In 2021, China was the world’s leading emitter of heat-trapping gases by a wide margin. Its policies for limiting emissions will have a significant impact on the global climate for decades to come.
From a historical perspective, China’s status as the world’s leading emitter is relatively recent. During most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese emissions were modest. Then, in the early part of this century, as the Chinese economy boomed, Chinese emissions began to skyrocket, overtaking those from the United States around 2006. China’s cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution are roughly half those from the United States or Europe. (Carbon dioxide, the leading heat-trapping gas, stays in the atmosphere for many years once emitted.)
China’s leaders have declared that climate change is “a grim challenge facing all mankind” and that China is “one of the countries most adversely affected by climate change.” 1 The Chinese government has set goals for limiting emissions of heat-trapping gases, including pledges to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and adopted wide-ranging policies that contribute to meeting these goals. The policies are shaped in part by other objectives, including growing the economy, enhancing energy security, cutting local air pollution and promoting strategic industries.
This Guide examines Chinese climate change policies. It starts with a review of Chinese emissions. It then explores the impacts of climate change in China and provides a short history of the country’s climate policies. The bulk of the Guide discusses China’s principal climate policies, explaining the policy tools the Chinese government uses to address climate change and related topics. Appendices provide background on institutions that shape climate policy in China.
What are “climate policies”? Monetary and fiscal policies affect emissions and could therefore qualify, as could policies on many other topics. This Guide does not catalog all policies that could affect emissions or the climate but instead focuses on policies most directly related to climate change, including those on energy, transportation, urbanization, forestry, climate adaptation and climate diplomacy.
In choosing policies to focus on, we are guided in part by international convention and in part by governments’ extensive reporting on this topic. The Nationally Determined Contributions submitted by more than 160 nations to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change show a broad international consensus that policies on energy, transportation, urbanization and forestry, among others, are considered “climate policies.” 2 The Chinese government’s official documents on climate change show the same.
The Chinese government’s climate change policies are set forth in a wide range of official documents. These include:
- the 14th Five-Year Plan for a Modern Energy System, released by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and National Energy Administration in March 2022; 3
- the Working Guidance for Carbon Dioxide Peaking and Carbon Neutrality, released by the State Council in October 2021; 4
- the Action Plan for Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 2030, released by NDRC in October 2021;5
- China’s updated Nationally Determined Contributions, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in October 2021; 6
- China’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low Greenhouse Gas Emission Development Strategy, released in October 2021; 7
- the Guiding Opinions on Coordinating and Strengthening Work Related to Addressing Climate Change and Environmental Protection, released by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in January 2021; 8
- China’s Second Biennial Update Report on Climate Change, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2018; and 9
- detailed reports on China’s policies and actions for addressing climate change published each year by the State Council or NDRC; 10
In October 2021, President Xi Jinping announced that China would adopt a “1+N” policy framework for climate change. The “1” refers to a long-term approach to combating climate change, as set forth in the State Council’s Working Guidance for Carbon Dioxide Peaking and Carbon Neutrality. The “N” refers to specific plans to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, such as NDRC’s Action Plan for Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 2030. 11
Several themes run throughout the Chinese government’s climate change policy documents, including promoting low-carbon development, scaling up clean energy sources, investing in industries of the future, balancing low-carbon development with other goals, including energy security, and participating actively in climate diplomacy.
Implementation is fundamental to any policy. This is especially true in China, where policy implementation can be a considerable challenge. Key ministries may fail to coordinate. Resources for enforcement may be lacking. Policies designed to achieve different objectives may conflict. The priorities of provincial leaders may not align with policies from Beijing. For these reasons and more, stated policies—while important—are just part of the picture when it comes to understanding China’s response to climate change.
The organization of this Guide reflects that. Most chapters start with a section of background facts. This background provides context and can help in forming judgments on the impacts of policies to date and potential impacts of policies in the years ahead. Where implementation has been especially challenging or successful, that is highlighted.
This Guide can be read in parts or as a whole. Individual chapters are designed to stand alone and provide readers with information on discrete topics. The Guide as a whole is designed to provide an understanding of China’s response to climate change and the implications of that response for China and the world.
The Guide can be accessed in two ways:
- by purchasing it as a book on amazon.com, and
- by visiting the Guide to Chinese Climate Policy website at chineseclimatepolicy.oxfordenergy.org/, where you can navigate to each chapter and download the entire manuscript for free.
This is a “living document.” Many of the facts and policies it describes will change in the months and years ahead. As that happens, this Guide will be updated. New editions of the Guide will be released in the years ahead.
We welcome comments on and updates to the material in this Guide. Please send comments and updates to [email protected].