Making economic growth compatible with environmental protection is a big concern of the Chinese government. A restructuring of the Chinese economy in a way that decouples growth from GHG emissions is in the making.

By Dragana Davidovic


  • World’s largest CO2-emitter with annual per capita emissions of 7.2 tons
  • Climate change mitigation policies are gradually becoming more ambitious
  • Growing attention to severe air pollution, causing a faster move away from coal
  • Low-carbon policies do not outweigh continued GHG-emissions increase


Based on the new (2015) book The Domestic Politics of Global Climate: Key Actors in International Climate Cooperation edited by Guri Bang, Arild Underdal and Steinar Andresen and the chapter China: every day is a winding road by Iselin Steinsdal. 

Global Carbon Atlas

Key Facts

China is the world’s largest CO2-emitter with 9977 million metric tons emitted in 2013, which amounts to 28 per cent of the world total. It has the largest population and the second largest economy in the world. It consumed around 19 per cent of the world’s energy in 2012, roughly corresponding to the energy consumption by other Asian and African countries combined. China is the world’s top producer, consumer and importer of coal, accounting for almost half of global coal consumption. Coal has provided between 67 and 76 per cent of China’s energy consumption between 1980 and 2012. Despite decreasing coal dependence over the last years, coal supplied nearly 66 per cent of its consumption in 2013. China is currently moving faster away from coal than before because of growing attention to severe air pollution.

Oil is the second largest source of energy, accounting for almost 20 per cent of the country’s total energy consumption. While China is most abundant in coal, it consumes more oil than it produces. In 2014, its oil consumption growth accounted for about 43 per cent of the world’s oil consumption growth. Even though China has made efforts to diversify its energy supplies, hydroelectric power (8 per cent), natural gas (5 per cent), nuclear power (1 per cent), and other renewables (1 per cent) accounted for a relatively small part of its total energy consumption. Wind, solar and hydropower have increased substantially in the past decade. In 2014, renewables accounted for nearly 23 per cent of electricity production.    

Policy Supply and Demand

In 2007, the State Council released China’s National Climate Change Programme, placing climate change among the top issues on the political agenda. Since 2013 the government has introduced a series of policy measures to curb severe air pollution. While these policies are mostly the result of health concerns, they will also benefit GHG mitigation. GHG mitigation policies are mainly supply-driven: the central government provides communities and local governments with targets to achieve. Two of the most important climate and energy policies affecting GHG mitigation are those concerning intensity targets for carbon emissions and energy use. China has pledged to reduce its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent in 2020, compared to 2005-levels. This was incorporated into China’s (12th) Five-Year Plan, with the target of a 17 percent reduction in emissions intensity, and a target of 16 percent reduction in energy intensity between 2011 and 2015. This plan also contains starting ETS pilots and a focus on 7 new emerging industries, three of which are related to mitigation. In 2014, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced the National Plan for Climate Change which outlines goals on GHG emissions, climate change adaptation and a national emissions trading scheme by 2020.

Societal demand for mitigation policies is, however, smaller than the governments’ supply. While the average Chinese citizen is not concerned about climate change, hazards of air pollution is a growing concern. The government has been swift to supply policies addressing the air quality concerns. The strongest proponents of climate change and energy policies are researchers at select institutions and ENGOs that in cooperation with and support from the government have been rather successful in driving policy change.         

Domestic Drivers and Barriers

There are many reasons for why the Chinese government should instruct mitigation policies and pursue low-carbon development: China’s vulnerability to climate change, natural resource scarcity and energy security as well as controlling other forms of pollution (such as PM2.5 and smog in large cities).

In general, policy-generation at the national level is characterized by consensus outwards and internal bargaining inwards. A comprehensive integration of mitigation and energy policies is difficult. Moreover, the distinctive character of negotiations within the institutional system can slow the speed of policy change. Before a decision is reached rounds of bargaining, both horizontally among ministries and vertically within the government, take place. A large number of people and organizations need to be consulted for a policy change to happen. In the implementation stage, local governments and businesses can in turn affect policy outcomes, protecting their own interests by resisting implementation of designated targets or measures. In fact, local governments with delegated responsibilities to implement policies sometimes lack the power to enforce compliance of energy-intensive companies.  

The Future

The government expects emissions to peak around 2030 and has pledged to reduce carbon intensity by 60-65 per cent from 2005-levels by that time. China will continue initiatives on mitigation action in line with economic growth targets. By 2020, the demand for natural gas will increase to at least 10 per cent of the energy mix, while non-fossil fuel capacity will continue to increase and reach 15 per cent. Coal should constitute 62 per cent or less of total energy consumption by 2020 according to goals. China aims to be self-sufficient on 85 per cent of its energy needs by 2020. Air quality, however, will still be an issue in 2020.