China’s ‘latecomer advantage’ in achieving carbon neutrality

Published 2021/11/08

A week before the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in October-November 2021 , China submitted its climate targets and implementation plans to the UN. (Plan available at…/Document/1715506/1715506.htm)

China aims to reach CO2 emissions peak by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Many people, however, remain skeptical about whether China will be able to fulfill its commitments. Li Junfeng believes that the country will meet its targets. Li Junfeng is former director of National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation.

Since 2006, China has implemented effective carbon reduction measures, such as the “dual control” policy of reducing energy intensity and consumption with key performance indicators for all levels of regional governments. In 2013, the majority of provinces saw a slower carbon emission growth, except for six provinces and autonomous regions, including Ningxia, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. With a two percent annual growth rate of emissions, these regions accounted for 70 percent of China’s total increase in emissions. Although China’s coal consumption rebounded between 2017 and 2019, the growth rate of annual average carbon emissions has been slowing down, dropping from 12.7 percent in the 10th Five-Year Plan period (2001-2005) to 1.7 percent during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020).Continuing this trend, China would be able to reach peak emissions by 2025. Furthermore, Li states that China has “latecomer’s advantage” (后发优势 hòu fā yōushì), meaning that it needs to reach a lower peak per capita level and can enjoy lower-cost new energy technologies compared with developed countries that peaked earlier. For example, the US reached its peak emission in 2007 with nearly 20 tonnes emissions per capita, which is twice as much as China (10 tonnes per capita in 2019).

Moreover, the cost of non-fossil energy in China, especially renewable energy, has fallen significantly and has become more competitive – the unit cost of photovoltaic cells, which are devices that convert sunlight into energy, fell by more than 80% since 2010. The conditions for grid parity – when the cost of clean energy matches that of conventional energy sources – are already in place in most regions. Meanwhile, China has maintained the advantage of having the most electric vehicles in the world. Together, these factors will help China achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Full article is available at the link at the end of this article.:

Conclusions from Li Junfeng’s article:

Suggestions on doing a good job in carbon neutralization of carbon peak

Achieving carbon peak carbon neutrality is a broad and profound economic and social systemic change, which requires the mobilization of the whole society and the contribution of each to make full use of its advantages.

(1) Fully understand the necessity and urgency of doing a good job in carbon neutralization of carbon peak

It is self-evident to do a good job in carbon neutralization of carbon peak. It is first of all an objective need for my country to fulfill its international obligations under the Paris Agreement, and it is also an objective need for promoting domestic green and low-carbon transformation. General Secretary Xi Jinping said that all countries in the world must take decisive steps, including China itself. In the past, there was a phenomenon of “two skins” in the work of dealing with climate change: external negotiations to strive for emission rights, and internal demands to strive to reduce emissions. Now to fulfill the international obligations and responsibilities of the “Paris Agreement”, we must first solve the problem of “two skins” and emphasize emission reduction both internally and externally. Doing a good job of carbon neutralization at the peak of carbon dioxide requires a sense of urgency. my country announced the carbon peak in 2014, and more than six years have passed. During this period, many places lacked a sense of urgency, especially the United States. After withdrawing from the “Paris Agreement”, some people came up with the idea of ​​”Americans have given up, why should we persist” and relaxed the control and management of greenhouse gas emissions, which led to a strong rebound in carbon dioxide emissions in the past four years. To a certain extent, the timing was delayed. Now the central government is demanding to do a good job in the work of carbon peak carbon neutralization, which is to force the whole country to accelerate the pace of development and transformation, and realize the overall promotion of high-quality development and high-level protection on the basis of effective control of greenhouse gas emissions.

