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China’s coal emissions could peak by 2020

China’s 13th Five-Year Plan could be key to ending China’s dependence on coal, says Lord Stern report

By Sophie Yeo

China’s coal consumption could start to drop by 2020 or even earlier, as discussions get underway on how the government’s 13th Five-Year Plan could tackle climate change.

China’s greenhouse gas emissions have boomed as its economy has grown around 10% year on year over the past decades, at a heavy cost to the environment and air quality across the country.

But according a new policy paper, published by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, this could be about to change.

“China could intensify its efforts to reduce its reliance on coal, in the form of a plan to peak its coal consumption by 2020 (or earlier), as has been suggested as a possibility in some discussions occurring in China, and phase it out thereafter,” says the report, which was written by Lord Stern and Fergus Green.

This plan, which sets out the blueprint for Chinese policies between 2016 and 2020, will cover a crucial period in the world of climate change politics, according to the report.

Not only will it exert a powerful influence over China’s domestic policies over the next decade, it will cover the period over which the UN hopes to finalise an international treaty on climate change.

Low carbon transition

As the world’s largest coal consumer and emitter of carbon dioxide, the Beijing government’s policies have a significant impact on the global effort to limit climate change.

China’s growing emissions can act as a disincentive for other countries seeking to make the transition to renewable energy, but according to the paper China’s domestic policies to tackle climate change are ambitious and credible, yet poorly understood by the world at large.

“China can develop its influence by informing the world of its plans as its 13th Five-Year Plan is developed,” says the report. “China’s contributions are credible given past performance and do not necessarily have to be expressed in formal treaty terms.”

In a recent interview with RTCC, EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard told RTCC that “it is of relevance to the whole world when Chinese emissions will peak…It’s clear that the sooner that peak point will be the better.”

Growth of coal is already starting to slow. Figures released in April by the China Coal Industry Association showed that coal production had dropped 1.31% year on year.

Effective planning regulations and a coal tax could help to phase out the fossil fuel, said the Grantham report. Such a tax could potentially raise revenue equivalent to between 7 and 9% of China’s GDP, which could then be invested in low-carbon innovation and infrastructure.

While this could ease some of the pressure of the transition, the paper warns that “achieving these benefits will require major structural changes, with some inevitable dislocation, in the short term.”

But it also comes with clear benefits, including cutting the risk of shocks to the energy supply, reducing pressure on water, and improving air quality.

UN agreement

On Saturday, a high-level agreement between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) chief Achim Steiner showed again that China appears to be serious about cutting its emissions.

UNEP and China agreed to harness their “strengths, capacities and resources” to assist countries in the Global South to tackle climate change. Many of the world’s emerging economies with growing emissions, along with many extremely poor and vulnerable nations, are situated here.

Premier Li said, “China would like to continue to collaborate with UNEP to enhance green development and sustainable environmental management.  China has contributed US $6 million to the UNEP trust fund and will continue to make contributions to that fund into the future.

“China also wants to enhance communication, cooperation and coordination with UNEP and multilateral environmental agreements in support of global environmental sustainability and action to combat climate change at the national and global levels.”

Steiner said,  “This new agreement sends another powerful message that China is committed to combating climate change, not only within its own borders, but across the Global South – and that  in doing so, it can count on UNEP’s unflagging support.”

The first ever UN Environment Assembly will be held in Nairobi next month, where government ministers and delegates will discuss a set of Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted in 2015.

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