Is China Doing Enough for the Environment?

A ChinaFile Conversation

This week, at their biggest annual session in Beijing, Chinese lawmakers are expected to ratify the country’s 13th Five-Year Plan, which contains many new measures to address rampant pollution of the country’s air, soil, and water. Will the plan be able to accomplish its goals, and do those goals go far enough? —The Editors


For the first time ever, a senior Chinese leader announced in his work report to the National People’s Congress—his most important formal speech of the year—that environmental violators and those who fail to report such violations will be “severely punished.” Premier Li Keqiang reported that China had succeeded in meeting or exceeding the previous Five-Year Plan’s environmental goals. The draft 13th Five-Year Plan, released March 5 and scheduled to be passed (likely without amendment) in the coming days, builds on that success, requiring greater reductions in the emissions of many pollutants and adding a major air pollutant, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), to those with specific reduction goals, or “hard” targets. The headline news for many has been the announcement of a total energy consumption cap of 5 billion tons of what Chinese experts term “coal equivalent,” a standardized measurement used to add all energy sources together, thus for the first time stating that overall energy use, not just coal use, will be limited going forward. At the same time, perhaps in recognition that progress is moving more quickly on air quality than in other areas of environmental concern, the work report and the Five-Year Plan heavily emphasize the need to improve water and soil quality.

China’s announcement of a total energy consumption cap of 5 billion tons of coal equivalent comes after the success of the 12th Five-Year Plan from an energy perspective, in which energy and carbon targets were met and surpassed. Between 2011 and the end of 2015, energy intensity (i.e. energy consumption per unit of GDP) fell by 18.2 percent and carbon intensity declined 20 percent. These declines are due in large part to the drop in coal consumption: down 3.7 percent in 2015, following a 2.9 percent decrease in 2014. This rapid decline in the growth of energy consumption was seen in the total from all sources of 4.3 billion tons coal equivalent used in 2015, an increase of less than 1 percent from the previous year. That markedly slowed consumption, coupled with the decline in heavy industry, suggests that achieving a 5 billion metric ton energy cap will not be challenging.

Looking to the next five years, Chinese targets again seem easily manageable, and also put the nation in a good position to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which China signed in December 2015. Under the 13th Five Year Plan, China plans to reduce energy intensity by 15 percent. Demonstrating that non-fossil energy sources are becoming a more important part of the Chinese economy, the carbon intensity target of 18 percent is now a full three percentage points higher than the energy intensity target. In other words, while five-sixths of the carbon target will be achieved by improving energy efficiency and the shift from heavy industry to less energy-intensive sectors, the remaining one-sixth will rely on the rapid growth in renewable and nuclear energy. This is a significant increase in the importance of non-fossil fuel from previous five-year plan targets, in which there was only a one-percentage-point difference in the two targets.

[This post is excerpted from “How China’s 13th Five Year Plan Addresses Energy and the Environment.”]

China’s environment and climate efforts under its 13th Five-Year Plan may not yet be entirely fleshed out—policymaking will continue throughout the year as various relevant ministries and agencies introduce their plans—but the headline targets are praiseworthy.

Recent data suggest the Chinese government is showing considerable low-carbon ambition in its plans for an economic transition.

Scholars John A. Mathews and Hao Tan recently concluded in an analysis of China’s electricity sector, for example, that the country is “liberating itself” from fossil fuels, with all their geopolitical ramifications and environmental drawbacks, becoming the “world’s first case of a country breaking free of carbon lock-in by building its own renewable energy industries.”

Encouragingly, this strategy—they called it “building energy security through manufacturing”—is a self-interested move for China: one driven by immediate pollution and energy security concerns and a longer term industrial strategy, as much as climate change.

I hope not only that the plan succeeds, but also that developed countries like my own, looking to counter Chinese competition in these industries, are inspired to aggressively fund innovation at home and introduce policies that expand markets for greener products.

And yet, such a top-down, centralized approach, focused on targets and technology, is rarely enough. In China, it misses both obstacles and opportunities for green transformations at the ground level.

First, environmental and climate legislation needs effective enforcement, and this requires popular buy-in—through NGO and public participation, for example—and transparency—through information disclosure, media reporting, and more.

These have historically been supported as key elements of green policymaking in China, but may be imperilled by draconian regulations on foreign NGOs and the curtailment of Internet speech and media reporting.

Whether or not the government permits it officially, public anxieties are likely to continue to shape policymaking around the country’s energy choices, particularly where nuclear is concerned.

Would China here not benefit to increase structured, early-stage participation—helping to avoid conflict, increase public trust, and improve the political sustainability of its decisions—rather than have its planning decisions mired by continuing shutdowns and protests?

Second, beyond the question of popular sentiment and engagement, there is bottom-up dynamism already driving green transformations in China, which could be harnessed rather than stymied or overlooked.

