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What China's New Five-Year Plan Means for Global Warming

China is the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter—and right now, Beijing is taking climate much more seriously than Washington is.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the United Nations conference on climate change, November 30, 2015, at Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris. (Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the United Nations conference on climate change, November 30, 2015, at Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris. (Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2014, China helped demonstrate that limiting carbon doesn't have to slow economic growth. Now its leaders are looking farther ahead.

Next week, the Chinese Communist Party's leaders will unveil their 13th Five-Year Plan, a big ideas-type document that lays out where politicians want the country to go, socially and economically, through 2020. Among the goals experts expect to see this time include using less coal and using more renewable energy to lower greenhouse-gas emissions in line with new targets.

This is a big deal for all of us. China is the world's greatest contributor to climate change, accounting for more than 20 percent of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions. (A lot of that is because China has so many people. The world's top emitters per capita: Canada and the United States.) If China reaches ambitious green-energy goals in the next five years, it'll be a significant step toward slowing global warming.

China might even teach the U.S. a lesson or two. The country's move away from relying on coal and steel production is expected to kill five to six million jobs, Reuters reports, and politicians have earmarked $23 billion to help coal and steel workers with the transition to a renewable-energy economy.

"The U.S. will be able to learn from that—if China does it well—as we undergo our own transition," says Kate Gordon, who studies U.S. and Chinese climate change policy at the Paulson Institute, a Chicago-based think tank.

China's green-energy goals are part of the political leadership's desire to move the country's economy past reliance on heavy manufacturing, shifting China's economic mix toward innovation, consumption, and services, says Manish Bapna, an international development expert at the World Resources Institute. In other words, China wants to make its economy look more like the economies of long-developed nations. After decades of rapid expansion, the Chinese economy is slowing down, growing just 6.9 percent in 2015. That's the smallest growth it's posted since 1990. Beijing thinks it's time for a change, apparently. Plus, politicians must confront unrest stemming from the pollution and other environmental damage that industry has wrought upon the land.

Using green energy instead of coal will help. "Why is China taking such actions? Largely self-interest," Bapna says.

In times of economic decline, it can be tempting for politicians and businesspeople to forgo environmental protection in favor of growth. Experts, though, think China is sincere in its stated environmental concerns and goals. "Those have been real commitments," Gordon says. In a statement earlier this year, President Xi Jinping underscored the point that this marks a fundamental change for the country: "China cannot rely on extensive development and strong stimulus to achieve [economic growth] targets. Otherwise the country will repeat the old path, and then create new contradictions and problems."

Before releasing the 2016 Five-Year Plan, Beijing made several major public environmental promises—and some progress toward achieving them. In 2013, the country banned new coal power plants in certain regions. In 2014, China's coal production began falling for the first time in a century. Just before an important international climate change conference last year, Chinese politicians pledged that, by 2030, China's carbon emissions would stop growing, by which time the country will be drawing 20 percent of its energy from sources other than fossil fuels. How China gets there, while meeting the other targets of its latest Five-Year Plan, will become clear in the coming year.


Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.