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Striving for Carbon Dioxide Peaking and Carbon Neutrality

By Wang Jinnan and Cai Bofeng Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-07-12

At the Central Economic Work Conference held from December 8 to 10, 2021, President Xi Jinping emphasized the need to get to grips with bringing carbon emissions to a peak before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060 (dual carbon goals, hereafter). This carefully formulated strategy of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) represents a solemn commitment to the international community and is a requirement for China's high-quality development. 

I. Understanding China's dual carbon goals 

China has entered a new stage of development in which the promotion of the dual carbon goals calls for urgently addressing resource and environmental constraints and achieving sustainable development; keeping pace with technological trends and boosting economic transformation and upgrading; meeting the Chinese people's growing desire for a beautiful environment and harmonious coexistence between human and nature; and bearing the responsibilities of a major country and building a global community of shared future. 

Since the CPC's 18th National Congress in 2012, the CPC Central Committee has implemented the new development philosophy, adhered to a development path that prioritizes the environment and promotes a green and low-carbon lifestyle, and pushed for a green transformation of every aspect of economic and social development, with remarkable achievements. 

During the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025), China's ecological conservation is pivoting toward a strategy of reducing carbon emissions, featuring synergy between reductions in pollution and carbon, a green transformation of every aspect of economic and social development, and a switch in focus from quantitative to qualitative ecological improvements. 

China's promotion of a modern economic system that values environmental protection and uses it as a driver of growth, as well as its efforts to achieve both quality economic and social development and a high standard of environmental protection, accord with the strategic objective to basically realize socialist modernization by 2035 and build China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and beautiful by 2050. It also reflects the necessity for China to achieve high-quality development that prioritizes the environment and promotes a green and low-carbon lifestyle. 

To help achieve China's dual carbon goals, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council issued the Working Guidance for Carbon Dioxide Peaking and Carbon Neutrality in Full and Faithful Implementation of the New Development Philosophy on September 22, 2021, and the State Council published the Action Plan for Carbon Dioxide Peaking Before 2030 on October 24, 2021. Additionally, the government has promulgated implementation plans for key fields, such as energy, production, construction, and transportation, as well as key industries, such as electricity, steel, cement, petrochemicals, and chemicals, along with technological, taxation, and financial safeguard measures. Together, these constitute a "1+N" policy framework, timetable, roadmap, and blueprint for achieving China's dual carbon goals. They also demonstrate the determination of the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core to focus on the new stage of development, implement the new development philosophy, create a new development dynamic, and promote high-quality development. 

By realizing its dual carbon goals, China—the world's largest developing country—will achieve the largest reduction in carbon emissions of any country in the world and reach its carbon peak and carbon neutrality in the shortest time in global history. Here, it is helpful to distinguish between a natural peak and a policy-driven peak when discussing peak carbon emissions. The natural peak is determined by a country's economic development, industrial structure, and level of urbanization. The carbon emissions of some developed countries have naturally reached a peak in the process of economic development as their industrial and energy structures changed and their level of urbanization leveled off. China's industrialization and urbanization processes, on the other hand, are far from complete. The secondary sector accounts for more than 50% of all industry in almost half of China's cities, and it is dominated by the high-energy-consuming and high-carbon-emitting industries of building materials, iron and steel, petrochemicals, chemicals, and non-ferrous metal smelting. As a result, China has proposed to bring its carbon dioxide emissions to a peak before 2030. To achieve this, we are using policy measures to curb excessive development involving high-energy-consuming and high-carbon-emitting projects. This will rapidly shorten the time it takes to bring carbon emissions to a peak as well as the overall peak value, despite the fact that it will undoubtedly be difficult to maintain stable and healthy economic and social development during this process, especially to ensure energy security, the security of industrial and supply chains, and food security. Nevertheless, the Chinese government made the solemn commitment at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009 that we would cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Following unwavering efforts, China's carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP were 48.4% lower by the end of 2020 compared with 2005, exceeding our commitment to the international community. 

China is a major manufacturing country, but our per capita carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 and our historical cumulative emissions both stood at about half those of the US. Industrialization and urbanization in China are still in progress, and developing the economy and improving people's standard of living remain top priorities, so our energy consumption is set to grow further. Nevertheless, our promise to go from peak carbon emissions to carbon neutrality in around 30 years represents a process far quicker than developed countries, which fully reflects our ambition and commitment as a major country.


