Momentum For Paris Agreement Builds from U.S.-China Climate Change Pledges

With the U.S. release of its proposal for the international climate negotiations and proposals expected soon from other countries, the negotiations are intensifying. A key factor in this dynamic is China’s November commitment to peak its emissions and scale up non-fossil energy, which has shifted the global debate on climate action. China is already taking action on multiple fronts to meet its new goals.1

In the November 11th U.S.-China joint announcement of post-2020 climate targets, the United States pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China announced targets to reach a peak in its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030—with the intention to try to peak sooner—and to increase its non-fossil fuel share of energy use to around 20 percent by 2030.2 These targets provide the basis for the contributions of each country for the negotiations leading up to the Paris Conference in December of this year.

The U.S.-China accord has sent a signal to the world that a global climate solution is possible.

Questions Answered

Previously some questioned whether the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, the U.S. and China, would take serious action to address climate change. The November joint announcement shows that they are. Doubts some have raised about China are dispelled by its actions.

  • Some have questioned whether China is acting now and before the target date for a peak. It is already acting and will continue to act.
  • Some have questioned whether China’s coal use will grow without limit, but China is taking action and coal has been projected to peak in 2020.3

China’s pledges require early, stronger, and continuous action. Analysis from MIT and China’s Tsinghua University finds that with the current level of effort on carbon intensity reduction, emissions would only level off between 2030 and 2040, without subsequent decline. Their analysis includes an Accelerated Effort scenario in which emissions level off between 2025 and 2035 and slowly decline after that. The accelerated scenario involves stronger policies, including a price on carbon beginning in 2015, which rises significantly.4 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.5 Meanwhile, as described below, China is taking steps on many fronts, including steps to limit its coal use, which has been projected to peak in 2020.6

U.S.-China Joint Announcement a Catalyst for Paris

Though all countries have their own domestic reasons for taking action to address climate change, the U.S.-China accord has eliminated what some said was a stumbling block in mobilizing the rest of the world. The joint statement showed that the world’s two largest emitters, which together produce over 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, are willing to take the lead in making serious commitments to address the problem. As countries prepare their contributions to the international climate negotiations leading up to the Paris Conference, the accord provides an example of growing momentum for both developed and developing countries, showing a path to limiting emissions and investing in low-carbon energy. All major emitters are taking some action, but need to do more. The recent leadership by the U.S. and China has helped create unprecedented movement toward a global climate deal and a constructive dialogue that can continue beyond 2015.

China’s announcement that it will peak its emissions is a significant turning point, as it is now moving to bend its emissions curve while continuing to work to lift its people out of poverty and reach the standard of living achieved decades ago in more affluent countries.

What are the steps China is taking to achieve its pledges and provide leadership?

Placing a price on carbon: China has begun planning to launch a national-level emissions trading system next year, starting with provinces that have established the necessary technical infrastructure.7

  • China has laid the groundwork for such a system with carbon trading pilots in five cities and two provinces.8
  • China has begun to take action to limit emissions in energy-intensive industries, and some observers expect the Chinese government to place a cap on CO2 emissions in its 13th Five Year Plan.9

Limiting and reducing coal use: A 2012 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory projected that, based on current trends and market policies, China’s coal consumption will peak in 2020.10

  • New installation of coal power in China peaked in 2006 at over 90GW, but since then the number has fallen dramatically to just 39GW in 2014.11
  • China’s 2013 Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution placed a ban on new coal plants12 in three key industrial areas—Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei, Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta—and set targets for absolute reductions in coal consumption in these regions.13
  • China’s cabinet, the State Council, has announced a plan to limit coal consumption to around 4.2 billion tons by 2020 and to hold coal to at most 62 percent of primary energy use that year.14 An increase in the number of provinces covered by coal caps is also thought to be under consideration.15

Scaling up non-fossil energy: In addition to its 2030 non-fossil pledge, China is targeting an 11.4% non-fossil share of energy use by 2015 and a 15% share by 2020, and has set near-term targets for wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear.16 China has set targets to roughly double its wind capacity to 200GW by 2020, and to more than triple its solar capacity to 100GW by that date.17

  • China again led the world in renewable energy investment in 2014 with $89.5 billion, a 32 percent increase over 2013.18 Last year, China also led the world in wind and solar (PV) installations, with 10.6GW of solar19 and a record 20.7GW of wind capacity.20

Improving energy efficiency: Energy efficiency is an important element of China’s action to achieve its long-range targets.