(2) Adhere to the combination of high-quality development and high-level protection, and prevent the carbon peak action from becoming a new competition for the growth of carbon dioxide emissions

After the central government put forward the goal of carbon neutrality, many localities and enterprises have various doubts and ideas in their minds. It is generally believed that most developed countries, especially the European Union, began to peak carbon dioxide emissions in the 1970s. In the late period of the Third Five-Year Plan period, especially from 2017 to 2019, in order to stabilize growth, all localities increased investment and expanded infrastructure construction, which led to a strong rebound in my country’s total carbon dioxide emissions. In this case, a considerable number of people think that it is too difficult for us to achieve carbon neutrality, and it will even affect economic development. In some places and enterprises, there is also a speculative momentum of “touching the high” first and then reaching the peak. After the outbreak of the new crown pneumonia epidemic, in order to stimulate economic recovery, some regions have arranged a large number of coal power and heavy chemical projects. The action plan has become a new competition for the surprise “touch height”. It is preliminarily estimated that once these projects are put into operation, the new fossil energy consumption will exceed 1.2 billion tons of standard coal, and the increase in carbon dioxide emissions will exceed 2 billion tons, which will bring an unprecedented rebound in both total energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. The total emissions exceeded 12 billion tons. Effective measures must be taken to prevent the action of reaching the peak from becoming a “touching up” and sprinting of the emission level, especially to prevent a relatively large rebound in carbon dioxide emissions in some provinces that have already reached the peak or are close to the peak. We must not only strive to achieve the peak as soon as possible, but also strive to achieve the peak under the premise of low-emission development, so as to lay a solid foundation for achieving steady decline in 2035 and carbon neutrality by 2060.

(3) It is necessary to realize that the conditions for carbon peaking in my country are basically met, and we are fully capable of achieving carbon peaking with a lower peak

First of all, starting from the “Eleventh Five-Year Plan” period, in order to control the excessive growth of energy consumption, after three consecutive five-year planning periods, through the implementation of “double control of energy”, that is, the control of energy intensity per unit of GDP and the control of total energy consumption, my country The excessive growth of energy consumption has been effectively controlled. After 2013, my country’s coal consumption has experienced zero growth, and carbon dioxide emissions in most regions have shown a slow growth trend. More than 50% of the provinces and cities have an average annual growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions below 1%, and only 6 provinces and cities have a growth rate of more than 2%. Provinces, and the rapid increase of carbon dioxide emissions in these six provinces are all new emission control projects approved by the central government to stimulate growth, such as coal power and coal chemical industry in Ningxia, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, petrochemical and steel in Zhejiang and Guangdong, and Guangxi Nonferrous metallurgy and iron and steel, etc., the increase in carbon dioxide emissions in these areas accounted for about 70% of the total increase in carbon dioxide emissions in the country over the same period. If there is no 2017-2019 three-year policy of “opening the gates and releasing water”, coal consumption will rebound, and 2013 will basically become the first peak of my country’s carbon dioxide emissions. During the “13th Five-Year Plan” period, my country’s carbon dioxide emissions have already reached a plateau. In addition, according to the analysis of apparent data, during the “10th Five-Year Plan”, “11th Five-Year Plan”, “12th Five-Year Plan” and “13th Five-Year Plan”, the growth rate of my country’s annual average carbon dioxide emissions has been slowing down, 12.7% and 6.1% respectively , 2.4% and 1. 7%. According to this trend, if the five concepts of “innovation, coordination, greenness, openness, and sharing” put forward in the “13th Five-Year Plan” are strictly implemented during the “14th Five-Year Plan”, the increase in my country’s carbon dioxide emissions during the “14th Five-Year Plan” The growth rate can be controlled at 1%, and achieve zero growth at the end of the period. From this point of view, the conditions for my country’s carbon dioxide peak are already met. As long as the policies and measures are appropriate, it is entirely possible to achieve the goal of carbon dioxide peak in advance during the “14th Five-Year Plan” period. Specifically, it is necessary to control the increase in energy consumption at the level of the “13th Five-Year Plan” period through energy conservation, and the new energy is mainly met by non-fossil energy. In 2019, my country’s new non-fossil energy power generation capacity will be about 230 billion kWh, equivalent to 70 million tons of standard coal. If policy support is increased in the next ten years, non-fossil energy power generation will increase to 300 billion kWh. The increase of non-fossil energy will reach 1 billion tons, and the proportion of consumption will increase to about 30%, which can not only fully meet the new energy demand every year, but also form a non-fossil energy replacement capacity of 100 million tons of standard coal. In this way, my country’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2025 are likely to not exceed the level in 2020, or even lower than the level in 2020. The peak carbon dioxide emissions will not exceed 12 billion tons, and may even be controlled within 9.5 billion tons.

