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Current situation

What is Chinaʼs pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C?

Emissions profile

In 2014, the majority of China’s emissions were due to energy use (77%). Within this broad category, CO₂ emissions from fuel combustion for heat and power (33% of total GHG emissions) and for industry (26% of total GHG emissions) made up the lion’s share. With regards to non-CO₂ emissions, the combined CH₄ and N₂O in the agriculture sector made up 8% of total emissions. Fugitive emissions from the energy sector were also a large source of CH₄.

Although China’s total emissions (excluding LULUCF) grew at an average 7% year-on-year between 2000 and 2013 (with growth peaking in 2003 at 14%), more recent years have seen a decline in growth. This decline in emissions growth is particularly noticeable in industrial energy use, which has experienced negative rates, primarily driven by energy efficiency due to technological improvement and optimisation of industrial infrastructure.6,7

Current policy projections indicate that by 2030, China’s emissions will grow from 63-85% above 2005 levels, excluding LULUCF.3

1 Jinping, X. Full Text: Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Climate Ambition Summit. Xinhuanet (2020).

2 Climate Analytics. CAT Climate Target Update Tracker – China. Climate Action Tracker. (2020).

3 Climate Action Tracker. China. CAT December 2019 Update. (2019).

4 People’s Republic of China. Enhanced Actions on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. (2015).

5 Yvonne Deng, Ursula Fuentes, Hare, B., Welder, L. & Gidden, M. U.S. and China Climate Goals : Scenarios for 2030 and Mid-Century. (2020).

6 Liu, Q. et al. Pathway and policy analysis to China’s deep decarbonization. Chinese J. Popul. Resour. Environ. 15, 39–49 (2017).

7 Zheng, X. et al. Drivers of change in China’s energy-related CO2 emissions. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 117, 29–36 (2020).

8 IEA. World Energy Balances 2019. (2019).

9 Climate Action Tracker. China CAT September 2020 Update.

10 Bahr, A. China’s coal capacity surge need not be at odds with ambitious climate action. China Dialogue (2020).

11 Myllyvirta, L., Zhang, S. & Shen, X. Analysis: Will China build hundreds of new coal plants in the 2020s? Carbon Brief (2020).

12 Global Energy Monitor et al. Boom and Bust 2021: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline. (2021).

13 Climate Action Tracker. New momentum reduces emissions gap, but huge gap remains – analysis. Climate Action Tracker (2021).

14 Reuters. China to cut coal use share below 56% in 2021. Reuters (2021).

15 Wang, C. N. Brief: Coal phase-out in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): an analysis of Chinese-backed coal power from 2014-2020. (2021).

16 Deign, J. What Is Going On With China’s Crazy Clean Energy Installation Figures? Green Tech Media (2021).

17 Kusmer, A. China launches world’s largest carbon market. PRI (2021).

18 Farand, C. China launches world’s largest carbon market for power sector. Climate Home News (2021).

19 Jinping, X. Full Text: Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Leaders Summit on Climate. Xinhuanet (2021).

20 Xinhua. China unveils plan for new energy vehicle industry. Xinhuanet (2021).

21 Lutsey, N., Cui, H. & Yu, R. Evaluating Electric Vehicle Costs and Benefits in China in the 2020 – 2035 Time Frame. (2021).

22 Xinhua. Full Text: Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Leaders’ Side Event on Safeguarding Planet of G20 Riyadh Summit. Xinhuanet (2020).

23 Liu, H., Liu, J. & You, X. Q&A: What does China’s 14th ‘five year plan’ mean for climate change? Carbon Brief (2021).

24 Xu, M. & Singh, S. China cuts ‘carbon intensity’ 18.8% in past five years, in effort to rein in emissions. Reuters (2021).

25 IEA. Coal Information: Overview. (2020).

26 World Resources Institute. Accelerating the Net-Zero Transition: Strategic Action for China’s 14th Five-Year Plan. (2020) doi:https://doi.org/10.46830/wrirpt.20.00018.

27 IEA. Renewables 2019: Analysis and forecast to 2024. (2019).

28 IEA. World Energy Outlook 2019.(2019).

29 Murphy, B. Outline of the People’s Republic of China 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and Long-Range Objectives for 2035 (English translation). (2021).

30 Yu, Y. Renewable Energy in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan: Five Changes. Energy Iceberg (2021).

31 Hu, Y. & Cheng, H. The urgency of assessing the greenhouse gas budgets of hydroelectric reservoirs in China. Nat. Clim. Chang. 3, 708–712 (2013).

32 Li, S., Zhang, Q., Bush, R. T. & Sullivan, L. A. Methane and CO2 emissions from China’s hydroelectric reservoirs: a new quantitative synthesis. Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res. 22, 5325–5339 (2015).

33 Xie, X., Jiang, X., Zhang, T. & Huang, Z. Regional water footprints assessment for hydroelectricity generation in China. Renew. Energy 138, 316–325 (2019).

34 Yuefang, D. & Steil, S. China Three Gorges Project resettlement: Policy, planning and implementation. J. Refug. Stud. 16, 422–434 (2003).

