China unveiled its new five-year economic plan today, which included a 6% growth target, 11 million new urban jobs and goals to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2060.

The 14th plan since 1949 was unveiled by Premier Li Keqiang at the National People’s Congress, the annual meeting of the country’s rubber-stamp parliament in Beijing.

Carbon emissions

Mr. Li said China aims by 2025 to cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 18% from 2020 levels, the same pace as in the previous five-year plan, which was exceeded with a reduction of 18.6%.  

China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, as well as the second largest economy after the US. To stand a chance of holding global heating below 2C above pre-industrial levels, as set out in the Paris Agreement, global carbon emissions must halve by the end of 2030.

Despite high expectations, Li confirmed little other than that a plan to reach peak emissions by 2030 would be finalised later this year. Critics say China could be doing more, Li Shuo, a Beijing-based campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia, said “there is still great potential for China to further enhance the peaking timeline from before 2030 to before 2025.”

Carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere today will still be there, overheating the planet in a century, which is why many experts regard 2030 as leaving it too late. 

Chief Executive of the European Climate Foundation, Laurence Tubiana, said: “[Peaking in] 2025 seems possible, all the modelling by Chinese teams points to that, and it’s not too late. But 2030 or around 2030 would be too late, there is no ambiguity about that.”

Energy coals

Whilst Mr. Li hailed China’s recovery from an “extraordinary” year in the wake of its successful containment of the coronavirus. However, investments in 38.4 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power plants in 2020, drew criticism for pursing an energy-intensive post-Covid recovery, based on construction and heavy industry. 

The plan pledged to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP by 13.5%. No small feat considering China uses around half of all coal produced worldwide every year and is reliant on coal for energy, industry and millions of jobs. Only 23% of the energy that China consumes is from ‘clean’ sources (including natural gas), burning more coal than all other countries combined. 

Chatham House thinktank research director for futures, Bernice Lee, said “People always ask why can’t China move faster away from coal. It is hard in China, like it is hard in many other places: it is about real people on the ground, industries, powerful lobbies, bureaucratic fights, and inertia.”

Next steps for China

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said that coupled with the emissions intensity target, this plan could allow the growth rate of China’s emissions to “accelerate”, rather than slow down, as is needed.

There is still scope for China to expand on its plan with more detail on increasing clean energy consumption in its National plan under the Paris climate agreement.  The country has made massive investments in renewables, more than doubling its construction of new wind and solar power plants in 2020 from a year earlier, government data showed. 
World governments will meet in Glasgow this November for vital UN climate talks called Cop26.  China will need to have submitted its nationally determined contribution plan for 2030 before this Cop26 meeting. 


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