Take the case of solar water heaters: these are indigenous Chinese designs that have barely benefited from state support, yet China has the world’s largest installed capacity.

The reason? This “disruptive” technology is affordable and compatible with existing social practices—it has thus actively and widely been adopted by many, mainly rural families.

(Far fewer barriers to their adoption exist than solar photovoltaics for grid-connected electricity generation. Here, local grids have often resisted uptake of solar PV by residents, leaving NGOs and socially-minded first-adopters to push the implementation of the feed-in tariff—the policy that should provide favorable long-term contracts to renewable energy producers.)

Electric bicycles—another enormous, unsubsidized success (they are even subject to unenforced bans in many cities)—have also been widely adopted across China. These not only help to mitigate air pollution, but also could potentially revolutionize urban mobility away from high-energy, high-congestion car-based systems.

In such cases, much as environmental regulations can benefit from popular input and supervision, China could learn from and support its demand successes in low-carbon innovation and consider both the social barriers and emergent opportunities of the grand, technological transition it hopes to realize.

Air pollution continues to plague vast regions of China, but the country is making visible progress. In a press conference in Beijing on March 11, Minister of Environmental Protection Chen Jining reported that average ambient levels of PM 2.5, the most dangerous air pollutant, were down by 14.1 percent in 74 key cities last year, the first year after China established a national PM 2.5 standard of 35 ug/m3. The Pearl River Delta region actually achieved overall compliance with the national standard. These results were corroborated by US NASA satellites, which observed apparent reductions of particulate matter in eastern and central China.

There is still, however, a long way to go, as more than 80 percent of about 300 cities failed to meet the official standard of air quality last year. China's draft 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) for economic and social development, which will likely be approved by the National People's Congress early next week, includes a number of environmental targets that are stronger than those in the previous Five Year Plan. Emissions of two key air pollutants - sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) - for example, must be reduced by 15 percent by 2020. The air quality of all cities at the prefecture level and above must meet "good" or "excellent" standards 80 percent of the time. If these cities fail to meet China's annual PM 2.5 concentration standard, they must reduce their concentrations of this pollutant by 18 percent over five years.

When combined with the Five Year Plan's strong focus on clean energy, energy efficiency, and carbon emissions intensity reduction, the Plan represents an important step forward in China's war on pollution. Yet perhaps the most striking feature of the new Plan is its emphasis on enforcement. Premier Li Keqiang set the tone in his report to the National People's Congress at its opening session on March 5:

We must ensure that the newly revised Environmental Protection Law is strictly enforced, that those who emit pollutants beyond the limit allowed by their permit or without a permit are severely punished, and that those who knowingly allow such violations are held to account.

As I explained here, the game-changing amendments to China’s bedrock Environmental Protection Law (EPL) that went into effect in January 2015 put powerful new tools into the hands of environmental officials and the public, providing a strong legal foundation to China's pollution control efforts. Most notably, the revisions make three critical improvements: 1) they add a new fine penalty system that will continue to accumulate for each day the pollution violations continue (by eliminating the previous one-off fine system); 2) they formalize a much-needed performance assessment system that is based on an official's environmental protection record rather than solely on economic growth; and 3) they allow for nongovernmental organizations to take legal action against polluters on behalf of the public interest.

The newly amended Air Law largely reinforces the provisions of the EPL. The air law amendments approved by the National People's Congress in September 2015 also established various legal mechanisms to improve ambient air quality, including:

  • Enhancing local governments' responsibility for air quality management. The new Air Law includes a provision requiring the performance of local government officials to be rated on how well they meet air quality targets and key tasks, not just on GDP growth;
  • Formulating and implementing local attainment plan for non-attainment areas. The implementation progress of the attainment plan must be reported to the corresponding People's Congress and disclosed to the public;
  • Reducing coal consumption and pollution. The law contains a specific section on reducing the consumption and emissions of coal and other dirty fuels. It states that the government should adjust the energy structure and increase the production and use of clean fuels, while gradually reducing the share of coal in primary energy consumption and reducing emissions from coal production and use;
  • Strengthening pollution control from mobile sources. The new air law requires the formulation of fuel quality standards to meet the needs of national air pollution control, and in line with the emission standards of motor vehicles and non-road mobile machinery; and
  • Sharpening the penalties for various violators. The total amount of penalty increased sharply for some violations, which established a sound basis for effective implementation and enforcement of the law.

[This comment is an excerpt from “Tackling Pollution in China's 13th Five Year Plan: Emphasis on Enforcement,” which first appeared in The Huffington Post]

Is China doing enough for the environment? The short answer is no. Because there is no safe limit of pollution for public health, the environment can never be too clean.

