Xie Zhenhua, China‘s top climate official, has reported that the country has met its 2020 carbon intensity target three years earlier than expected. China’s carbon intensity, as measured by the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of economic growth, has decreased by 46 percent since 2005. Such changes in China’s energy economy bode well for a global community that is struggling to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement. If China, the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels, can continue its progress towards a carbon-free economy, the nation of nearly 1.5 billion may be well-positioned to support other countries in their efforts to stop catastrophic climate change.
In 2009, China set its goal of reducing its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent of its 2005 carbon levels. This initial concession towards a less carbon-intense economy helped to set the stage for the successful negotiations of the Paris Agreement. At the time, China also made a commitment to set up a national cap-and-trade system by which emissions would be reduced through market forces. Thus far, it has been unable to establish a functional emissions market.
The cap-and-trade system has also been hindered by technical difficulties and a lack of reliable emissions data. The current scheme, which launched in late 2017, involves only the power sector. As the country attempts to develop its cap-and-trade regime, it also must confront challenges created by a major bureaucratic change that transferred the responsibility for climate change from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. “It is questionable whether in the short term [the new ministry] can be elevated in status and power to the extent that it will be able quickly to assume the influential role that the NDRC occupied in the area of climate change,” Peter Corne, a managing partner at the Shanghai legal firm Dorsey & Whitney, told Reuters. Nonetheless, China is making progress and that is good news for all of us.