35 Lewis, C. China’s Great Dam Boom: A Major Assult on Its Rivers. Yale Environment 360 (2013).

36 Yu, Y. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan for Power Industries (2): No Plans for Wind, Solar & Hydro? Energy Iceberg (2020).

37 IEA. World Energy Outlook 2020. (2020).

38 Among other targets. Please see details in “Current Situation – Targets and Commitments” table below. Non-fossil fuel energy is comprised of nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar, biofuels, and other renewables.

39 GDP carbon intensity reduction is based on the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) analysis. The CAT uses historical emissions data from China’s most recent inventory submission to the UNFCCC, historical GDP data from China’s 2018 Statistical Yearbook, and GDP projections from WEO 2019 and IMF. The CAT projection calculations are based on the GDP growth rate from the IEA WEO 2019 (5.2% annual growth) between 2018 and 2030, except for the years 2020 and 2021, which use other projections that account for COVID-19 impacts. For a full explanation, see Climate Action Tracker, Assessment of China.

40 Note that the current value given here refers to 2017 levels. Similarly, the current coal, gas, and power intensity values also refer to 2017 levels.

41 While global cost-effective pathways assessed by the IPCC Special Report 1.5°C provide useful guidance for an upper-limit of emissions trajectories for developed countries, they underestimate the feasible space for such countries to reach net zero earlier. The current generation of models tend to depend strongly on land-use sinks outside of currently developed countries and include fossil fuel use well beyond the time at which these could be phased out, compared to what is understood from bottom-up approaches. The scientific teams which provide these global pathways constantly improve the technologies represented in their models – and novel CDR technologies are now being included in new studies focused on deep mitigation scenarios meeting the Paris Agreement. A wide assessment database of these new scenarios is not yet available; thus, we rely on available scenarios which focus particularly on BECCS as a net-negative emission technology. Accordingly, we do not yet consider land-sector emissions (LULUCF) and other CDR approaches which developed countries will need to implement in order to counterbalance their remaining emissions and reach net zero GHG are not considered here due to data availability.

42 China had a total renewable generation capacity of 795 GW in 2019. The previously largest net addition of renewable capacity, 82.4 GW, occurred in 2017. Please see the IEA’s Renewables 2020 Data Explorer for further details. The renewable capacity accounted for about 40% of the total installed capacity, 1,991 GW.37

43 Analysis shows that EV efficiencies, for the various vehicle classes, will have to improve by a minimum of 1-2% p.a. to achieve the 12 kWh/100 km by 2035 target.21

44 While China’s emissions growth rate has declined in recent years (five-year average of annual emissions growth dropped from 10% in the period 2003-2007 to 1% in the period 2013-2007), GDP growth has remained steady and at a high level, showing some level of decoupling of emissions from economic growth. In 2017, their emissions intensity was 42% below 2005 levels. See Climate Action Tracker’s data portal for more details.

45 China’s carbon intensity (including LULUCF) in 2015 stood at 0.67 ktCO₂ per million USD (2012 PPP). Reducing this by 18.8% (for period 2015 to 2020), then 18% (for period 2021 to 2025), and 18% again (for period 2026 to 2030) would result in a carbon intensity of around 0.37 ktCO₂ per million USD (2012 PPP), or a 60% reduction from 2005 levels.

46 While coal is by far the largest contributor to China’s primary energy supply, the most recent statistics show that over the decade up to 2019, the share of coal in primary energy decreased by 11% and 19% in terms of production and consumption respectively. Comparatively, over the same period natural gas production and consumption grew by 46% and 131% respectively, while that of primary electricity and other energy grew by 92% and 80%, respectively. The National Bureau of Statistics of China includes hydropower and electricity generated by nuclear energy and other means such as wind power and geothermal power, etc, in the category of primary electricity and other energy. For details statistics on production and consumption of primary energy, please see tables 9-1 and 9-2 in the 2020 China Statistical Yearbook.

47 See table 9-9 in 2020 China Statistical Yearbook.

48 Renewable heating comprises bioenergy, renewable district heating, solar thermal, geothermal, and renewable electricity. China saw significant growth in the latter three technologies between 2012 and 2018.

49 As China has included a significant forestry stock target in their NDC (and more so in the proposed update) it is worth considering the role of forestry carbon sinks in the country’s emissions reductions. The additional forest stock target of 4.5 billion m3 (6 billion m3 in proposed updated) represents about 26-34% of the country’s current forest stock (average of 2014-2018 values as per 9th National Forest Inventory ). LULUCF historical values are provided by the Climate Action Tracker, China assessment and had an average value of -860 MtCO₂e p.a. in 2010-2014. Using a linear regression of changes in LULUCF on changes in forest stock, we can forecast a value of -1.04 GtCO₂e (-1.16 GtCO₂e for proposed update target) for forest sinks if NDC target is achieved.

50 In 2017, China generated about 6,590 TWh of electricity. That same year, the IEA reports that 25,606 TWh of electricity was generated globally.

51 Wind and solar capacity grew at an average of 17% and 54% p.a. respectively between 2015 and 2019. This is compared to average annual growth of thermal capacity (5%) and total generation capacity (7.8%) in those years. Please see the 2020 China Statistical Yearbook for further details. Installed capacity of power generators may be found in table 9-15.

