Beijing's five-year climate targets underwhelming, say experts

Beijing pledged to reduce carbon intensity by 18 per cent over 2020 levels by 2025.
Beijing pledged to reduce carbon intensity by 18 per cent over 2020 levels by 2025.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - The Chinese government has unveiled its first concrete steps towards meeting its climate pledges, and analysts are underwhelmed.

It pledged to reduce carbon intensity by 18 per cent over 2020 levels by 2025, and energy consumption by 13.5 per cent over the same timeframe.

The targets are part of China's new 14th Five Year Plan - as its development plan from 2021 to 2025 is called - a draft of which was presented to the country's lawmakers for approval on Friday (March 5) morning, during the annual meeting of the legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC).

Beijing also set a goal to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix to 20 per cent, up from about 15 per cent currently.

Analysts called the targets "modest", noting that they raised questions over whether China would be able to meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2060.

Held in the Chinese capital, this year's legislative meetings, known in Chinese as the "lianghui", and details of the 14th Five Year Plan are being closely watched by experts for signs which indicate that China is serious about meeting its climate ambitions.

President Xi Jinping caused the world to take notice last year when he pledged at a United Nations meeting that China would peak carbon emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

China is the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases and also the top consumer of coal.

Expectations of ambitious targets were raised after Vice-Premier Han Zheng said last October that the 2021-2025 plan would be "dedicated to addressing climate change" and "focus on the country's new vision" to peak emissions and achieve carbon neutrality.

Mr Li Shuo, a climate analyst at Greenpeace East Asia, said the 18 per cent target reduction in carbon intensity is modest, noting that the same 18 per cent target was set in the 13th Five Year Plan, which covered development from 2016 to 2020.

"China could and should do more than that, and the signal (it is sending out) should be that we need to accelerate our decarbonisation," he said.

He also pointed out that the 14th Five Year Plan broke with tradition and did not carry a five-year gross domestic product target, making it difficult to calculate the absolute increase in emissions.

The lack of a such a five-year goal showed that the great uncertainties from issues ranging from health, economics and geopolitics were weighing on Beijing, which would have trickled down to its environmental targets, he said.

Beijing will likely release more specific sectoral targets, such as on coal power construction, further down the line, and these would be key indicators to watch, said experts.

"Carbon neutrality is a pretty tall order, and people will ask if China will be able to get there if it keeps at the same pace," said Mr Li.

Mr Liu Daizong, from research organisation World Resources Institute China, said he had expected the plan to set more specific emission targets for subnational regions - for instance setting goals for certain provinces, regions or city clusters to peak emissions ahead of others - but it was not the case.

"It's not as positive as I expected to see," he said.

But he also added that the plan had placed an emphasis on creating jobs and transitioning to greener industries.

The draft plan had said China should "resolutely curb the blind development of high energy consumption and high emission projects, and promote a green transformation".

"This is also part of the transition for climate change... how to find and create new jobs for workers moving from old industries to things like renewable energy," said Mr Liu.

During the opening ceremony of the NPC on Friday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced that China had set a GDP growth target of greater than 6 per cent for 2021.

He also said that China would take "solid steps" towards peaking its carbon emissions".

"We will draw up an action plan for carbon emissions to peak by 2030. China's industrial structure and energy mix will be improved," said Premier Li.