China’s 20th Party Congress and energy: The good, the bad and the unknown

The 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) started on 16 October 2022, with President Xi Jinping delivering the Party’s work report and ending with the unveiling of the new line-up of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee and other top Party leadership bodies. Not only was Xi Jinping appointed for an unprecedented third term in office, promoting allies to top positions, but the Congress was also eagerly observed for any indication of change in the country’s macro-economic and energy policies.

Overall, the Party Congress signalled considerable policy continuity in terms of energy and climate. This Comment discusses these outcomes and Xi Jinping’s Report, which includes both good, bad and lots of unknowns: The emphasis on coal as a source of energy security and resilience complicates the country’s dual carbon targets (to peak emissions before 2030 and strive to reach carbon neutrality by 2060), but the focus on renewables as part of the securitisation of everything suggest China will overshoot its targets, at least with respect to renewable energy. Similarly, the ongoing zero-COVID policy and the resulting economic weakness have led to a drop in Chinese emissions, and efforts to rebalance the Chinese economy could further benefit the dual carbon goals if implemented with a focus on efficiency gains. In the near-term, the Report and government statements suggest there will be limited change to the country’s zero-COVID policy, even as tweaks are being made to travel and quarantine guidelines. Meanwhile, the economic slowdown is leading to lower oil and gas imports—for now a positive in tight global gas markets, but a weakness for oil markets. Efforts to sustain economic activity, even if not at high levels, has already led the government to reverse its policy on oil product export quotas. This, in turn, will alleviate pressure in global diesel markets but raises questions about the government’s commitment to its peak emission targets in the refining and chemicals sector.

The Report and outcome of the leadership transition also leave many open questions: to what extent will the new leadership, made up of President Xi’s confidantes who seem to support a growing role for the State in the economy, accelerate market reforms? How will the drive for technological self-sufficiency, combined with the US ban on exports of semiconductors impact China’s ability to scale up and export existing technologies that are critical for the energy transition?

By: Michal Meidan , Anders Hove