China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, announced in March of last year, detailed clear and ambitious targets to reduce pollution and increase sustainable development across the country. But a year in, the untimely winter smog still loomed over China’s New Year festivities, and some debated the necessity of fireworks with the New Year bell’s ring, given the spike of harmful inhalable particulate matter contributed by fireworks. Such debates, however, ended up as they usually do -- with the bigger question of who is responsible for most of the pollutants in the air. Is it largely the fault of factory emissions or automobile exhaust fumes? Or is it household stir-fry smoke, urban central heating, or burning of straw in rural areas? Public concern over China’s air quality issues only began in 2008, when the Beijing Olympics attracted international attention, and public outcry really only began with the disclosure of air quality data in 2012. As an environmental issue, however, air pollution, along with water contamination and soil degradation, has always been present in China’s three decades of rapid development.
In recent years, Chinese leadership has begun to recognize the detrimental effects on the environment from rapid industrialization. Rather than stick to conventional wisdom that views environmental protection as prohibitive to economic growth, the Chinese government has taken the progressive and correct position that it is a prerequisite for long-term sustainable growth. From an after-thought to a top policy priority that rivals other economic agendas for many regional governments, “Green Development” is now one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s five driving development principles in the newest Five-Year Plan (FYP).
With seven chapters on sustainable development and environmental protection—one of the longest chapters detailed in the plan—the 13th FYP is the first plan to clearly define smog reduction targets and lay out ambitious sustainable development goals. For instance, in Premier Li Keqiang’s most important annual speech last March (the annual report on the work of the government), he stipulated that hazardous particulate matter smaller than 2.5 mm in diameter (PM 2.5) would be decreased 25% by 2020. To address the plethora of concerns related to smog pollution, the 13th FYP also aims to reduce the carbon intensity of the Chinese economy—a ratio of carbon emissions to GDP—by 18% from 2015 levels in the next five years, which will be nearly half of China’s carbon intensity in 2005. This would be a significant step in achieving China’s Paris Agreement pledge of 60-65% by 2030. A highlight is to include over 15% of non-fossil fuel consumption by 2020.
In addition to setting limits on energy use and stipulating energy efficiency improvements, the 13th FYP also details a number of strategies in order to actually meet these targets, which are intertwined with the continued priority of economic development, a target of 6.5% growth annually. The plan lays out the continued development of the service industry, as well as introducing the world’s largest national carbon trading market later this year, and investing $360 billion USD in clean energy through 2020, which will create 13 million jobs and solidify China as the largest provider of wind and solar energy (all at a time when President Trump is determined the roll back many of the U.S. environmental regulations.)
Behind these targets, analyzing the progress China has made in recent years can give us confidence these goals will be met. In 2015, China invested $102.9 billion in renewable energy development and wind power grew to 8.6% of the country’s capacity, up from 3.1% 2010. While the grid system has not yet been upgraded to capture the entirety of wind and solar power generation capacity, the National Development and Reform Committee and the National Energy Administration are dedicated to integrating “curtailed” wind, hydropower, and solar energy sources, especially in China’s northern and southwestern regions in the next five years. The State Council announced in November 2016 how the 13th FYP ecological and environmental goals will materialize on the ground. In the North China Plain, China’s most populous region, coal consumption is to come down by 10% by 2020 to alleviate air pollution of the capital city, and natural gas and long-distance transmission of electricity will replace scattered power facilities and dispersed use of coal.
In Beijing’s localized 13th FYP on environmental protection, the targets are set even higher and the measures to achieve them are clearer. PM 2.5 is to come down by 30% in the next five years. Over half of public buses and utility vehicles will become renewable energy-powered. Urban and peri-urban villages, where central heating is unavailable and coal-burning unregulated, will undergo energy infrastructure upgrading and major transformations in lifestyle. To ensure environmental compliance and enforce these new policies, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau also initiated an Environmental, Food, Drug, and Tourism Safety branch in January 2017. On-the-ground law enforcement will be critical to not only air quality control, but also to water conservation and soil preservation, two other realms that the Beijing 13th FYP on environmental protection stresses.
Nationwide, transportation is another important sustainability factor that deserves our attention. The 13th FYP projects 3,000 kilometers of additional urban commuting railways by 2020. Nationwide, high-speed railway will connect over 80% of cities, with a total operating distance of 30,000 kilometers, a 30% increase from last year. More people and goods will be able to move around at a lower cost, a smaller carbon footprint, and with less pollution.
In contrast to the U.S.’s deregulation outlook of the Trump era, China’s 13th FYP period will be driven by domestic interests, such as widespread urban air quality and energy security, and will most likely see increasing regulation in the energy sector and environmental safety. Moreover, China’s widely recognized environmental crisis is turning into an opportunity for radical steps in the development of clean and renewable energy, which are seen by the government as new drivers for sustained economic growth.
While making considerable progress, significant challenges remain. China is still going through rapid urbanization and industrialization, which remain top policy priorities, considering that about 600 million of the rural population have yet to reap the rewards from China’s spectacular economic achievements. Therefore, competing economic and environmental objectives especially in rural areas will require strong enforcement from government and environmental protection agencies to punish the violators. The Environmental Protection Law in 2005 afforded environmental agencies powerful enforcement tools and a legal foundation to control pollution, and it will be important for this law to be utilized to its full extent under the new FYP. Improving enforcement capacity and compliance, especially at the local level, are imperative to achieving the targets and measures that have been set forth in the 13th FYP.
Moreover, China will also need to reform its environmental management and governance model for local environmental protection bureaus. Instead of reporting to the local government, who often has other economic imperatives, reporting to provincial environmental protection departments, encouraging transparent reporting, and promoting third-party auditors to independently verify key industry emissions will all be keys to success. Furthermore, establishing concise metrics can go a long way in helping government agencies balance policy objectives and track their performances. Work done by our research team on Sustainability Policy and Management at Columbia University’s Earth Institute supports this, as we currently explore the development of a small set of sustainability indicators at national and regional levels with Chinese think tanks and universities.
While the Paris Agreement is a strong step in the right direction, it is clear that commitments made by the signatories do not go far enough in limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius from the pre-industrialization level (the threshold scientists warn could be catastrophic). We have to do much more to avoid devastating climate change impacts. For China for example, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, the 13th FYP has been criticized for not including provisions that impose stricter limits on transportation emissions, the biggest source of air pollution in major Chinese cities such as Beijing.
China’s ambitious environmental efforts and international leadership in environmental protection has been very much propelled by national interests, such as domestic air pollution and energy security concerns. Now is the time, especially given the Trump Administration’s stance on environment, to assume the leadership role with more assertiveness and confidence, be more proactive in working with other nations, and coordinate global actions to curb pollution.
Research assistance provided by Mingyuan Song.