China’s ‘two sessions’: five-year plan is key to reaching Xi’s environmental and carbon neutrality goals

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China is expected to release guidelines for the country’s social and economic development for the next five years and beyond during its annual parliamentary meetings starting on Thursday.

A total of 5,000 delegates from the National People’s Congress, the country’s legislature, and its political advisory body the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, will attend the political gathering in Beijing.

The next five years would be covered by the 14th five-year plan, with China embarking on a new journey to build a “modern socialist country”, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in a meeting in January. It is also an important period to show how China will integrate its climate commitments to achieve peak carbon emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

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In December, President Xi Jinping announced that by 2030 China would cut its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP, or carbon intensity, by more than 65 per cent from 2005 levels, compared to the earlier target of a 60-65 per cent cut by 2030. Xi also said China would increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25 per cent during the same period, up from a previous commitment of 20 per cent.

“It is likely that the five-year target will be set based on President Xi’s announcement, but the key question is whether these targets will carry higher ambition,” said Li Shuo, senior global policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia.

Li said four climate and energy-related targets for the next five years in the plan were worth watching: the GDP target; the energy intensity target; the carbon intensity reduction target; and the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption.

Yang Fuqiang, a senior adviser in Beijing for US environmental group the Natural Resources Defence Council, said China would probably set a 2025 energy consumption cap of 5.5 billion tonnes of standard coal equivalent, compared to the 5 billion tonnes target for 2020.

Yang also suggested China should aim to have carbon emissions peak around 2025, although it was unlikely to be written into the five-year plan.

China’s ‘two sessions’ 2021: five things you need to know

Industry experts and environmental organisations have also advocated that carbon emissions should peak during the 14th five-year plan period (2021-2025) to make emission reduction work easier in the following years.

Speaking at a seminar last year, He Jiankun, director of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Low Carbon Economy, suggested China should try to reach peak carbon emissions by 2025.

“The earlier the carbon emissions peak, the more beneficial it is to achieving the long-term goal of carbon neutrality,” He said in December.

Lowering carbon intensity is one of the keys to reaching peak carbon emissions. China succeeded in lowering carbon intensity by 18.8 per cent in the five years to 2020, exceeding the official target of an 18 per cent reduction, according to a report released by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment on Tuesday, but experts said the target for 2025 could be tougher.

“If the GDP growth target in the 14th five-year plan is around 6 per cent, and the energy consumption cap is 5.5 billion tonnes of standard coal equivalent … the carbon intensity reduction target can reach 19 or 20 per cent,” Yang Fuqiang said.

He Jiankun also recommended a 19 to 20 per cent carbon intensity reduction target for the 14th five-year plan period.

Developing clean energy is another way to cut carbon emissions. Yang suggested the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption should increase to 20 per cent from the 15.3 per cent in 2020, if China wanted to meet the 2030 target of 30 per cent of non-fossil fuels in the energy mix.

This means China should add around 100GW of solar and wind power generation capacity each year from now to 2030, according to calculations by experts.

Why is coal so important to China’s economy?

Meanwhile, there has been an acceleration of polluting industries in the aftermath of the pandemic. China built 38.4GW of new coal plants in 2020, accounting for 75 per cent of the global total, according to a report by the San Francisco-based Global Energy Monitor and the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea). The production of some key industrial outputs, such as iron, steel, cement and aluminium, in 2020 have all gone beyond the 2019 level.

An analysis by Lauri Myllyvirta, of Crea, showed CO2 emissions in China increased more than 4 per cent in the second half of 2020 after a 3 per cent drop in the first half, resulting in an annual increase of 1.5 per cent of CO2 emissions.

“China’s economic recovery from the pandemic so far is anything but green,” said Li Shuo.

“The key test for the upcoming five-year plan is how the country reconciles the old and the new [sectors].”

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