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Chinese emissions peak: Not when, but how

Working Papers N°07/2016. Iddri, 2016. 22 p.

It seems highly likely that China will overachieve its 2020 and 2030 targets, and peak its emissions before 2030 and possibly at a lower level than often assumed. This paper argues that the debate on the timing of the peak is misplaced: what matters is not when by why. For the peak to be seen as a harbinger of deep transformation, it needs to be based on significant macroeconomic reform and restructuring, with attendant improvement in energy intensity.

Highlights:

  • WHAT RESTRUCTURING FOR THE CHINESE ECONOMY?

The Chinese economic model has been extraordinarily investment and resource intensive, and has driven the growth in GHG emissions. That model is no longer economically or environmentally sustainable. Therefore Chinese policy-makers are faced with a trade-off between slower short-term growth and economic reform, versus supporting short-term growth but slowing economic reform. The outcome will be crucial for the transition to a low-carbon economy.

  • WHAT DO THE 13TH FYP TARGETS MEAN FOR DEEP DECARBONISATION PATHWAYS?

Overall, the 13th FYP (2016-2020) gives the impression of a cautious reflection of the new normal paradigm on the economic front, and a somewhat conservative translation of this shift into the energy and climate targets. Nonetheless, the 13th FYP targets set China well on the way to overachieving its 2020 pledge undertaken at COP15 in Copenhagen, and to potentially overachieving its INDC. It thus seems likely that China will achieve its emissions peak before 2030. However, the crucial question is not when China peaks, but whether the underlying transformation of the Chinese economy and energy system lays the basis for deep decarbonization thereafter.

  • TAKING UNCERTAINTIES INTO ACCOUNT FOR A BETTER ASSESSMENT OF THE CHINESE ECONOMY’S INFLECTION POINTS

Thorough assessments of the implications of the ‘new normal’ for Chinese emissions and energy system trajectories, taking into account the link with the Chinese macro-economy, are needed. Scenarios provide a useful framework and should focus on a number of short-term uncertainties. Most energy system and emissions scenarios published today assume a continuity of trends between 2010-2015 and 2015-2020, which is at odds with clear warnings of significant, and potentially very different, inflection points in the Chinese economy, depending on the policy choices and external drivers that emerge in the coming years. To explore uncertainties and different possible paths, the drivers of emissions trajectories should be examined in detail at a sectoral level. N°07/16 JULY 2016 | CLIMATE www.iddri.org Chinese emissions peak: Not when, but how Thomas Spencer, Michel Colombier, Xin Wang, Oliver Sartor, Henri Waisman (IDDRI)