#23 event report: Looking into the Future: China’s Low Carbon Policies


February 24, 2013, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Speaker: Dr. ZHANG Ruijie 张瑞杰, Managing Director, Low Carbon City China Programme, Beijing


Dr. Zhang opened his talk by framing climate change as a global concern. He underlined the importance of mitigating the adverse effects of climate change as an international policy issue, and as a challenge for sustainable development. He pointed out that as early as the nineteenth century people started realizing that human actions and societal developments take a toll on the environment. The increased emission of carbon dioxide and its immediate consequence known as a greenhouse effect are unintended consequences of  industrialization. Moreover, Dr. Zhang considers the greenhouse gas emission not only a factor of climate change, but also pollution, other natural imbalances and disasters.

Dr. Zhang outlined what he calls a “common consensus” of the international community that not only frames climate change as a policy challenge, but also puts it “at the heart of scientific and political debates.” Individual governments, but also international organizations – in the first place the United Nations (UN) – have been working hard to address the problem of mitigating the adverse effects of climate change. Dr. Zhang outlined several key historic developments, such as the 1992  Earth Summit which resulted with the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; he also elaborated on the importance of the 1997 Kyoto protocol as the most important joint effort of the international community, and especially of the industrialized and highly developed countries to take action on the climate change issue. This last point is of special importance, especially when one has China in perspective – the global climate change policy dialogue has been marked by a tug-of-war between the developed and the developing countries on points such as the capacities of individual governments to face the climate change issue, and the scope of eventual commitment to legally binding norms – in fact, the biggest step forwards towards taking a global action on climate change have been always the result of reaching a consensus between these two sides.

Then Dr. Zhang spoke of the UN initiatives and other global efforts to mitigate climate change consequences, as well as the most notable achievements. He listed the Bali Roadmap adopted in 2007 as an important step forward; then spoke of the importance of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, 2009 and the consensus of pursuing the long term goal of limiting the global average increase of the temperature, as well as the obligations the developed countries made for assisting developing countries to raise funds and implement policy measures. Then Dr. Zhang discussed the 2010 Conference in Cancun, the 2011 Conference in Durban and the 2012 Conference in Doha, as well as the developments and challenges regarding the extension of the Kyoto protocol.

Speaking of China’s domestic policies, measures and actions taken to address climate change and to promote low carbon development, Dr. Zhang pointed out China had introduced low carbon principles several years ago. In 2006, the government set the goal of reducing the per-unit GDP energy consumption by 20 percent from that of 2005, by 2010. In 2007 China became the first developing country in the world to formulate and embark on the implementation of a national program to address the effects of climate change and to reverse climate change. In 2009, Chinese leaders adopted the goal of reducing the per-unit GDP greenhouse gas emission by 40-45% compared to the level of 2005, by 2020.

In 2011, the Twelfth Five Year Plan for National Social and Economic Development firmly established a policy orientation to promote green and low-carbon development, and has set immediate objectives and tasks. It also instigated a broader consultative process with all important state and non-state actors in the Chinese society, as well as other governments, international organizations and transnational organizations. China nowadays is one of the key actors in any international forum on climate change, low carbon and green development.

Dr. Zhang listed the existing policies and measures that exist in China, and are in line with the low carbon / green development objectives. First, there are several laws that regulate the matter, such as the Clean Production Promotion Law, which promotes clean energy production in industry; the Renewable Energy Law which encourages the research on and the utilization of renewable energies; the Circular Economy Promotion Law which revolves around the “3 R’s” principle  – reduce, recycle, re-plant; the Water and Soil Conservation Law and the Energy Conservation Law. Second, Dr. Zhang spoke of existing regulations, such as the one on Civil Buildings Energy Conservation; the one on Public Organizations Energy Conservation; as well as the Regulations on Drought Control. Then, Dr. Zhang spoke of the existing policies and measures, on energy conservation, evaluation of conservation, supervision of high-energy-consuming equipment, as well as the supervision of industrial enterprises, in the first place the state-owned ones. Finally, Dr. Zhang listed the most significant policy documents on developing renewable energy, developing nuclear energy, energy conservation, the Work Plan on Greenhouse Gas Emission Control as part of the 12th Five Year Plan, as well the Comprehensive Working Plan for Energy Conservation and Emission Reduction in the 11th  and 12th  Five Year Plans.

Dr. Zhang talked about the emergence of a narrative that bears the symbolical name “the China Dream” or the dream of building a “Beautiful China” – China that will be clean, green, and a leader in sustainable development. Currently, he said, China is far from achieving this ideal. To illustrate his point, he showed photos of the smog crisis in Beijing, an antithesis of the “Beautiful China” dream. Dr. Zhang, in this sense, discussed the Political Report presented at the Eighteenth National Party Congress in 2012, which put forward the objective to “vigorously promote eco-civilization construction, and merge it into economic, political, cultural and social development, so as to realize sustainable development.”

