At the opening ceremony of the 5th World Future Energy Summit, held in Abu Dhabi on January 16, 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao assured the world that China will stick to a green and sustainable development path. As the highest-ranking Chinese official ever to present at the summit, Wen’s speech delivered a clear message to the world about what China plans to do to secure its future development.

Premier Wen Jiabao gives his speech in Abu Dhabi.

But sustainable actions already being pursued in China provide an even more convincing picture than the premier’s words. In its 12th Five-Year Plan—an overarching guidance framework used in Chinese policymaking—China includes a fairly comprehensive collection of sustainable development goals, among them energy intensity and carbon-emission intensity targets. Because the Five-Year Plan lays out only very general goals and measures, it is up to individual ministries or the State Council, China’s cabinet to sketch out and pursue implementation.

In August 2011, well ahead of the latest United Nations climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, the Chinese government released a Comprehensive Working Plan for Energy Conservation and Emission Reduction during the 12th Five–Year Period. Now that the Durban meeting is over and China has committed to engaging in a legally binding framework for emissions reductions post-2020, it will be interesting to see if the country will further raise the bar domestically.

A second document released prior to the outcome of the Durban meeting, the Working Plan to Control Greenhouse Gas Emissions (WPCGGE) during the 12th Five-Year Period, provides a clearer picture of what China plans to achieve domestically on the climate front. And Xie Zhenhua, China’s acting climate envoy, has announced additional climate-related initiatives that can be expected to be put into force this year.

So what does China’s overall sustainable policy framework look like, with so many new initiatives in place? The first thing to keep in mind is that not all of the country’s climate-related policies are focused solely on climate change. In fact, the Chinese government views climate change largely as an unprecedented opportunity to boost its “comprehensive national strength.” Looking at the goals of each climate-related policy, a top priority always appears to be adjusting and improving the country’s sectoral structure.

On the micro-level, China has been keen on shutting down inefficient plants and replacing them with more energy-efficient facilities. On the macro-level, China would like to use climate change to stimulate and nurse a series of so-called “emerging strategic sectors,” which would include new energy, electric vehicles, information technology, bio-breeding, and advanced manufacturing using new materials. In 2012, the government is expected to release its long-awaited National Plans for Emerging Strategic Sectors, which will provide both policy and financial support for those sectors.

Energy conservation has been the focal point of China’s climate policies. During the 12th Five-Year period, the country will put a cap on total energy consumption, complementing its existing target for reducing energy intensity. On January 10, at the National Working Conference on Energy, the government set a 2015 energy consumption target of 4.1 billion tons of coal equivalent (tce). Measured against the 2010 level of 3.25 billion tce, such a cap would require China’s total energy consumption to increase by only 26.2 percent over five years, or 4.7 percent annually, which is remarkable considering domestic energy consumption increased 46.4 percent, or 7.9 percent annually, during 2005–10.

Similar to the energy intensity target, this total energy consumption cap will be broken down and assigned to individual provinces and counties with a hope of pushing local governments to shift their energy-intensive growth patterns. Whether each province or county can meet its energy consumption targets, however, remains a question.

In addition to focusing on sectoral improvements and using top-down measures, the Chinese government is dedicated to mobilizing versatile low-carbon development approaches through pilot projects. Just as China did with “special economic zones” at the beginning of the “reform and open” movement, the government has selected five provinces and eight cities as the initial practitioners of low-carbon development. Each province and city is encouraged to draft locally tailored yet comprehensive plans for medium- and long-term development. Moreover, the government intends to promote low-carbon innovations, targeting special industrial parks, residential communities, and specific products and services, with the goal of gaining more experience with low-carbon practices.

Guangdong Province aims to be the first regional carbon market in China.

Perhaps the most eye-catching measure listed in the WPCGGE is China’s intention to develop a carbon-emission trading system, which may start with voluntary trading and then evolve into a region-based cap-and-trade system. So far, the National Development and Reform Commission has selected two provinces and five municipalities as the pilot emission trading regions. Given the complexity of carbon markets and the lack of supporting mechanisms and institutions, there is no word about when any level of such emission trading systems is expected to be fully functional.

The international community continues to express concern about the credibility of China’s sustainable actions and plans. As I discussed in a previous blog, even the central government faces data and statistical challenges. To Chinese policymakers, a transparent and robust system of data collection, reporting, and verification is necessary not simply to satisfy international scrutiny (a.k.a International Consultation and Analysis, or ICA), but also to meet the domestic outcry for efficient and effective governance. The good news is that the WPCGGE lays out plans to establish a greenhouse gas statistical and verification system, which will coordinate data collected at various industries and at the local and national levels.

If enforced effectively, the initiatives mentioned above would certainly expedite China’s shift to a low-carbon and hence more sustainable growth pattern. Yet there is one more thing that the Chinese government can and should tackle, which is helping other developing countries embark on similar transitions. China has already taken the lead in developing renewable energy and other clean industries and has officially obtained the title of the world’s largest energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter. The evolving “green China” can and should take responsibility to at least convey its own low-carbon development experience to its developing peers, which in turn will enhance China’s sustainable transition.

The Worldwatch Institute is tasked with exploring this topic in more detail in a soon-to-be-released report. Please stay tuned for more updates.

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12th Five-Year Plan, carbon intensity, carbon market, China, clean industry, emerging strategic sectors, emission trading, energy conservation, energy intensity, NDRC, renewable energy, sectoral structure, sustainable development, sustainable transition