(4) To correctly understand my country’s international competitiveness on the issue of carbon neutrality, as long as the direction of carbon neutrality remains unwavering, it is possible to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060

Although my country’s total carbon dioxide emissions rank first in the world, and it is very difficult to achieve carbon neutrality, compared with developed countries, it also has its own latecomer advantages. First, under the premise of relatively low per capita emissions, my country has proposed The goal of carbon neutrality. The current per capita emissions of the United States exceed 14 tons, twice that of my country; Japan and Germany propose carbon neutrality in 2020, with per capita emissions of 10 tons and 8 tons respectively, which are also higher than my country’s per capita emissions. If my country achieves When peaking at a lower peak level, this latecomer advantage is even more obvious. Second, the cost of my country’s non-fossil energy, especially renewable energy, has dropped significantly, and it has become relatively competitive. For example, the unit cost of photovoltaics has been reduced by more than 80% compared with 2010, and the grid parity conditions have been met in most regions. my country has also maintained the advantage of the world’s number one electric vehicle ownership. Developed countries achieved carbon peaking relatively early, but the transition costs are relatively high. my country will enjoy lower-cost new energy technologies and empirical methods in the process of achieving carbon neutrality, and has the advantage of being a latecomer. my country has proposed that by 2030, the total installed capacity of wind power and solar power will reach more than 1.2 billion kilowatts. With such a construction speed, by 2050, my country’s non-fossil total will be close to 4 billion tons. According to the standard of my country’s energy consumption of 5 billion by then Calculated from coal, the proportion of non-fossil energy can be increased to about 80%, and the possibility of achieving carbon neutrality in 2060 is extremely high.

(5) We must establish the confidence that can be changed, the determination to change constantly, and the perseverance to wear water through stone

Historical experience has repeatedly proved our country’s courage and ability to overcome difficulties. When the Party Central Committee and the State Council made the decision to win the Blue Sky Defense War in 2013, all localities used rhetoric such as “scraping the bone to cure the poison” and “a strong man cuts the wrist”, but after more than 7 years, no region has, Which sector or industry “scratches bones” or “brokes wrists” because of winning the battle to defend the blue sky? Compared with 2013 in 2020, the output of steel, petrochemicals, and nonferrous metallurgy will all increase significantly. The national PM2. 5 level has dropped by 50%, and the average growth rate of GDP in the seven years has achieved a high level of growth of more than 6%. It is necessary to fully understand that carbon neutrality at the peak of carbon emission is a forced mechanism to promote the transformation of high-quality development in my country. As long as we make up our minds and implement scientific and precise policies, we can achieve high-quality development and effective control of carbon dioxide emissions under high-level protection.

(6) Make overall plans for carbon neutrality at the peak of carbon emissions, and do a good job at the beginning of the “14th Five-Year Plan”

The Central Economic Work Conference and the Central Finance and Economics Leading Group Meeting have put forward clear requirements for carbon neutrality at the peak of carbon emissions, and the key lies in how to implement them. During the “Tenth Five-Year Plan”, “Eleventh Five-Year Plan”, “Twelfth Five-Year Plan” and “Thirteenth Five-Year Plan”, the increments of China’s energy consumption were 1.14 billion tons, 970 million tons, 740 million tons, and 560 million tons of standard coal respectively. An average decrease of 170 million tons every five years, and the average annual energy consumption increments are 230 million tons, 200 million tons, 150 million tons and 100 million tons respectively, that is, an annual increase of 230 million tons of standard coal from the “Tenth Five-Year Plan” period, a decrease of To 100 million tons of standard coal per year, can the increase in energy consumption continue to decline during the “14th Five-Year Plan” period? For example, the total amount should be controlled within 300 million tons of standard coal. High-quality development and transformation have been realized. If the increase in energy consumption in the next 10 years is controlled within 500 million tons of standard coal, the demand for energy growth can be met, that is, the pressure on energy increase will be reduced, and the opportunity for quality improvement will be greater. . During the same period, the average annual increase of non-fossil energy is maintained at about 100 million tons of standard coal. By 2030, the proportion of non-fossil energy can be increased to more than 30%, fossil energy consumption can be reduced by 500 million tons of standard coal, and carbon dioxide emissions can be controlled at Below 9 billion tons. Conversely, if the phenomenon of the latter part of the “13th Five-Year Plan” is allowed to continue to spread, energy consumption will exceed 6 billion tons of standard coal in 2025, and carbon dioxide emissions will exceed 12 billion tons. Not only will my country’s national image be damaged, but it will also be impossible to achieve real high-quality growth. Therefore, the beginning of the “14th Five-Year Plan” period is very important. It is necessary to coordinate the improvement of energy efficiency and the development of non-fossil energy, coordinate energy transformation and development transformation, coordinate transformation and security, and do a good job in carbon peak carbon neutrality “Three Coordinations”. Although the deployment of carbon neutrality work is not imminent or urgent, we must act early and take the initiative. It is necessary to formulate a schedule and roadmap for net zero emissions of my country’s power industry as soon as possible, a schedule and roadmap for the elimination of fuel vehicles, and require new infrastructure projects to basically achieve net zero emissions. Specifically, the following work should be done well.

