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Senior climate change official Li Gao talks about the progress China has made toward the goals of peaking carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality

By Xu Tian Updated Sept.1

Datang No.2 power plant, Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, May 1, 2018

China will increase its National Determined Contributions (NDC) and adopt more effective policies and measures to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and attain carbon neutrality before 2060, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged on September 22, 2020 while addressing the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly.  

In January this year, as the main department in charge of climate change, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) set out its goals to reach a carbon emissions peak before 2030, encouraging energy, industry, transportation, construction and other key sectors to formulate action plans with clear targets.  

Addressing the two targets for carbon emission reduction, NewsChina interviewed Li Gao, head of the MEE’s climate change department.  

Attaining the two targets will involve huge challenges on tight timelines, Li said. However, they will guide the direction for the green transformation of China’s economic and social development, which will have a profound impact in the coming decades in areas including the economy, energy, industry, science and technology, investment and finance, he said.  

NewsChina: Addressing the timeline to peak carbon emissions, why did China change its initial target from around 2030 to by 2030?  

Li Gao: This is an ambitious goal with lots of inherent difficulties. I can point to two main reasons. On the one hand, it reflects China’s leadership and responsibility as a major country to tackle global climate change. As the largest developing country, China tries its best to make the greatest contribution it can with a responsible attitude in the field of climate change and in addressing major challenges related to the future of all humanity. President Xi Jinping’s major announcement made clear the goal and direction of China’s response to climate change and green and low-carbon development, contributing strong political impetus to the international community’s comprehensive and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement and strengthening global climate actions. This could boost confidence and hope and will have a far-reaching international and domestic impact.  

On the other hand, China has transitioned into a stage of highquality development, thus the cost of production factors is rising and the driving force for traditional development is weakened, which requires fostering new driving forces, new models and new advantages. The peak carbon goal and vision for carbon neutrality are mechanisms for high-quality economic and social development and the root solutions for high-level ecological and environmental protection, which can better promote our institutional advantages, reform dividends, policy driving force and technological potential.  

NC: What’s your view on how to balance the two goals of achieving carbon emissions targets and economic and social development?  

LG: First, achieving peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality do not contradict economic development. The proposal of two carbon emissions goals is both a challenge and an opportunity.  

China’s unbalanced and inadequate development situation is a prominent problem that still needs addressing. The country faces hard challenges – in developing the economy, improving people’s livelihoods, eliminating poverty and combating pollution. While promoting carbon peaking and carbon neutrality based on China’s national conditions, development stage and practical ability, the situation requires us to adhere to the system, handle the relationship between development and emissions reduction, overall and local, in the short-, medium- and long-term, properly set periodic objectives and make scientific work arrangements.  

It is important to consider the carbon emissions peak and carbon neutrality together. If we only focus on the emissions peak, then the carbon neutrality goal would be difficult to attain and costs would increase. Therefore, during the critical period of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), we must no longer follow the old path and we must contain local governments’ impulses to recklessly launch highenergy-consuming and carbon-emitting projects.  

Of course, one-size-fits-all measures are not applicable, such as rolling blackouts. We are not going to replace all the traditional fossil fuels in the short term. We prefer to have a stable, orderly and active situation.  

NC: What progress has been made in fulfilling the emissions peak action plan? What areas or industries are the most controversial in attaining the two goals?  

LG: We’ve conducted a significant amount of research so we can make in-depth analyses of the current situation and trends of total carbon emissions in local and key industries, target formulation, evaluation standards and basic data related to the carbon emissions peak.  

We have already done studies on key emitting industries such as electricity, steel, cement, electrolytic aluminum, chemicals and petrochemicals, the coal chemical industry, construction and transportation, and we have prepared reports, which cover about 80 percent of China’s total carbon emissions.  

At the same time, we have started work on carbon neutrality and strategic research, and enlisted research institutions to work out carbon neutrality schedules, road maps, key tasks, key industries, key technologies, major policies and systems. At present, industries including electricity, steel and cement are the key emitters to focus on. Achieving peak carbon emissions requires structural adjustment in the energy sector, and we must reduce the proportion of fossil fuel-generated energy, especially coal, and increase the proportion of renewable energy.  

China’s power generation is still coal-dependent, which is the greatest challenge to carbon reduction. At the same time, China is still industrializing and has high levels of manufacturing and processing, and there are big problems in satisfying demand for energy.  

In terms of natural resources, China is rich in coal, but has poor reserves of oil and gas, so coal power generation is the foundation of the economy. At present, China’s coal power development is relatively advanced, and most of the installed capacity is new, so some argue that radical policies would cause a relatively huge waste. Generally, the optimal and most detailed pathway and technologies can only be attained through practice, policy and market forces.  

NC: Some experts claim that China is still expanding coal power. How do you respond?  