A worker pours molten iron from a casting ladle into a mold, April 15, 2021. Over the past few years, Yaojiang Town in Zhejiang Province has carried out a project to replace coal with electricity in the machine tools and foundry sectors, helping enterprises in these industries achieve zero emissions of sulfides and make their operations low-carbon, energy efficient, and environmentally friendly. PHOTO BY GUO BIN 

President Xi has pointed out that as a participant, contributor, and leader of efforts to build a global ecological civilization, China is committed to multilateralism and striving to build a fair and equitable global environmental governance system featuring mutually beneficial cooperation. 

Human activities since the Industrial Revolution, especially the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from mass consumption of fossil fuels in developed countries, have led to a significant increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and exacerbated global climate change, mainly global warming. Much of this is irreversible. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and frequent extreme climate events pose severe challenges to human survival and development as well as a major long-term threat to global food, water, ecological, energy, and infrastructure security and the safety of people's lives and property, so it is imperative that we respond to climate change. It is a challenge faced by all humankind, and achieving the dual carbon goals is a responsibility that China has on its shoulders. 

With a population of 1.4 billion, China is the world's largest developing country, which makes the tasks of developing our economy, improving living standards, controlling pollution, and protecting our environment extremely difficult. In response to climate change, China has risen to the challenges it faces by formulating and implementing strategies, laws and regulations, policies, standards, and action plans, which have enabled us to make continuous progress. The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26) reached a consensus on the implementation rules of the Paris Agreement, during which China actively communicated with all parties and contributed its ingenuity and solutions. China's realization of its dual carbon goals will surely lend strong impetus to the world fulfilling the goals set out in the Paris Agreement and greatly contribute to building a global community of shared future and creating a cleaner and more beautiful world.


A night view of Dangjiu Village in Rongshui Miao Autonomous County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, August 25, 2021 (drone photo). Solar powered street lamps have been erected along thousands of lanes in the mountains of Guangxi, illuminating not only mountain roads but also the hopes of residents for more beautiful villages and a revitalized countryside. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER HUANG XIAOBANG 

II. Taking measures to achieve the dual carbon goals 

For China to achieve its dual carbon goals, we must adopt a coordinated approach, identify a clear path, and implement multifaceted measures. Reforming the energy structure is fundamental to this, and transforming modes of development in key areas should be the starting point. Technological innovation is also vital for achieving climate goals, but carbon sequestration should play a supporting role. All of this is predicated on reform of the governance system. 

Integrate the dual carbon goals in all aspects of economic and social development. 

Work related to the dual carbon goals should be incorporated in overall ecological conservation efforts and all aspects of economic and social development, especially medium- and long-term socioeconomic plans. Given their status as an important part of building a beautiful China, the dual carbon goals need to be closely integrated with national development strategies, the radical changes to energy production and consumption, territorial space, medium- and long-term environmental protection objectives, and regional and local plans. We need to combine green and low-carbon development with the development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, and the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Circle as well as the ecological protection and high-quality development of the Yellow River Basin, thereby utilizing the driving role of major regional plans. We must increase supplies of green and low-carbon products; raise awareness among the people of the need to conserve resources, protect the environment, and maintain our ecosystems; and advocate simple, moderate, green, low-carbon, socially conscious, and healthy lifestyles, so as to create a positive situation in which everyone participates in green and low-carbon development. 

The green and low-carbon development of energy plays a key role. 

Energy activities account for 87% of China's total carbon dioxide emissions, so revolutionizing the production and consumption of energy is key to promoting the dual carbon goals. China has a coal-dominated energy structure. Predicated on ensuring energy security, we must focus on supplying clean and low-carbon energy and increasing the proportion of electricity in end-use energy. We must also continue to strive to conserve energy and adjust the energy structure, strictly control and gradually reduce coal consumption, and endeavor to reduce the carbon emissions, increase the flexibility, and transform the heating methods of coal-based power generation. We must systematically develop solar, silicon, hydrogen, and renewable energies and build a new electric power system dominated by new energy sources as well as clean, low-carbon, safe, and efficient energy. We also need to prioritize energy saving by quickly improving energy utilization efficiency and continuing to promote energy conservation in key areas, such as industry, construction, and transportation, and maximize carbon reduction through energy conservation and improved efficiency. 

