aspiring to radical eco restructuring, the state must first tackle near-term challenges

On the cusp of the next 5-year plan, this series will follow the themes and debates in play across sectors. This week we focus on the environment.

A green and low-carbon nation is boldly foreshadowed as the 13th 5-year plan draws to a close. The 5th Plenum, along with Chairman Xi’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge, projects a sweeping vision with the environment centre stage. Yet given the odds against it—not least a legacy of intractable damage to air, soil and water and much else—moving to an ecology-based growth model will be game-changing for policy.

legacy of the last plan

The 13th plan period delivered the most extensive eco gains to date, notes Zhao Yingming 赵英民 MEE (Ministry of Ecology and Environment) vice minister. All environmental targets are expected to be met; seven out of nine hit by end 2019. Environment protection became the driving force behind ‘high-quality’ development, underpinning economic, industry and energy upgrading; regional/spatial planning was re-oriented toward ecological goals.

Some of the major successes of the 13th plan period were

  • an all-round approach
    • holistic and circular regulatory model
    • switch to prevention and conservation (rather than pollution reduction only)
    • regional and river-wide frameworks (accepting the transboundary nature of pollution and the scale of eco-restoration needed)
  • better environmental governance
    • modern environmental governance blending state, business and public interests
    • responsibility across government departments, not only eco authorities
    • more accountability for localities

Challenges loom in the coming plan period. As urbanisation picks up pace, resource and environment constraints will tighten further, warns the National Development and Reform Commission. Existing problems will still need to be tackled, while new models are explored to combat emerging issues. The ambitious targets of the 14th plan will not only require doubling down on extant policy: reform must be extended to new realms.

14th 5-year plan priorities: pollution control

The coming 5-year plan will usher in pollution control 2.0. Eco quality and driving down emissions (see: 14th 5-year plan: energy and emissions targets) will remain the focus, confirms Liu Bingjiang 刘炳江 MEE Air Quality Department. Upgraded action plans for water and soil are mooted, but air pollution claims priority. To ‘eliminate heavy pollution days’, as pledged by the 5th Plenum, policy must look beyond the ‘three key regions’ (Jing–Jin–Ji, the Fenwei Plain and the Yangtze River Delta). PM2.5 and ozone must be wound back simultaneously, in particular by reducing emissions of NOx and VOCs. Water remediation must, for its part, eliminate ‘black and foul-smelling’ waters, and restore affected ecosystems. Salvaging soil across agricultural and construction land will work in tandem with efforts on water.

climate change

CO2 emissions are of course a key indicator. Xi’s epic climate pledge in September was followed by a series of high-level actions, adding a ‘steady decline in carbon emissions’ to the 5th Plenum’s vision of ‘socialist modernisation’ by 2035. Enhanced climate actions, coupled with an upgraded air pollution plan, will have extraordinary impacts on energy, industry and transport structures.

A plan to peak carbon emissions during the 14th and 15th plan periods will be drafted, pledges Li Gao 李高 MEE Climate Department. Keeping under peak levels will also be incorporated into inspections at both central and local levels. A robust national carbon market appears to be on the cards. Formerly reluctant leaders are now writing carbon futures and derivatives into high-level policy. Energy planning will be updated in light of the emission peak pledge, yet still balanced against energy security.

Experts drafting the long-term low carbon strategy and pathways to carbon neutrality admit that political will may not suffice given the short-term challenges. Four options have emerged

  • current ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs)
  • enhanced NDCs
  • global 2°C
  • global 1.5°C

The second scenario by 2030 followed optimally by the third and fourth, seems feasible to He Jiankun 何建坤 National Committee of Experts on Climate Change.

closing the resource loop

Legislation is expected for resource development, regeared towards entire resource life cycles. Environmental principles, meanwhile, are shifting from a fixation on pollution control to prioritising resource efficiency, pollution prevention and ecological conservation.

Energy and resource demands of manufacturing still exceed that of developed countries, generating high pollution and waste. The Mineral Resources Law is being amended; a Recycled Resource Law is being explored. This circular resource management model complements the newly amended Solid Waste Pollution Prevention and Control Law.

greening China

‘Beautiful China’ is an interagency policy theme, its mission to stimulate sustainable production and product design via greening consumption and lifestyles. Green consumption is gaining both popularity and priority as the state fleshes out its domestic demand mantra. The public will consume 40 percent of energy by 2035, up from 26 percent in 2015, projects Ren Yong 仁勇 MEE-affiliated Environmental Department Centre, noting the growing impact of consumption on the environment.

eco-transition far-reaching

Eco transition is at the heart of the 5th Plenum’s linkage of short- and long-term. The future looks exciting for green technologies and the green sector, with MEE promising more investment and policy support. The sector is expected to generate over 2 tn in 2021, report the MEE and China Environmental Protection Industry Association.

This rosy vision must be placed in the context of near-term crises. Structural disconnects in the energy and industry sectors have been aggravated by systemic stresses and COVID-induced uncertainty. While risky in the short-run, this means the boldest measures—above all regarding climate—may well slide towards later plans.

what are the experts saying

Luo Jianhua 骆建华 | China Environment Chamber of Commerce vice chairman

The big surprise of the 5th Plenum communiqué, notes Luo, is its ‘fundamental improvement in environment quality by 2035’. This was unimaginable in the past, when halting further deterioration was the limit. The 14th 5-year plan will, says Luo, likely entail eliminating waters of below V quality nationwide. Environmental protection remains crucial post-COVID-19, although priorities might change at different development stages. Environmental protection is a public good, emphasises Lou, hence should be provided by the state. Luo helped draft several previous 5-year plans and the Circular Economy Promotion Law.

Wang Jinnan 王金南 | Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning Academician

Among influential environmental experts, Wang helped design the carbon tax, pollutant discharge trading and eco compensation. Internal and external challenges will hamper further pollution mitigation. Incidents are frequent and present extreme risk. Wang advises integrating mitigation with eco capacity expansion. Protection, he forecasts, will shift from controlling pollution to building a ‘beautiful China’, embracing sustainable production and consumption, ‘modern environmental governance’ and a livable environment.

Yang Gang 严刚 | Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning vice president

Carbon-intensive industries, like power, steel and cement should peak emissions early in the next five to ten years, says Yan Gang. Renovating plants for ultra-low emissions must extend to include more sectors. PM2.5 in most cities should reach the national air quality standard by 2035, recommends Yan, with metropolises recording higher reductions. Ozone pollution can be expected to plateau or even fall drastically during the next five years.


(mar) 2021: National People’s Congress will launch the 14th 5-year plan when it convenes in early 2021

16 nov 2020: Xi urges Yangtze River Economic Belt ‘high-quality’ development

26 oct 2020: guiding opinions on climate finance

22 sep 2020: Xi pledges carbon neutrality before 2060

16 mar 2020: plan for a ‘Beautiful China’

15 jul 2020: national green development fund launched

3 mar 2020: guidelines on building modern environmental governance

in case you missed it…

cp.signals—domestic policy movement
14th 5-year plan outlook: education planning
14th 5-year plan outlook: driving into the future

cp.positions—audit of shifts across policy sectors
cp.position: society, governance, global impact
cp.position: macroeconomy, energy and environment, agriculture, scitech—monthly roundup
october: 5th Plenum responds to COVID-19
september: green pledges