In this May 29, 2015 photo, a man walks past a coal-powered steel plant in Tianjin, China. . (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

On Tuesday, China formally submitted its climate change action plan to the United Nations. The document, which can be viewed here (in Chinese first, and then in English), formalizes the commitment made by President Xi Jinping alongside President Obama last November – to reach a peak in emissions by 2030, and make “best efforts to peak early.”

It also reiterates a pledge to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy production to 20 percent by 2030, from 11.2 percent now.

[In a major day for climate policy, China, Brazil, and the U.S. all announce new commitments]

But there is a new pledge too, to reduce the economy’s carbon intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) by 60 to 65 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. Carbon intensity, the document says, is already 33.8 percent below that level.

Here is what it all means.

1. What China has promised today really only adds a little more flesh to the plan announced by Xi last year. There is more detail, but not really a greater sense of ambition than previously announced.

This graph, produced by Greenpeace's Lauri Myllyvirta, shows projected emissions from China based on three different carbon intensity targets. It shows emissions still rising  between 2020 and 2030 even if China cuts its carbon intensity by 65 percent by 2030.

 


 Note: this projection is very sensitive to assumptions about China's future economic growth. These numbers use an average of 6.9 percent per year until 2020, and 5.4 percent from 2020 to 2030, the same as those in the China 2015 Low Carbon Development Report published by Tsinghua University. More conservative growth estimates will cause emissions to fall more sharply. The 2020 emission level is estimated based on China's State Council Strategic Energy Action Plan 2014-2020 targets for total energy use and for the energy mix.

2. The targets announced by China will not be ambitious enough to satisfy all environmental scientists or ward off a potentially disastrous warming in the earth’s climate. But they are a good start, and set China up to play a positive role at global climate change talks, rather than an obstructive one as some believed it had in Copenhagen.

This Greenpeace graph shows China’s projected emissions compared to those from the European Union. This assumes lower growth in China than the previous one -- 6.5 percent until 2020 and 5 percent from then until 2030. It assumes a 40 percent reduction in EU emissions based on the region's total greenhouse gas target.


“Today’s news sets the stage for the development of a strong international climate treaty later this year,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement.

“China has only ever been in defense when it comes to climate change, but today’s announcement is the first step for its more active role. For success in Paris, however, all players – including China and the EU – need to up their game,” said Li Shuo, climate analyst for Greenpeace China.

3. China is committing itself to an ambitious and unprecedented expansion in renewable energy. It is already the world leader in wind power and is set to overtake Germany this year as the world’s leader in solar power.

These two charts from the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, D.C. show just how formidable a commitment China is making.

REgrowthfinal copy


“China is largely motivated by its strong national interests to tackle persistent air pollution problems, limit climate impacts and expand its renewable energy job force,” said Jennifer Morgan, WRI’s Global Climate Director. “China’s new 60-65 percent intensity target demonstrates its intent to decarbonize its economy. The country's commitment was made possible by its ambitious clean energy policies and investments enacted over the past decade. China has been rapidly expanding its wind and solar power and continues to be the global leader in renewable energy investment.”

“China’s climate commitment sets it on a clear path to transition away from heavily polluting coal to cleaner and sustainable energy sources like wind and solar,” said Suh at the NRDC.

4. There is every chance China will actually do even more than it has promised, and emissions could well peak before 2030.

China has already moved to close many inefficient and polluting factories in an effort to combat air pollution. A slowdown in its heavy industrial sector, including steel and cement, has already helped curb emissions growth.

Against all expectations, and after rising by 9 percent a year in the decade to 2011, China’s coal consumption actually fell by 2.9 percent last year, and has fallen further this year. Some experts now expect coal use to peak before 2020, with some even predicting a peak by 2017. Leading climate change scientist Lord Nicholas Stern and London School of Economics colleague Fergus Green says this could mean China’s emissions peaking in 2025.

“Today’s pledge must be seen as only the starting point for much more ambitious actions,” said Greenpeace’s Li. “It does not fully reflect the significant energy transition that is already taking place in China. Given the dramatic fall in coal consumption, robust renewable energy uptake, and the urgent need to address air pollution, we believe the country can go well beyond what it has proposed today”.

 Still, experts are calling for China to formalize its move away from coal by setting a clear cap on coal use in its next five-year plan.