Let’s ask the question slightly different. Is China doing its best in balancing environmental protection and economic growth? The answer is probably yes. China is still a middle-income country. It is too luxury to afford the same environmental quality as the developed countries’.

I am cautiously optimistic that China is on the right track to clean up its environment while further growing the economy. In this year’s plenary meetings of China's top legislative and consultative bodies, President Xi Jinping’s famous quote is repeatedly cited: “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets.” Xi proposes to improve economic welfare and quality of life by “ecological civilization.” This guiding principle for China’s development is incorporated in the soon to-be-ratified 13th Five-Year Plan.

China is by no means short of slogans. The devil is in the implementation details. In the past three decades, China has established a complete framework of environmental regulatory systems. However, it has failed to prevent environmental degradation because of poor compliance and enforcement. The massive incompliance to environmental standards has also caused damage to government accountability.

China has recently revised its Environmental Protection Law, setting tough measures on compliance and enforcement. As China endeavors to cultivate the “new normal” of law abiding, it becomes less and less likely to tolerate noncompliance in environmental regulations. Chen Jining, China’s Minister of Environmental Protection, vowed to keep tightening environmental enforcement during the legislative sessions press conference.

The current environmental legislation focuses on strengthening the enforcement program for pollution sources. However, if provincial and local governments fail to achieve the environmental target, the consequence is largely unknown. Chinese provinces and cities have unparalleled enthusiasm in increasing GDP. They are reluctant to undertake pollution control efforts at the cost of slowing down economic growth. Therefore, the root cause of incompliance is local protectionism of economic growth.

Under China’s unique political system, the best way to improve compliance is to link environmental quality to cadre promotion. The prospect for career advancement will stimulate provincial and local officials to take environmental pollution as a serious concern. This point has been reflected in China’s newest guidelines for cadre performance evaluation.

With all the buzz around it, the two legislative sessions have never been important because of what is to be announced. It is on everyone's lips mostly because the gathering provides journalists with a once-in-a-year opportunity to get to the elites they are rarely exposed to during the rest of the year.

The environmental targets announced in the draft 13th Five Year Plan (note it is yet to be adopted by the National People's Congress as of this writing) and the government's Work Report are important but hardly surprising as most of them have already been hinted at or embedded in previous policies and plans. The more important and thus far not known targets will be, as Sam pointed out in his post, released in the subsequent sectoral plans. Will a coal cap be announced in addition to the existing energy cap? Will China take a further step by introducing an absolute control of its CO2 emissions (current targets are intensity based, making emissions subject to GDP growth)? These are
the undecided questions China's policy makers will be debating over the next months.

But even with the unknown targets, what is known is that the existing and the ones to be announced will be a kind of "low bar" targets. They are set with almost full confidence that they will be successfully achieved. From an environmental point of view, it is not necessarily a problem—China's environmental crisis deserves these targets as the absolute redlines. But for people who are reading between the lines trying to find guidance of China's environmental trajectory in the next five years, a rigid interpretation of the five year plan will certainly land them in an overly conservative space. China is standing at an interesting and delicate junction. If the 12th Five Year Plan started with the tail wind of the 2009 stimulus package and the economy still followed the same old path, the beginning of the second half of this decade is featured by a completely different new norm. Be it environmentally related or not, as we have already seen in many fields, the Five Year Plan simply has a hard time catching up with the rapidly changing reality.

Merely two years ago, no one foresaw China's coal consumption, the number one contributor of air pollution and the surge of global CO2 emissions, would decline. China's appetite of the black rock is plummeting now for two years in a row. This has driven China's CO2 emissions down, and might even peaked its emissions once and for all in 2014, a full 16 years ahead of the pledged peaking year of 2030.

What this suggests is that perhaps the mentality behind setting five year targets needs to be shifted. Given the severity of China's environmental crisis, the five year plan might inject more momentum if the targets are set more ambitiously and probably closer to reality. After all, since environmental problems are at the forefront of all of China's social and economic challenges, it wouldn't be a bad idea to take the first step from there.

China may seek to depict the Tibetan plateau as a pristine, untouched land of snows, but its 13th Five Year Plan includes a raft of ambitious and extensive infrastructure projects including hydro-dams and a second railway (Lhasa-Chengdu in Sichuan, following the Qinghai-Lhasa link opened in 2006).

Tibet’s water is vital to China, and to its densely populated downstream neighbors. Known as the earth’s Third Pole because it is the largest repository of fresh water outside the North and South Poles, it is a landscape of glaciers, lakes, grasslands and mighty waterfalls. The Tibetan plateau is the source of the earth’s eight largest river systems, and it even has a key role in global weather systems, with its seasonal cooling and heating not only affecting the monsoon cycle in Asia, but also atmospheric conditions right across the northern hemisphere. Tibet is a global climate change epicenter, and according to Chinese meteorologists is warming at an alarming rate, nearly three times as fast as the rest of the world.