52 The 2020 China Statistical Yearbook has solar and wind capacity at 413 GW in 2019. In the years 2015 to 2019, an average of 58 GW of new solar and wind capacity was added each year. With the 120 GW of solar and wind added in 2020, and assuming the aforementioned average annual additional capacity, it would take about 11 years for China to reach their 1,200 GW target.16

53 Across the different models, coal is phased out on average by 2040 and at the earliest by 2030.

54 Based on our analysis, the 100% RE model show a phase out of gas already by 2024, mostly driven by a low current share in the power mix and a high uptake of renewable energies.

Chinaʼs current GHG emissions

MtCO₂e/yr

Displayed values

By sector

  • Power
  • Industry (energy use)
  • Fugitive emissions
  • Transport
  • Buildings
  • Other
  • Industry (processes)
  • Agriculture
  • Waste
  • LULUCF
Energy (77%)⟵ LULUCF negative emissions

By gas

  • CO₂
  • CH₄
  • N₂O
  • Other
080%0

Sectors by gas

Energy
092%0
Agriculture
00
Industry (processes)
076%0

Energy system

China’s primary energy mix consists of 64% coal, 6.4% gas, 19% oil, 2% nuclear, and 9% renewables (including biomass.8 In 2017, their power generation mix was composed of 68% coal, 2.8% gas, 0.15% oil, 3.8% nuclear, and 25% renewables (including biomass).8

China’s continued investment in new coal-fired power plants increases the risk of carbon lock-in and stranded assets.5,9 This is particularly the case as continued investment in coal comes despite the fact that the country already is dealing with coal overcapacity issues.10,11 China’s reliance on coal seemingly shows little sign of decline as the building of new plants is used to boost GDP and industry groups argue that these plants will be needed to meet future energy demand.11 Between 2000 and 2017, increases in coal generation have met over 50% of net new electricity demand in 13 out of 18 years. In 2020 alone, China commissioned 38.4 GW of new coal plants.12

This being said, there are some encouraging signs. President Xi Jinping has recently announced that China will begin to phase down coal from 2026, and the country’s energy regulator has stated that it aims to reduce the share of coal in total primary energy to less than 56% in 2021.13,14 With regards to overseas financing, China’s investments in coal plants through the Belt and Road Initiative has been substantially reduced since peaking in 2015 and 2016. Of the 52 coal plant projects announced between 2014 and 2020, only one has gone into operation (25 have been shelved and eight have been cancelled).15

Despite China’s reliance on coal, in recent years renewables have taken on a greater role in the country’s power sector. Between 2015-2018, wind and solar met more than 25% of new electricity demand. In 2020, China brought 72 GW of wind and 48 of solar online.16 This is about 15% of the country’s total installed renewable generation capacity in 2019 and significantly greater than recent single year net additions.42

Targets and commitments

Economy-wide targets

Target type

Base year intensity target

NDC target

Unconditional NDC Target:

  • First NDC: Peak CO₂ emissions around 2030.
    • Non-fossil fuel share in primary energy use: ~ 20% by 2030.
    • Forest stock: ~ 4.5 billion m³ increase over 2005 levels by 2030.
    • Carbon intensity of GDP: 60-65% below 2005 by 2030 (role of LULUCF unclear).
      Translates to GHG emissions of 74-92% above 2005 levels by 2030 (excl. LULUCF).
  • Proposed NDC update:
    • Peak CO₂ emissions before 2030.
    • Non-fossil fuel share in primary energy use: ~ 25% by 2030.
    • Forest stock: ~ 6 billion m³ increase over 2005 levels by 2030.
    • Increase wind and solar capacity to 1200 GW by 2030.
    • Carbon intensity of GDP: over 65% below 2005 by 2030 (role of LULUCF unclear).
      Translates to GHG emissions of 63% – 82% above 2005 by 2030 (excl. LULUCF).

Note: NDC target exclude non-CO₂ sectors such as agriculture and part of industry (processes).

Market mechanism

  • The Chinese National Carbon Market covers 2225 power plants. There are plans to expand market coverage over next five years to cover 80% of total CO₂ emissions.9,17,18

Long-term target

  • China has announced it aims to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. However, it is unclear whether this target covers all GHGs or only CO₂ .5

Sector coverage

EnergyTransportIndustryWasteLULUCF

Greenhouse gas coverage

CO₂

Sectoral targets

Energy

  • First NDC: Increase share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20%.4
  • Proposed NDC update: Increase share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25%.1
  • Leader’s summit announcement (April 2021): Coal will be phased down from 2026.19

LULUCF

  • First NDC: Increase forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion m³ in 2030 from 2005 levels.4
  • Proposed NDC update: Increase forest stock volume by around 6 billion m³ in 2030 from 2005 levels.1

Power

  • Proposed NDC update: Increase installed capacity of wind and solar polar to 1200 GW by 2030.1

Transport

  • New energy vehicles (NEVs) to account for 20% of new car sales by 2025.20
  • Average power consumption of pure electric vehicles to be brought down to 12 kWh/100 km by 2035.21,43

Footnotes