iGDP Insights - February 2020
Leveraging Air Quality to Reduce Carbon in China

The last few years have seen a number of disappointing developments in climate policy. In the US, which until recently was the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the Trump administration has turned its back on the Paris Agreement. China, which hopes to assume a leadership role in global mitigation efforts, is still building coal-fired power plants. And despite the fact that global emissions continue to increase, COP 25 failed to produce the strong commitments to action that the climate community has been calling for.
 
If the dire warnings of climate scientists can’t motivate serious action, what can? In China, going forward one of those things will likely be air quality. This is a policy area that has seen swift and decisive action in recent years, and that policymakers are increasingly seeing as a venue to achieve near-term gains in environmental quality and drive long-term changes in China’s economic structure.  
 
Air pollution in China reached a nadir in the “Airpocalypse” of January 2013, when PM2.5 in and around Beijing reached record levels for a sustained period. This resulted in a widespread public outcry for clean air, and in March 2014, at the opening of the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war on pollution”.
 
Since then, China has issued a succession of forceful plans and policies to reduce air pollution, including the September 2013 State Council Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, the 2016 revision and strengthening of the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law, and the State Council’s follow-up Three Year Action Plan for 2018-2020, which called for a reduction in emissions of pollutants in coordination with a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases.  
 
As a result, China’s most populated areas have experienced remarkable improvements in air quality, with most meeting or exceeding the goals outlined in the 2013 Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan. Between 2013 and 2017, PM2.5 concentrations fell by 32 percent for about 70 percent of the population.
 
The main drivers of these reductions were strengthened emission standards in power plants and emission-intensive industrial sectors, upgrades on industrial boilers, phasing out outdated industrial capacity, and promoting clean fuels in the residential sector, according to researchers from Tsinghua and Peking universities. These are the kinds of actions that researchers at Harvard say should result in the biggest air quality and climate co-benefits, results that were already seen coming back in 2013.
 
On the carbon side, a recent study on China’s CO2 emissions trends notes that air quality policies contributed to structural changes that caused a decline in emissions between 2014 and 2016.
 
Energy Foundation China is now supporting research on co-benefits, holding workshops on air quality attainment and carbon emission peaking at the city level in October last year, and on the air and climate benefits of long-term air pollution control targets in January. As Premier Li Keqiang said in his 2014 speech, China’s policymakers are coming to see air pollution control policy as a way to promote structural changes in the way China uses energy and runs its economy.  
 
The ‘good bad news’ is that although the skies in many parts of China are clearer than they were ten years ago, levels of air pollution remain far in excess of World Health Organization recommended levels and continue to impose high social costs. In recent weeks, high levels of air pollution in the Beijing area despite significant drops in economic and vehicle activity due to coronavirus control measures have brought attention back to air quality. This shows that although some of the low hanging fruit has been captured, the health concerns that are the deep drivers of ambitious air policy are still relevant.
 
If China doesn’t rest on its laurels in air quality, it will continue to be a source of political will for the actions behind decarbonization.  

iGDP Insights - September 2019
What to Expect in China's Second Nationally Determined Contribution

After the hottest summer on human record, the 2019 Climate Action Summit will be held in New York on September 23. With Brazil struggling with the most intense rainforest fires in almost a decade and Greenland having recently experienced one of the most massive melting episodes in the last 700 years, urgency and action are the key words leading up to the summit.

Hosted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the summit aims to boost the ambition of the signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. According to the Paris Agreement’s implementation rules, countries are to submit their second round of NDCs in 2020. These new NDCs should show a strengthening of each country’s climate actions. 

China is the world’s largest GHG emitter, but the general trend line of its climate actions gives us reason for hope. Of course, one is bound to be disappointed if the expectation is that China will stop burning coal tomorrow. But there are reasons to be bullish about China in the long run. Just this June, at the G20 summit in Japan, China, France and the UN reaffirmed their commitment to raise ambition in the new round of NDCs and to publish mid- and long-term low carbon development strategies by 2020.

So what can we expect from China’s second NDC? A new iGDP analytical report describes some of the possibilities (a summary of the report can be found here).

First, how is China doing in its first NDC? Though it’s not possible to say whether China will be able to peak earlier than 2030, China is over-performing in more than half of the sectoral goals set in its 2015 NDC.

Second, what new goals might China consider adding to its second NDC? Some of the options on the table include an absolute carbon cap and new goals to reduce non-CO2 GHG gases like HFCs and methane. Any goals set for non-CO2 GHGs would be additional actions since China’s current climate goal is to peak only energy-related CO2. Another recent iGDP working paper laid out the rationale for this absolute carbon cap in China.

Real mitigation requires sectoral actions. The actionable changes in the second NDC should be based on the new strategies and policies that China has developed since 2016. There are several highlights:

The Energy Production and Consumption Revolution Plan 2016-2030 sets a renewable energy share goal beyond 2030: increasing the RE share above 50% by 2050. The groundbreaking National Green and High Efficient Cooling Plan issued in June this year has set a goal of 2030 to increase the energy efficiency level of cooling products by at least 25%. And the Mid-Long Term Strategic Plan for the Automobile Industry sets ambitious goals for new energy vehicles and fuel economy efficiency in all vehicles.  

Participants in a roundtable discussion on the upcoming UN summit recently held in Beijing echoed many of the ideas in the report. We hope to see these actions reflected in China’s second NDC, and will keep you posted as we get closer to 2020. We’ll also soon follow up with the full analytical NDC reports in English and Chinese. 

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