2014)” (November 2014), http://www.
; White House, “U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change,” White House (November 2014),

21. NDRC, “Enhanced Actions On Climate Change: China’ S Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (June 30, 2015), pp.2–16,

22. President Xi’s speech at opening ceremony of Paris climate summit, China Daily (December 1, 2015),; “China Voice: China takes leading role in global climate deal,” Xinhua (December 14, 2015),; Shannon Tiezzi, “China Celebrates Paris Climate Change Deal” (December 15, 2015),

23. Xi Jinping, Speech at U.N. Office in Geneva (January 18, 2017),

24. Xi Jinping’s Speech to 19th CPC National Congress (November 3, 2017), special/2017-11/03/c_136725942.htm; Michael Swaine, “Chinese Attitudes Toward the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Accords,” China Leadership Monitor (September 11, 2017),

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