Written by Iselin Stensdal.

As a consequence of the unparalleled economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s, China’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions also grew quickly. By 2007, China was the largest GHG emitting country. 2007 was also the year that climate change became a prioritized issue in national politics with the publication of China’s National Climate Change Programme-document.  2016 thus marks the tenth year of climate change as a national priority. Local government’s successful implementation of measures to reduce GHG emissions is crucial for China to reduce its GHG emissions; the central government decides on the development direction of the country, and sets national targets, but it’s up to the local governments to enforce politics.

What are local governments doing to curb emissions?

Currently, the main strategy is to decouple emissions from economic growth. All jurisdictions, from provinces to counties, have targets for the share of non-fossils in the energy mix and targets to reduce the energy consumption and carbon emissions per unit of GDP.[1] These targets are timed corresponding to the national five-year plans. The 13th five-year plan’s (2016-2020) national goal of a carbon-intensity reduction of 20%  and energy-intensity reduction of 15% in 2020 compared to 2015 are guiding numbers for the local governments’ efforts.

There are also several local governments which are ahead of the pack in a low-carbon transition. There are now dozens of low-carbon pilot cities and provinces prioritizing lower-emissions when designing their future development directions. Also, seven pilots for emission trading schemes (ETS) were started in 2011, preparing for the national carbon market to be commenced next year in 2017. Also in non-pilot cities measures such as installing city-bike systems are implemented to offer and encourage the public to travel greener.

China has announced that the country should peak its CO2 emissions by 2030, but several local governments have announced that they aim to peak before that. Already around 2020 Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Jilin, Jinchang, Shanghai, Tianjin and Zhenjiang municipalities aim to peak, while Guiyang, Shenzhen, and Wuhan aim to peak around 2025, to name a few.[2]

Is the local effort delegated from the top-down or are there local bottom-up initiatives?

There are both kinds. Being a national priority issue, climate change policies are mainly driven by the central government. It allows local governments to be differently engaged in curbing emissions. Following the 2007-Climate Programme, the central government required local governments to address climate change on their local levels and establish local leading groups. This was done in the following years; some localities were quicker to respond than others. Local jurisdictions must have carbon- and intensity- targets, but the numbers of the local intensity targets are negotiated and agreed upon between the local and higher government, such as the provincial governments and the central government. Deciding on a higher intensity-target than the national target sends a signal that one is pro-active and advanced, while choosing a more modest number suggests that economic development is still a priority.

There are also joint efforts: low-carbon pilots and the ETS pilots are neither purely top-down designated or local initiatives. Wanting to be part of the pilots, local governments were awarded the special pilot status by the central government. As part of the US-China declaration on climate change in September 2015, a handful of Chinese cities and provinces together formed The Alliance of Peaking Pioneer Cities, for the first time internationally proclaiming peak years and other mitigation measures. Zhangjiakou, a city north of Beijing and one of the host cities for the 2022 winter Olympics has become the country’s first renewable energy pilot. It aims to reach a renewable share in its electricity of 80% by 2030.

There are also examples of local initiatives which are not required, although welcomed. One example dates back to before 2010. Shanghai was preparing to host the World Exposition (expo) in 2010, and the municipal government decided that they wanted it to be a low-carbon expo. This meant that they took a comprehensive approach, from engaging hundreds of researchers to suggest solutions to urban planning, building construction energy and the environment when preparing for the expo, to accelerating the rollout of the whole city’s metro system, to initiating measures offsetting more than 88% of the expo’s emissions. Lessons drawn from preparing and hosting the expo was made use of in designing municipal policies later.

Are the cities’ and local governments’ efforts really contributing to a reduction in China’s GHG emissions?

It is not always easy to measure the exact impact of different local policies and programs in terms of tons of carbon reduced. One reason is the very forms of intensity reduction targets, which may be fulfilled even if the total emissions or energy use are increasing. Another reason it can be hard to determine the effect is that data is not always available. Not all local policies are equally well formed. Sometimes the challenge lies with a lack of local capacity to implement, and others again have been criticized for being unrealistic: the abovementioned Zhangjiakou’s plan for renewable share is one example. Critics claim the aims are so ambitious that they probably will fail. Striking a balance between what is feasible to implement and what contributes to emission –reductions versus other necessities such as delivering continued economic development is challenging.  However, peak-year targets, and putting emission reduction higher on the agenda for example by pilot-status are positive steps because they influence the local governments’ priorities.

Another strong incentive to use less coal, the main energy source of carbon emissions, has emerged in the past few years: the awareness of air pollution. In 2014, China’s coal use dropped for the time with almost 3 % or about 123 million tons compared to the top year 2013. Local governments’ enforcement contributed to this reduction. Local governments hold a crucial role in reducing China’s GHG emissions. While there’s certainly room for improvements, such as strengthening local capacity and knowledge, there are also already existing elements which are positive. The international promises to both non-fossils and peak-year, and the domestic attention to air pollution suggest that local efforts in China likely will continue in the coming years.

[1] These targets are often called carbon intensity- and energy intensity targets. They are relative measures, where the carbon emissions or the energy use is measured dependent on the GDP. Therefore, if the GDP grows faster than the emissions or energy use the intensities will decrease, even if the total amount of emissions or energy consumed actually increased. These targets measure the decoupling of emissions and energy consumption from economic growth and are also used by other transition economies such as India.

[2] Yufei Wang, Qijiao Song, Jijiang He & Ye Qi (2015). ‘Developing low-carbon cities through pilots’, Climate Policy, 15(sup1), p.S86.

Iselin Stensdal is a Research Fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute  and a PhD Candidate at the University of Oslo. Her main research interests are Chinese environmental and climate policy, social and political consequences of pollution/environmental degradation in China, Chinese energy security policy and Asian interest in the Arctic. Image credit: CC by Chris Pawluk/Flickr