Radio86 Editor Andrew Jones interviews me on my thoughts of China’s 12th Five Year Plan. The original interview can be found here.

The National People’s Congress has very recently approved China’s plans for the next five years. Known as the 12th Five-Year Plan, it sets the targets for China over the 2011-2015 period for areas including the economy, restructuring, agriculture, livelihood and reform, as well as the environment and clean energy.

Angel Hsu is a Phd candidate at Yale University, currently based in Beijing at Tsinghua University

Angel Hsu is a Phd candidate at Yale University, currently based in Beijing at Tsinghua University

As the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases and the second-biggest economy in the world, China is absolutely fundamental to attempts to tackle climate change. Radio86 interviewed Angel Hsu in Beijing to find out what the draft plan means for the climate and the environment. We also get her views on China’s ambitions for nuclear power expansion and the effect that the devastating earthquake that hit Japan could have on these plans.

Ms. Hsu, a Ph.D candidate at Yale University and currently based in Beijing at Tsinghua University at the School of Environment as a senior scholar, told us that what’s really interesting and striking about the12th Five-Year Plan draft is that it is the greenest plan yet, with energy and environmental issues – particularly climate change – being front and centre.

Shift in the Chinese development path

Ms. Hsu explains that the Chinese government has set a lower aspirational target of seven per cent for GDP growth over the next five years, despite China benefiting from double-digit annual growth for much of the last decade. “Taking into consideration the slower growth rate, they want to focus more on having a more holistic, sustainable and greener growth. And so it reflects a shift from the previous Deng Xiaoping motto: ‘To get rich is glorious’. They’ve come to the realisation that they’re no longer going to satisfy the Chinese people through just getting rich while both the quality of life and environmental health suffers.”

It is widely held that continued high economic growth underpins the legitimacy of the Party’s leadership, so allowing climate and energy policies to impinge upon economic growth reflects a shift in China’s thinking.

“Some of the big targets that a lot of people have been talking about are a notable part of this 12th Five-Year Plan, with the energy intensity reduction target of 16 per cent and, in addition to that, a reduction in carbon intensity by 17 per cent. Those are to help China achieve their eventual goals of reducing carbon intensity by 40-45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, which was the big commitment made back in Copenhagen. With a slower GDP growth rate it’s actually going to be harder for China to achieve these cuts in both carbon dioxide emissions and energy.”

Going further, Ms. Hsu elaborated on the significance of having separate energy and carbon intensity targets. “Unlike in the 11th Five-Year Plan, when China had only an energy intensity reduction target of 20 per cent from 2005 levels by 2010, the Chinese said that they are reducing their carbon intensity and carbon dioxide emissions as well, because obviously the majority of their energy mix is fossil fuel-based; the source of most carbon dioxide emissions. However, having these two separate targets ensures that provinces and the enterprises that have to implement these targets also have to keep in mind carbon and climate as well. There are concerns that when you try to reduce your energy intensity by implementing some of these non-fossil sources you’re not necessarily addressing climate change.”

Taking a lead in policy and technology

China is clearly pushing ahead with plans to lessen its impact upon the climate, despite the absence of similar federal legislation in the U.S., the country historically responsible for the largest share of carbon emissions. However, tackling climate change isn’t just a public goods dilemma. Some, notably Thomas Friedman, NY Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, push the idea that whichever country takes the lead in addressing climate change challenges will be the big winner in terms of global power in the future, so what do China’s plans mean for the U.S.?

“What the 12th Five-Year Plan means is that China will continue to be a leader in energy and climate change technology, and also in terms of policy – their policies are very progressive. In the 11th Five-Year Plan they were very effective in improving industrial energy efficiency, for example, and also implemented a very successful programme called the 1,000 Enterprises Programme, which specifically tackled China’s top 1,000 largest energy consuming enterprises. For the 12th Five-Year Plan they are going to ramp up this programme to 10,000 enterprises, so they are going to be really leading in industrial energy efficiency in this programme.”

U.S. cooperation rather than competition

China and the U.S. are often seen, especially in the news, as being in direct competition with each other. However, Ms. Hsu stresses that cooperation is the way forward when it comes to green technology and climate change.

