Stronger Commitments from China and US Are Breakthrough for International Climate Action

With the current climate negotiations reaching a conclusion in Paris this coming December, we are at a pivotal moment in the global effort to address climate change and shift to a low-carbon development path. The United States and China, which together make up 38 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions (as of 2012), are playing an important role.

Yet there has been confusion about China’s climate action commitments, as well as the fact that both China and the U.S. are taking significant action. Here’s a look at China’s progress to date, and what implications it has for international climate action.

No More Hesitation

For a long time, countries hesitated to move forward in the negotiations, worrying whether other nations would act. As countries announce their post-2020 climate action plans before Paris, known as “intended national determined contributions” (INDCs), hesitation can be put aside as countries proceed together. INDCs from the world’s two largest emitters, China and the United States, require the countries to take stronger action than their current policies.

The U.S. INDC formalizes the pledge made in the joint announcement with China in November 2014 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and asserts that the country will make best efforts to reach the upper end of the target. In its INDC, China formalized its commitment from November 2014 to peak its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030, making best efforts to peak earlier, and to increase the non-fossil share of its primary energy mix to around 20 percent by that date. It also pledged to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 60 to 65 percent, and increase forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters, all from 2005 levels by 2030.

Building Blocks for CO2 Reduction

In recent years, the United States and China have started laying down building blocks for achieving their targets. The United States is already taking action under the administration’s Climate Action Plan, through measures such as proposed emissions standards for existing power plants and efficiency standards for appliances, cars and heavy-duty trucks.

The United States is not acting unilaterally to reduce its emissions. China is also taking significant actions through its:

  • World-leading investment in clean energy, with $89.5 billion in 2014
  • Targets to roughly double wind capacity to 200 gigawatts (GW) and more-than-triple solar capacity to 100GW by 2020
  • Limits on coal consumption of around 4.2 billion tons by 2020 and a maximum of 62 percent of primary energy use that year
  • Seven city-and provincial-level carbon-trading pilots and plans to scale them up to the national level
  • Targets to increase energy efficiency, and measures to save energy at major enterprises and close down inefficient factories
  • Efforts to rebalance the economy by reducing the share of energy-intensive industry and expanding the share of services like financial services, telecommunications, and health care
  • Increasing tree cover by 49 million hectares (121 million acres) from 1990 to 2010.

Stronger Efforts Planned

China’s new targets require action well beyond existing initiatives. Its goals are achievable, but will require the country to enact new and stronger policies and shift its model of economic development.

These points are still sometimes not understood, with some suggesting that China’s pledges require little or no action until 2030. Analysis shows that this is incorrect.

MIT and China’s Tsinghua University find in their Continued Effort scenario that if China continues its current level of effort in reducing its carbon emissions per unit of GDP, emissions will level off between 2030 and 2040, without a subsequent decline. Their Accelerated Effort scenario, which shows emissions leveling off between 2025 and 2035 and slowly declining after that, involves stronger policies, including a price on carbon beginning in 2015 that then rises significantly. Further, to achieve its 2030 non-fossil energy pledge, China will need to install 800-1,000GW in new non-fossil generation capacity, close to all current U.S. electricity generation capacity and greater than China’s current coal-fired capacity. China’s forest target is also aggressive, as it implies an increase in forest cover of 50-100 million hectares (124-247 million acres) of forest, or about two-to-four times the size of the United Kingdom.

There also seems to be some misunderstanding about one of the leading scenarios regarding China’s emissions trajectory. Some have suggested that the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2014 treats China’s commitment as more or less business-as-usual. However, the IEA scenario projecting a peak in China’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 does not represent China’s business-as-usual emissions trajectory. The projection is from IEA’s New Policies Scenario, which takes into account China’s ambitious 2020 non-fossil generation capacity targets and assumes significant new policy efforts, including carbon pricing starting in 2020, energy price reform, and “[containing] the expansion of energy-intensive industries”.1 In this scenario, China’s clean energy2 investment also rises from $77 billion in 2012 to $165 billion in 2020, $184 billion in 2030, and $227 billion in 2040.3

Moving Forward with Stronger Commitments

China’s contribution to the international climate agreement represents a meaningful commitment to build on its robust efforts to limit emissions. China’s contribution, along with others, should end hesitation by countries over whether other countries will act. While all countries will need to do more, the pledges of the United States and China enable them to move forward together and help lead the world on a path toward ambitious climate action.

  1. International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2014 (Paris: IEA, 2014), pp. 689, 691, 695. 

  2. The IEA World Energy Outlook 2014 defines clean energy in this instance to include “energy efficiency, renewables, nuclear, and CCS in the power and industry sectors.” The Outlook clarifies that “Energy efficiency investment is measured relative to a 2012 baseline efficiency level.” International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2014 (Paris: IEA, 2014), p. 93 

  3. International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2014 (Paris: IEA, 2014), p. 93