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, the Chinese government 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 “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. 2
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.
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. In the years that followed, Chinese entities began actively participating in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). 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 in order 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 included:
- 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 and reviewers. 7
- In 2007, news reports around the world indicated that in 2006 China had become the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter. 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. 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 the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC received enormous global attention. Just before the conference, China announced its first-ever goal concerning carbon dioxide emissions: to lower “carbon intensity” by 40%–45% from 2005 levels by 2020. (“Carbon intensity” is the ratio of carbon dioxide emissions to GDP.) 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 how seriously 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 policy makers 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 with 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 the following:
- 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 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 following 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. At the opening ceremony, President Xi Jinping declared climate change “a shared mission of all mankind” and joined 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 Minister 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.
- In January 2017, President Xi Jinping described the Paris Agreement as a “hard-won achievement…in keeping with the underlying trend of global development” and a “milestone in the history of climate governance” that “we must ensure is not derailed.” 23
- In October 2017, in his high-profile remarks to the 19th Party Congress, 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
In July 2019, Premier Li Keqiang reiterated the Chinese government’s support for the Paris Agreement and commitment to cutting emissions in a meeting of the National Leading Group on Climate Change, Energy Conservation and Emissions Reduction. 25
In a September 2020 speech to the UN General Assembly, President Xi Jinping announced that China would aim to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. The announcement received considerable media attention around the world. In the same speech, President Xi also announced that China would aim to peak carbon dioxide emissions “before” 2030, a slight strengthening of his previous pledge that China would achieve peak emissions “around 2030, making best efforts to peak early.” 26
In July 2021, the Chinese government officially launched a national emissions trading program for carbon dioxide. The program covers the power sector and is scheduled to expand to other major-emitting sectors in the years ahead. 27
On several occasions during 2021 and the first half of 2022, Chinese leaders emphasized that climate change goals must be pursued in an “orderly manner” consistent with other important goals including energy security and economic growth. In July 2021, for example, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party warned against “campaign-style” carbon reduction policies. In a January 2022 speech, President Xi emphasized that low-carbon development must be pursued in ways that help achieve energy security goals. In an Environment Day speech in June 2022, Vice Premier Han Zheng said: “We will promote carbon neutrality in an orderly manner and reduce carbon emissions while ensuring energy security, industrial chain supply chain security and food security.” 28