“In terms of renewable energy technologies, China has set a lot of very ambitious targets that would see them exceed the capacity and generation coming from the United States. This signals to the United States that they should really be cooperating with China and the most important thing is that these relations shouldn’t be framed in the language of ‘U.S. versus China’ and ‘Who’s beating who’.

“There’s a lot of space for cooperation and now we’re no longer talking about technology transfers and flows going one way from developed countries to developing. China’s clearly shown that they’re investing a lot in these sectors, in technology particularly, for example in carbon capture and sequestration, and integrated gas-combined cycle power plants that are expected to come online this year. These are really ambitious and really leading, so it’s really a great opportunity for other countries to become engaged and to work with China in developing and learning from their experience.”

China and the UNFCCC

In the UN, framework negotiations, international monitoring and verification of the implementation of climate policies has been a constant stumbling block, particularly where China is concerned. However, Beijing has now laid out plans for tracking emissions and their reduction targets.

“We were really happy to see in the 12th Five-Year Plan specific language that addresses tracking and monitoring systems for the purposes of tracking energy and emissions data and information. That’s very encouraging. Wen Jiabao said directly in his Work Report that they are going to improve statistical monitoring systems, data collection and verification infrastructure, so that’s going to help them domestically track their progress towards the energy and carbon intensity targets, and, in turn, that will have implications abroad.”

As China is a  developing country, it does not have binding international obligations to reduce its emissions. Therefore, it can be perceived that China is acting because it wants to, though international pressure for the Chinese to act on climate change is clear at UN negotiations.

“In the last round of climate negotiations China was seen as a leader and Christiana Figueres, the UN secretariat, said that China is really leading the world with their ambitious policies. They came to Cancún and they brought their commitment of reducing carbon intensity, increasing forest cover, increasing the share of non-fossil energy as part of their energy mix and that really demonstrated to many countries, both developed and developing, that the world’s largest emitter was committed to solving, or at least contributing to helping to solve, climate change.

China is not the problem

In Copenhagen, China was seen as the villain of the piece, but things have changed since December 2009. “Obviously, there are a lot of complications that China and their commitments alone can’t solve for the next round of climate negotiations in Durban. A lot of that still rests on U.S. cooperation as well. What has been really disappointing from my perspective is that in this most recent round of budget proposals to Congress climate funding to the UNFCCC actually got slashed.”

“Right now we have a lot of those going through the House Energy Committee trying to include amendments, so it’s actually trying to deny the voracity and the basis of climate change. I don’t believe that China is the problem in this case. China has not stepped back from their commitments, they’ve only reaffirmed them, and the fact they’ve included these energy and carbon targets in their 12th Five-Year Plan means that they’re going to adopt these pledges as part of domestic binding law, which in some cases is stronger than some of these international treaties, because that’s considered more soft law than it is binding.”

Fukushima and China’s nuclear plans

China’s target for the next five years as part of reducing its emissions intensity and dependency on fossil fuels is to add about another 40 gigawatts of capacity by 2015 – that is, adding 10 more plants to the 13 nuclear power plants already online, but events in Fukushima, in the wake of the recent massive earthquake off Japan, has impacted on these plans.

“If they’re able to achieve their 2020 goal of having 70 gigawatts then that means that China would have the world’s highest installed capacity by 2020. These are huge numbers and it’s a huge investment in nuclear energy. What has happened in Japan has really brought light to Chinese officials that they need to go back and review security standards and safety protocols; they’re going to go back and review safety standards. What’s happened in Japan is very tragic, but if there’s a silver lining it’s because often things happen at the pace of lightning in China and China’s able to achieve remarkable goals very, very quickly. This is kind of a reality check for Chinese officials.

“Regarding the recent controversy with the Minister of Railways who was found guilty of corruption, it turns out that a lot of the materials and concrete foundations that he had been using to lay a lot of Chinese high-speed rails won’t be able to maintain the speeds that trains are currently running for very many years. China has very ambitious high-speed rail goals for the next five years, so, together with what’s happened in Japan, it is a big red light to Chinese officials that tells them that they really need to think closely how to proceed in a safe way. As it is, the government has actually stopped approving any additional nuclear power plants and they’re going to go back and review safety standards.”

Author: Andrew Jones
Interviewer: Andrew Jones