The first is to coordinate the improvement of energy efficiency and the development of non-fossil energy. 

The first is to emphasize the importance of improving energy efficiency. In 2019, my country’s energy intensity per unit of GDP is still 1.5 times the world average and about three times that of developed countries. If my country’s energy efficiency level reaches the world average, the total energy consumption can be reduced by nearly 2 billion tons of standard coal; if my country Energy utilization efficiency reaches the average level of developed countries. When my country’s per capita GDP income reaches the level of moderately developed countries in 2035, energy consumption can be reduced by 1/3 compared to the current level; In the case of zero growth or even negative growth, we will build a modern country. At the same time, it is also necessary to implement that governments across the country equally assume the responsibility for the development of non-fossil energy, and encourage regions with insufficient non-fossil energy resources to purchase non-fossil energy from regions with rich non-fossil energy resources. The country should strengthen the construction of non-fossil energy resource allocation capabilities, build channels for west-east power transmission and north-south power transmission, and turn the resource advantages of renewable energy in the west and north into economic advantages. While ensuring the increase in the proportion of non-fossil energy, Achieve regional balance in development.

The second is to coordinate energy transition and development transition. 

As General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out, the “Paris Agreement” in response to climate change represents the general direction of the green and low-carbon transformation of mankind. This is not only energy transformation, but also the transformation of development methods and lifestyles, and the transformation from resource dependence to technology dependence. Transformation to realize renewable energy and recycling of resources. Achieving carbon neutrality is not only a strategic choice to deal with climate change, but also an important measure to achieve a fundamental improvement in the quality of the ecological environment. It is necessary to coordinate the green and low-carbon transformation of energy, the development of green and low-carbon transformation, and even the green transformation of lifestyle. Continue to adhere to and improve the “dual control” measures of total energy consumption and intensity. First of all, carefully summarize the experience and lessons of Beijing, Zhejiang, Guangdong and other areas that have initially achieved carbon peaks. According to the analysis of historical data, Beijing has achieved the peak of carbon dioxide emissions around 2010. Although it has been repeated since then, its carbon dioxide emissions have not broken through the historical high. drop” is typical. After 2013 in Zhejiang and Guangdong, energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions have shown a slow growth momentum. We have seen the dawn of the peak. If Guangdong does not have Zhanjiang Iron and Steel, Maoming Petrochemical, and Zhejiang does not have the commissioning of Zhoushan Petrochemical and the expansion of Zhenhai Petrochemical, perhaps It may also be like Beijing, which has already seen a situation of “steady and declining”. It is recommended to summarize the experience of achieving stability and decline after reaching the peak in Beijing, as well as the experience and lessons of Zhejiang and Guangdong, which have already reached the peak and rebounded strongly, and put forward precise “dual control” requirements, while insisting on dual control of energy consumption Under the premise, policies with flexibility should be designed for regions with high energy efficiency and a high proportion of renewable energy.