LG: China is determined to strictly control coal power projects. Coal power will continue to shift from primary power to secondary power, providing grid flexibility. There has not yet been a revolutionary breakthrough in the reliability and energy storage technology of the power grid. While developing renewable energy, we still need a certain scale of coal power to secure the power grid and basic livelihood of the public. However, newly built coal power projects will not operate at full capacity in the traditional sense, and will implement stricter energy-saving and emissions standards. Carbon dioxide emissions will be significantly reduced compared with traditional coal power generation.  

Air pollution and carbon emissions due to coal power generation goes against the general trend of global green and low-carbon transformation, as well as the requirements of China’s sustainable development. Furthermore, China is rich in renewable energy resources, which are controllable and not subject to geopolitical changes. Boosting renewable energy will not only meet the needs of ecological and environmental protection, but also reduce dependence on imported energy resources. At the same time, it is necessary to improve risk controls for energy security, improve the flexibility of the energy system and ensure national energy security.  

NC: Considering the different amounts of natural resources between provinces and regions, how do you think China should divide responsibilities for carbon emissions reduction among them?  

LG: There are various factors affecting carbon emissions in addition to resource endowment, such as industrial structure, production modes, lifestyles, and where industry is located. Carbon emissions levels are quite different in individual provinces. As a result, attaining the twin goals of peaking emissions and carbon neutrality require a holistic vision as well as local planning. 

This will take a combination of top-down and bottom-up processes. First, governments should take the initiative to find ways to develop a path to peak carbon in line with local conditions. Second, policymakers should be patient and meticulous, science-oriented and strictly avoid sweeping measures, while adopting measures that fit local conditions such as per capita GDP, per capita carbon emissions, resource structure, industrial layout and national and regional development strategies.  

NC: Are there any major actions to guide initiatives in provinces and regions in setting schedules and roadmaps to peak carbon emissions?  

LG: The next step is to further implement the national strategy to actively address climate change and push local and industries to implement the targets and responsibilities to control greenhouse gas emissions in earnest. First, we will study and formulate a control system for total carbon dioxide emissions. Through the formulation of the total carbon emission control objectives (2021-2035) and a dynamic annual updated target, we should manage a national budget for total local carbon emissions. We will integrate the construction of a national carbon market with the total control system, and based on the smooth operation of the carbon market in the power generation industry, actively and steadily expand coverage of the national carbon market. We will incorporate heavy-polluting industries such as cement, non-ferrous metals, steel, petrochemicals and the chemical industry in an orderly manner, to realize total management at the regional and industrial levels. Second, we will define local industrial responsibilities to transfer the target pressure to local industrial sectors.  

We will clarify the peak targets, action plans and support measures for key industries and local enterprises, and support them to take the lead in reaching the peak. [We will] support regions, where conditions permit, to use policy tools such as the carbon dioxide emission control system, the carbon emission trading market, and policy tools of the NDC key project database to guide and force economic and social development in going green. We will effectively control highenergy consumption and high emissions projects.  

All provincial regions are required to study and identify major highenergy consumption and high-emission projects [those consuming more than 10,000 tons of standard coal annually] which will launch in 2021-2035, and list and analyze the impact of major projects in the region. They must re-examine projects that involve high-energy consumption, high emissions of coal power generation, the coal chemical industry and petrochemical projects that have not been put into operation, while controlling high-energy consumption and high emission projects through energy assessment and the environmental impact assessment system. We will improve the assessment and evaluation mechanism and continue to promote its implementation. At the end of the 14th Five-Year Plan, we will assess [progress] and promote actions in all localities and key industries, and improve policies and measures to ensure we reach the carbon emission peak targets.  

NC: The national carbon emissions trading market is to start operation. Why did you choose the power generation industry to start it?  

LG: There are four reasons we started with the power generation industry. First, there is a lot of well-sourced data. It has a standardized data management and verification system, simple quota allocation and application system. Second, the industry emits a lot. Third, the management system is relatively sound and the industry is mainly composed of large enterprises which are easy to manage. Fourth, based on international experience, the power industry is key in respect to national carbon markets.  

In addition to the power generation industry, we have done work on other industries. In terms of emissions data, we have asked local authorities to complete carbon emission data reports and verifications for over 7,000 enterprises in key polluting industries, including power generation, construction materials, non-ferrous metals, steel, petrochemicals, chemical, paper and aviation from 2013 to 2019, to lay the foundations to expand the national carbon market. The 14th Five-Year Plan is the critical period for China to reach its carbon emissions peak. The country will establish the national carbon trade market after years of pilot programs, which will cooperate across multiple industries and attain sustainable, stable operation.  

The construction of the national carbon market has entered a vital stage. The rules on registration and trading settlement will be issued as soon as possible. It is urgent to complete the registration and trading system, organize the quota allocation and operation tests, and start online trading as soon as possible.