The focus must be on changing modes of development in key areas. 

Industry has long been the largest contributor to China's energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, so it plays a pivotal role in achieving the dual carbon goals. On the basis of resolutely curbing excessive development projects of high energy consumption and high carbon emissions, we should focus on adjusting the industrial structure and improving resource and energy utilization efficiency as well as promote the in-depth integration of emerging technologies, such as the Internet, big data, artificial intelligence and 5G, with green and low-carbon industry. In the area of transportation, we should accelerate the shift in freight transportation from highways to railways and waterways and optimize the transportation structure. We should accelerate the development of new-energy vehicles, promote green and low-carbon travel, and form green and low-carbon modes of transportation. In the area of urban and rural buildings, we should promote the green and low-carbon development of county towns and rural areas in the course of rural revitalization, increase energy efficiency at the same time as we optimize the structure of energy consumption, and renovate existing buildings to make them more energy efficient and raise energy performance standards for new buildings. We should also encourage the construction of buildings with ultra-low, near-zero, and zero energy consumption. 

Technological innovation is a vital driver. 

Technological innovation holds a central role in revolutionizing energy and industry and helping to achieve China's dual carbon goals. Given the need to decarbonize our economic and social development in order to fulfill the dual carbon goals, we must systematically formulate a roadmap and timetable for developing associated technologies. Focusing on technological needs in the areas of energy, power, industry, transportation, construction, and ecological carbon sequestration, we must strengthen practical applications of science and technology and overcome key difficulties. We should assemble cross-departmental research teams to make scientific and technological breakthroughs in key areas and industries, such as the driving factors and influencing mechanisms of carbon emissions, emissions reduction measures, and management and control technologies. We should use collaborations between businesses, universities, and research institutes to promote applications of technological innovations and achievements. We need to accelerate the widespread use of advanced and mature green and low-carbon technologies, promote R&D and the deployment of innovative green and low-carbon technologies, and strengthen breakthroughs, demonstrations, and applications of key low-carbon, carbon-neutral, and carbon-negative technologies. 

Carbon sequestration can support efforts to achieve our climate goals. 

We must strengthen the planning and use of territorial space and create a national spatial layout that is conducive to green and low-carbon development. We must promote integrated protection and systematic management of mountains, rivers, forests, farmland, lakes, grasslands, and deserts. We need to implement major projects to protect and restore important ecosystems as well as consolidate and enhance the carbon sequestration capacity of ecosystems. We should turn slopes, wasteland, and abandoned mines into green spaces, strive to increase total vegetation resources, such as forests and grasslands, and bolster the ability of ecosystems including forests, grasslands, wetlands, oceans, soil, and permafrost to reduce emissions and increase carbon sequestration. 


Wind turbines generate electricity near the northern bay of Rongcheng, Shandong Province, August 24, 2021. In recent years, the city of Rongcheng has promoted the development of green-economy industries, including wind and photovoltaic power generation, and optimized its energy structure to make progress toward peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality. PHOTO BY LI XINJUN 

It is essential to reform the governance system. 

We must accelerate the establishment of a sound policy system and institutional mechanisms to support the implementation of China's dual carbon goals and promote a new pattern of green and low-carbon development featuring government leadership, market regulation, universal participation, and action by the whole people. We must quickly develop relevant legislative processes and a system of standards for the dual carbon goals and strengthen target constraints and the legal protection of related systems. We must swiftly establish systems for reducing total energy consumption and energy intensity, improve the national carbon market, and promote the implementation of the system of payments for allocations of emission allowances. We need to formulate pricing, taxation, and financial policies that are conducive to green and low-carbon development and oversee the green and low-carbon transformation of the economy. We must strengthen the responsibility of government by incorporating the implementation of the dual carbon goals into the scope of central government inspections of ecological and environmental protection and overall assessments of leading Party and government officials to improve governance. We must take part and lead in global climate governance and adopt a positive attitude toward participating in global climate negotiations and the formulation of international rules to develop a fair and equitable global climate governance system featuring mutually beneficial cooperation. 

Wang Jinnan is an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and President of the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning (CAEP) of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment; 

Cai Bofeng is Executive Director of the Center for Research on the Carbon Peak and Carbon Neutrality of CAEP of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 10, 2022)