At the same time, it must be recognized that the high-emission development model cannot stimulate high-quality economic growth, and may even become a burden to high-quality development. Taking Inner Mongolia as an example, during the “13th Five-Year Plan” period, a number of coal power and heavy chemical projects were vigorously developed, with an increase of 180 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, accounting for more than a quarter of the national increase. However, its GDP ranked by It ranked 15th in 2015, and fell to 21st in 2020, a drop of 6 positions. Shanxi, which is also a coal base, pays close attention to energy transformation. During the “13th Five-Year Plan” period, with almost zero growth in carbon dioxide emissions , the ranking of GDP rose from 24th in 2015 to 20th in 2020. Zhejiang is named the National Clean Energy Demonstration Zone. During the “13th Five-Year Plan” period, the increase in energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions rebounded sharply. However, the gap between its economic aggregate and Jiangsu, which has almost zero growth in carbon dioxide emissions, has increased from less than 2 in 2015. trillion, expanding to nearly 4 trillion.

The third is to coordinate the relationship between transformation and security. 

Both economic structural adjustment and energy structural adjustment are related to economic development, energy security and employment security. In the process of realizing low-carbon transformation, the dialectical relationship between transformation and security must be properly handled. While controlling the total consumption of fossil energy, it is necessary to ensure the security of energy supply, especially the energy security for the continuous improvement of people’s lives. Especially in the construction of a new generation of power system with new energy as the main body, do not rush for success, pay attention to step-by-step, gradually increase the proportion of new energy power generation in the entire power system, and propose various technical support measures during the transformation process to ensure energy efficiency. and security of power supply. In the process of economic transformation, all localities must also ensure the rigid requirements of stable economic growth and continuous improvement of people’s living standards.

The fourth is to establish and improve the policy mechanism of carbon peak carbon neutrality. 

Carbon peak carbon neutrality requires strong policy mechanisms and institutional guarantees. First, existing policies, systems, mechanisms, and regulations must be sorted out and improved in accordance with the requirements of carbon peak carbon neutrality, so that they meet the requirements of carbon peak carbon neutrality. To meet the needs of carbon-neutral development, and start to formulate the national “Climate Change Law”, “National Energy Law”, amend the “Electricity Law” and other related laws, coordinate the overall situation of energy, environment, climate and economic and social development, in order to control greenhouse gases Emissions are the starting point to promote the green and low-carbon transformation of my country’s economic system, energy system and lifestyle. The second is to improve the management system. It is recommended to establish an inter-ministerial coordination mechanism for national carbon peak carbon neutralization led by the main leaders of the State Council. In addition to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Communications , the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, and the Energy Bureau Relevant departments should set up special agencies and personnel to be responsible for the carbon neutrality work of carbon peak. The third is to establish a national carbon-neutral development fund. It is recommended that the country establish a carbon-neutral-oriented national industrial development fund as soon as possible to support and control greenhouse gas emissions and related technology research and development and innovation, zero-carbon energy, zero-carbon buildings, Investment practices in zero-carbon transportation and zero-carbon communities. The fourth is to promote a group of pilot projects in regions (counties, regions, and provinces) that are in advance of carbon neutrality across the country, explore the technical, physical and institutional support for carbon neutrality, and organize a group of zero-carbon energy, zero-carbon buildings, and zero-carbon The pilots and demonstrations of transportation, zero-carbon communities, and zero-carbon schools will accumulate experience for the large-scale implementation of carbon-neutral plans after 2035.

The fifth is to strengthen international cooperation on carbon neutrality during carbon peaking. 

Take carbon peak neutrality as an important starting point for major power diplomacy, promote in-depth dialogue between China and the United States, China and Europe, China and Japan, the BASIC countries and the BRICs in the field of climate change, and build a green and low-carbon “Belt and Road”, Actively seek cooperation, learn from each other, promote each other and make progress together. Increase the intensity of international scientific and technological cooperation in the field of climate change, expand the scope of international cooperation, and jointly develop the science and technology, process routes, business models and practical cases that are urgently needed for carbon peaking and carbon neutrality. At the same time, we should also consider financial and technical assistance to developing countries on the issue of carbon neutrality during carbon peaking, and undertake international obligations within our capabilities.


Li Junfeng (李俊峰) is former director of National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation.