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Thursday, August 05, 2021
China Briefing: New climate instructions; Xie's latest speech; Flooding death toll surges
Carbon Brief

Welcome to Carbon Brief's China weekly digest.
We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

Snapshot

China's top decision-making body has issued new instructions to guide the country's climate action, according to state media. In a meeting chaired by President Xi Jinping, policymakers demanded that the nation "stick to a single game nationwide" and "rectify campaign-style 'carbon reduction'", among other orders. In an explainer published yesterday, Carbon Brief spoke to various experts to provide the context behind these latest directives.

Meanwhile, China's climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, said on Tuesday that the country would release its updated plans to reduce carbon emissions "in the near future", "potentially before" COP26, reported AFP. An expert told Carbon Brief that Xie could be responding to "what he recognises to be a growing global impatience with China's climate inaction".

Separately, the rain-induced flooding that swamped central China's Henan province had killed at least 302 people as of Monday, including 292 from the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, local officials said. It came after the UN's regional chief of disaster risk reductionwrote that there was an "evident" connection between climate change and the "extreme flood events" that recently hit China, India and western Europe.

Key developments

High-level political meeting gives new climate directives

WHAT: A high-level political meeting chaired by President Xi has instructed officials of all levels to pursue China's "dual-carbon" goals – the peaking of carbon emissions before 2030 and the achieving of "carbon neutrality" before 2060 – in a "coordinated and orderly manner". It also called on the country to "stick to a single game nationwide", "rectify campaign-style 'carbon reduction'" and "establish [new rules] before breaking [old ones]". Those instructions were relayed to the Chinese public by Xinhua, the state news agency, and CCTV, the state broadcaster.

WHEN: According to the reports, the meeting took place last Friday in Beijing. It delivered the climate instructions among a series of macroeconomic commands for the country's economic work in the second half of this year.

WHO: The meeting was held by the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC), or the Politburo for short. It is the supreme decision-making body of the CPC and currently has 25 members, including President Xi. Although state media did not specify who the Politburo was instructing, Prof Alex Wang from UCLA School of Law told Carbon Brief that the message was supposed to "percolate throughout the system". He noted that these signals were "always aimed at government leaders and officials throughout the system, SOE (state-owned enterprise) bosses and workers".

HOW: Dr Guo Li from King's College London told Carbon Brief that the directives emphasised that the 2030/2060 climate goals must be pursued with "total planning" and "in an orderly fashion". She said that "a single game nationwide" referred to the need for "coordinated national responses". Prof Wang noted that the instruction of "rectify[ing] campaign-style 'carbon reduction'" was a call to urge local officials to avoid the "sometimes wild attempts" of meeting targets. Prof Lin Boqiang from Xiamen University told financial outlet Yicai that the phrase "establish[ing] before breaking" was an order to prioritise building emission-curbing infrastructures before conducting decarbonisation. Read Carbon Brief's explainer to understand the historical ties and wider context of these orders.

WHY IT MATTERS: These instructions signified a "soften[ing] tone" from China on its climate ambition "amid power shortages", according to Bloomberg. Reuters said that the instructions "fuelled concerns" that China "might backtrack" on its climate pledges. The newswire noted that analysts expected China to "cool some aggressive steps" to curb CO2 emissions from heavy industry. Dr Guo told Carbon Brief that the orders implied a softening of the tone in the short term, "but not necessarily so in the long term". But Prof Yuan Jiahai from North China Electric Power University in Beijing told Carbon Brief that they actually suggested that China's climate policy "will only get stricter and stricter".

China to release updated climate plans 'in the near future'

WHAT: Xie Zhenhua, China's special envoy on climate change, said this week that the nation would release its updated plans to reduce carbon emissions "in the near future", reported AFP, via France 24. According to the newswire, the official said that the plans would be released "potentially before" the COP26 summit, which will take place in Glasgow in November. AP reported that, according to Xie, "China will stick to its goal of having its carbon emissions peak by 2030". Watch a video of the webinar here.

WHEN: Xie made the remarks on Tuesday during a webinar organised by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Our Hong Kong Foundation, a thinktank. This is not the first time he has announced the timeline. During a financial forum in Beijing on 27 July, Xie stated that China would submit its updated nationally determined contributions (NDC) and long-term low-carbon development plan to the UN before COP26 "as scheduled". This is also a requirement to all member countries by the Paris Agreement, which China ratified on 3 September 2016.

WHO: Todd Stern, the former US special envoy for climate change under the Obama administration, also participated in the webinar. Stern stated that "a consensus was forming among international scientists that the world needed to upgrade the goal to 1.5C", reported South China Morning Post. In response, Xie stressed that the world "should focus on delivering decarbonisation promises and engage in international technological cooperation, rather than arguing over agreed upon goals", the publication said.

HOW: During the speech, Xie also said that China's climate leaders group – which was formed in late May by the central government – would release a "1+N" policy system "in due course" to guide the nation's climate action, according to a release from Our Hong Kong Foundation. Xie explained that the "1" referred to the "guiding opinions" on the realisation of emission peaking and carbon neutrality, while the "N" stood for the "action plan" for the 2030 peak emissions goal as well as "policy measures and actions" for "key" sectors and industries, the release said. Singapore-based Channel News Asia explained a "10-point plan" under the "1+N" framework, which Xie elaborated on during the speech.

WHY IT MATTERS: Xie was, in part, "responding to what he recognises to be a growing global impatience with China's climate inaction", according to Daniel Gardner, emeritus professor of Chinese history and environment at Smith College in the US. Prof Gardner told Carbon Brief that although President Xi's 2060 "carbon neutrality" pledge last September was "warmly received globally", China's 14th five-year plan offered "no substantive or systematic measures" for decarbonising and "left global observers very disappointed". Prof Gardner noted: "Xie's remarks, I think, are meant to address such concerns, to assure observers that China is, in fact, preparing detailed decarbonisation measures to be taken this decade." He Jun, senior researcher of ANBOUND, a thinktank with offices in China and Malaysia, told Carbon Brief that Xie's response to Stern meant that "China hopes to cooperate more with other countries in terms of carbon emission reduction". He added: "In particular, [China hopes that] developed countries should share resources and technology so as to assume their due responsibilities."

Other news

FLOODING: The death toll of the flooding that recently struck Henan province jumped to 302 people as of Monday, more than three times the previously announced figure, reported Associated Press. CCTV said that 50 people remained missing and nearly 1.5 million had been displaced as of Monday. On Friday, Sanjay Srivastava, chief of disaster risk reduction at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, wrote that there was an "evident" connection between climate change and the recent "extreme flood events" in China, India and western Europe. The Hindu BusinessLine reported Srivastava's remarks. Last week's China Briefing explained the reaction by various media to the Henan disaster.

COAL: China's national coal consumption increased by 10.7% year-on-year in the first half of 2021, reaching about 2.1bn tonnes, reported People's Daily, a state-run newspaper. Enterprises "above the designated size" – a Chinese set phrase referring to companies earning more than 20m yuan (£2.2m) through their main business annually – produced 1.95bn tonnes of raw coal during the six months, a 6.4% year-on-year growth, the outlet said. Meanwhile, China imported 140m tonnes of coal during the period, a 19.7% drop compared to the first half of last year. The statistics were released by the China Coal Industry Association, according to the report.

MORE COAL: China's social and economic development will be "inseparable" from coal for "quite a long time in the future" due to the country's "endowment of resources" and "the phase" of its development, reported state-run China Energy News on Wednesday. The outlet cited Prof Xie Heping from the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Xie added that even after achieving "comprehensive carbon neutrality", China would still need 1.2-1.5bn tonnes of coal annually to ensure electricity supply and energy stability. However, another report from China Energy News, co-authored by Prof Yuan Jiahai, argued that conventional coal would not be the "ballast stone" of China's electricity system in the long run.

RENEWABLE ENERGY: China opened its first "near zero-carbon", "comprehensive" refuelling station for "new energy" vehicles in Tianjin last Thursday, according to CCTV. The official channel said that the station features solar panels, geothermal heat pumps, energy storage facilities and 71 recharging docks. These renewable energy measures were expected to cut the station's carbon emissions by about 4,575 tonnes annually, the report added.

NUCLEAR: A reactor at a nuclear plant in China was shut down for "maintenance" due to minor fuel damage, the plant's operator said on Friday, reported AFP via South China Morning Post. The Taishan nuclear power plant said in a statement that it had detected "minor" fuel damage in its number one unit, but the reactor could "continue to run stably". The operator noted that it had decided to follow the safety-first rule and shut down the unit to look for the cause of the damage and change the damaged fuel. Earlier this month, the plant's French co-owner indirectly hinted that the reactor should be shut. Read last week's China Briefing for more.

STEEL: It could be "difficult" for China to cut its steel output this year even though the government wants to, CNBC reported on Monday, citing "analysts". The outlet wrote that the country's steel production was "likely to be lower" in the second half of 2021, but pushing it below 2020 levels might be "a challenge". The report noted that China's crude steel output increased by nearly 12% year-on-year in the first half of this year. Meanwhile, S&P Global Platts reported that the cuts on steel output in China were expected to continue in the second half of 2021 and even into 2022.

ETS: An expert on China's carbon market has said that the country's current carbon pricing is "effective". Prof Zhang Xiliang, who led the overall technical design of China's national emission trading scheme (ETS), told China News Service, a state-run newswire, that China's carbon price averaged at around $8 per tonne following the launch of the ETS trading. "I think this is a very good level," Prof Zhang said to the outlet.

Extra reading

New science

When carbon emission trading meets a regulated industry: Evidence from the electricity sector of China
Journal of Public Economics

A new paper has assessed the effectiveness of China's carbon market pilots in reducing emissions in the electricity sector by analysing data on thousands of power plants from across the country between 2005 and 2017. The study shows that the carbon emission trading system (ETS) has "no effect" on changing the coal efficiency of regulated coal-fired power plants. However, the researchers identified a "significant" reduction in coal consumption associated with ETS participation. This reduction was achieved by lower electricity production ordered by dispatch authorities and not because of the carbon price, according to the paper. Dr Mun S. Ho from Harvard University, a co-author of the paper, tells Carbon Brief: "The conclusion about the impact of regulated electricity prices on the effectiveness of carbon prices is important to designing adaptations of the national ETS to make it work efficiently." (Read Carbon Brief's in-depth Q&A to learn more about China's national ETS.)

Urbanisation magnified nighttime heatwaves in China
Geophysical Research Letters

Nighttime heatwaves have become more frequent, more severe, longer-lasting and occurring increasingly earlier in spring and later in autumn across China since the 1980s, according to new research. By evaluating nighttime heatwaves across China during 1980-2017, the researchers found that urbanisation has intensified urban heat islands and amplified heatwaves over major urban clusters. Prof Jia Gensuo from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing is the corresponding author of the paper. He tells Carbon Brief: "As many parts of the country experience extended heatwaves right now, this study is expected to further raise awareness of increasing risks of extreme heat stress under climate change and urbanisation."

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