  • China has a series of targets relating to energy efficiency, including a 16% reduction (from 2010 levels) in the energy intensity (energy consumed per unit of GDP) of its economy by this year, and increases in the efficiency of coal plants.21
  • In an effort to eliminate old and inefficient factories, China has closed 570 million tons of cement and 75 million tons of steel capacity in the past four years.22
  • Under the “Top 10,000 Energy-Consuming Enterprises Program”, about 17,000 of China’s most energy-intensive enterprises are assigned targets for energy-saving to incentivize improvements in energy efficiency.23 China has also established demand-side management regulations to promote energy saving in the electricity sector.24

Rebalancing the economy: China’s leaders recognize the need to shift away from energy-intensive industry toward services if economic growth is to continue at above 7%.25 Economic trends suggest China may be on course for such a shift.26

  • The 12th Five Year Plan targets an increase in services’ share of GDP to 47% by 2015, and a preliminary climate plan released in 2014 targets an increase to 52% by 2020.27

Enforcement: China’s recent amendments to its Environmental Protection Law will aid in the enforcement of its environmental policies by charging violators with daily fines, including local officials’ environmental record in their performance assessment, and allowing NGOs to bring public interest lawsuits against violators.28

Reasons for Action

As former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson recently said, the risks of climate change are “much more perverse and cruel than we saw with the financial crisis.”29 Secretary of State Kerry recently described the risks of insufficient action on climate change, such as health problems, energy insecurity, rising conflict, and climate impacts. By taking action, Secretary Kerry emphasized “you’ll create an extraordinary number of jobs, you’ll kick our economies into gear all around the world, because we’ll be taking advantage of one of the biggest business opportunities the world has ever known.”30

China’s action on climate also is motivated by strong national interests31—recently, China’s leading weather official warned that the impacts of climate change are already damaging the Chinese economy, and therefore it is in China’s economic interest to take action.32 Concerns about energy security, efforts to reap the economic benefits of clean energy, the economic imperative of restructuring, and public concern about air pollution—reflected in the great interest in the Chinese documentary video “Under the Dome”—are encouraging China to limit its energy use and emissions and invest in clean energy.

The actions of the United States and China are growing in ambition and will be sustained, as the two countries and others around the world increasingly recognize the benefits and the urgency of action.

1. For more information regarding the issues in this blog, see “Taking Stronger Action on Climate Change: China and the United States”
2. FACT SHEET: U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation, White House Office of the Press Secretary (November 11, 2014)
4. One-page summary of report: An Energy Outlook for China (2014), MIT-Tsinghua China Energy and Climate Program; full report: Carbon emissions in China: How far can new efforts bend the curve? (2014), Xiliang Zhang, Valerie J. Karplus, Tianyu Qi, Da Zhang and Jiankun He
5. FACT SHEET: U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation, White House Office of the Press Secretary (November 11, 2014)
10.; see also “Taking Stronger Action on Climate Change: China and the United States”, footnote 22
11. 1998-2011, Compilation of Statistics of Electric Power Industry, China Electricity Council, 2012 (in Chinese);
12. The ban has an exception for combined heat and power plants.
17.;;; China’s Energy Development Strategy and Action Plan (2014-2020) (in Chinese)
26. China’s energy transition: effects on global climate and sustainable development (2014), lecture by Ross Garnaut; see also interview with Xie Zhenhua, November 25, 2014
27.; China’s National Climate Change Plan (2014-2020) (in Chinese)
30. Secretary Kerry’s Remarks at the Atlantic Council as Part of the Road to Paris Climate Series, March 12, 2015

Author Information:
Paul Joffe is WRI’s Senior Foreign Policy Counsel and head of the ChinaFAQs Project.
Geoffrey Henderson is the ChinaFAQs Project Specialist.

Photo credit: Joowwww via Wikimedia Commons
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