So perhaps different, broader questions need to be raised with regard to China’s policies and Tibet’s fragile high-altitude ecosystem. In the PRC, at least in part because Tibet’s water is seen as a strategic asset by the CCP leadership, policies on Tibet remain exempt from genuine debate and inquiry. And despite the far-reaching implications of the massive infrastructure projects in process and outlined at the annual legislative sessions in Beijing this March, there is little serious engagement internationally with China’s land use policies in Tibet.

Indeed, engagement is hampered by the way the Chinese state media uses a smokescreen of opaque terminology in order to convince governments globally that their land use policies are aimed at climate change adaption and mitigation. The construction of multiple dams on the major rivers running off the plateau by powerful state-owned consortia—in one of the world’s most seismically active regions —is described as ‘water conservation construction’. The displacement of nomadic pastoralists from the ancestral grasslands they have protected for centuries is framed in terms of environmental protection, although the opposite is the case. There is a scientific consensus in the PRC and beyond that indigenous stewardship and herd mobility is essential to the health of the grasslands and helps mitigate climate change.

The dangers of the lack of interrogation of policies are already apparent: scientists have found that a combination of urbanization, intensified militarization linked to China’s strategic aims, infrastructure construction and warming temperatures are creating an ‘ecosystem shift’ in Tibetan areas of the PRC. This involves irreversible environmental damage, including the predicted disappearance of large areas of grasslands, alpine meadows, wetlands and permafrost on the Tibetan plateau by 2050, with implications for environmental security in China and South Asia.

As Li Shuo suggests, environmental problems are at the forefront of all of China’s social and economic challenges. Land-use policies on the world’s highest and largest plateau merit serious attention, and China’s strategies to address climate change need to involve the integration of science-based conservation with Tibetan stewardship of the land.

To read more about this, I suggest Blue Gold from the Highest Plateau: Tibet’s water and global climate change, a report by the International Campaign for Tibet.

Let’s congratulate China for what it’s doing to fight environmental damage and climate change. It has the world’s most ambitious clean-tech program, investing $110 billion in clean-energy technologies last year, almost as much as the U.S. and the E.U. combined.

From almost nothing five years ago, China now has the world’s largest installed base of wind power and solar power. Coal use has dropped each of the past two years. Electricity generated by coal was less than 70 percent last year, down 10 percentage points from 2011. Low-carbon source such as hydro and wind have made up the difference and are now significant sources of electricity generation in China.

Energy intensity is falling, as China shifts away from its traditional reliance on heavy industry to embrace the service sector. Indeed, China is responsible for much of the good, and unexpected, news from the International Energy Agency that global carbon emissions have plateaued in the past two years despite continued economic growth.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a historic agreement with Barack Obama in November 2014 promising that China’s CO2 emissions would peak “around 2030,’” the agreement was hailed as a big step forward. And it was. At last, China formally put a date on peak emissions.

Good as this news is, China needs to do more.

As the world’s largest carbon emitter, China’s pledges are not enough to stop global warming. The “around 2030” target for peak emissions, which China reiterated as part of its promise at the Paris climate summit in December, won’t allow us to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. China’s pledges are part of a group of individual national promises on greenhouse gas emissions that would see Earth warm an estimated 2.7 degrees Celsius.

China needs to be more ambitious. Emissions peaking “around 2030” means that China’s greenhouse gas emissions will be about two-and-half times that of the U.S. by that date—way too high, if we are to have a hope of keeping global warming within 2 degrees Celsius.

China can reach peak emissions much more quickly than expected, and see a fairly rapid drop-off in its carbon emissions, without hurting its economy.

Work done by the Energy Research Institute, part of China’s National Development Reform Commission, shows the impact of an aggressive renewable energy portfolio. This would see China emit roughly about 3 billion tons of CO¬2 emissions in 2050, less than half the emissions under China’s current plans. Emissions of pollutants, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxide would also decline dramatically, with total emissions approaching U.S. levels, despite China’s much larger population. This would go a long way toward cutting the air pollution that is killing 1.6 million people in China every year.

Adopting these targets will take domestic political will. Beijing’s willingness to adopt policies designed to see emissions peak by 2025 will give us a good indication as to whether China will take a global leadership role in curbing carbon emissions or whether it will do too little, too late.

Let’s not forget that China’s pollution is so deadly and its carbon emissions are so high because it has followed an investment-led growth model that has paid no attention to the costs of growth. China’s carbon intensity—the amount of energy it takes to produce one yuan of economic output—is almost three times the U.S. level.

Cutting China’s carbon emissions and cleaning up its disastrous environmental legacy will be good for the world—and good for China. China’s own economic models show that it can act far more quickly than its modest goals to date would suggest.