Dr. Zhang argued that China does not have a choice but to pursue low-carbon development, not only as a response to global climate change, but to fulfill the necessity for green and sustainable development.  The actions that are being taken, or need to be taken in the future are generally divided into several groups: accelerating the economic restructuring towards a post-industrial model; optimizing/diversifying the energy sources and developing clean energy; implementing key energy-conservation projects, and so on. The ultimate goal of China is to pursue the model of a Low Carbon Economy, a model in which economic growth and carbon/greenhouse gas emissions are completely decoupled. Then, Dr. Zhang briefly discussed the Low Carbon Economy model in theory and practice, and also provided international comparison.

In the last part of his talk, Dr. Zhang spoke of the low-carbon city development in China. In general, cities are important focal points of all reduction/energy conservation initiatives, as cities consume more than two thirds of the energy in the world, and emit more than 70% of the carbon; at the same time, cities are sites of innovation, production, they are hubs of international cooperation – hence, cities are both where the problems and the solutions should be sought. In China, a rapidly urbanizing country, the importance of cities is even more visible, both when it comes to the problems and the potentials for solutions.

Dr. Zhang concluded his talk by outlining existing projects in this field, such as the Pilot Carbon Trading scheme in seven provinces and municipalities, Pilot Low-carbon Transport System in 10 cities, Comprehensive Demonstration of Financial Policies of Energy Saving and Pollution Reduction, as well as international programs, such as the Low Carbon City China Program (LCCCP) which Dr. Zhang himself works for, as a manager. He explained the structure and the objectives of the program, and listed the seven cities where they have worked so far.


The discussion opened with a  question on the disparity between the interior and the coastal provinces. Inner China has lesser developed infrastructure compared to the coastal provinces, which among other things leads to better better results in terms of pursuing the low carbon goals. In order to alleviate this problem, as Dr. Zhang pointed out, the Ministry of Finance has provided additional funding for the less developed provinces (for example to support renewable energy initiatives), and in general, the relevant institutions work on overcoming difficult implementation, and on faciliating intra-governmental policy dialogue. The latter served as a basis for the further discussion on the relationship between the central level and local level governments. Dr. Zhang argued that while there is national target, there are also many province-specific targets and measures.

Dr. Zhang was asked to discuss the main challenges towards achieving the Chinese dream of beautiful China. One of those problems is the “unvisible pollution” – while everyone can see what is in the air, we are yet to find out the details on soil pollution. Then, as opposed to having clear policy framework, there is the reality of not fulfilling targets – and the reasons are yet to be determined – are the underlying problems in the regulation itself, in governance, or something else? Dr. Zhang agreed with these points and stressed that before pursuing the Chinese dream, the country needs to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels (currently at 75%) and adopt green energy. It also needs to develop indegenous technologies and try to link other policy areas together in order to achieve better implementation of the low carbon policy framework.

The following discussion points were focused the burning question of the choice Chinese policymakers have to make between maintaining high economic growth and achieving sustainable development; the issue of business (i)responsibility, as well as the problem of advocacy and education (on the latter Dr. Zhang discussed elementary schools programs which have the goal of preparing the students to inform their parents on climate change, low carbon goals, etc). Law enforcement was raised on several ocassions; in particular, Dr. Zhang focused on sanctions and argued that there are penalties, and most frequently the authorities sanction enterprises not individuals.

It is yet to be seen what kind of international commitment will the Chinese leadership accept when it comes to climate change – so far, they have been keen on joining multilateral initiatives, and they have had strong cooperaton with other countries, especially with the ones developing world.  Another question in this respect was the utilization of European know-how – in September 2012, for instance there was a large EU-China Mayors Forum that contributed to the overal low carbon policy dialogue. Dr. Zhang agreed that the European experience and willingness to cooperate is very important for China, and briefly listed several programs (such as the Eco City program) ran by the European Commission, that are carried in partnership with Chinese institutions or in general are of great importance for the China low carbon policy dialogue.

Finally, Dr. Zhang was asked to summarize the history and the current work of the LCCCP, and the indexes they develop initiated in 2010 – some of the measures have been already implemented and tested in four cities. They are still not fully mature, but steadily improving – some of the indicators have been already used in the latest Five Year plan, and the Carbon Trade Schematic action plan. The system the LCCCP works on, has three parts – first, to develop a comprehensive indicator list; then, to provide assessment report on low-carbon development of a given city, and finally, based on that assessment to tailor an action plan for the local government.