Does 2020 mark a critical juncture in China’s low-carbon energy transition?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created what can be termed a critical juncture from the perspective of the low-carbon transition. Nations have the opportunity to use their economic recovery plans to accelerate this transition. As an upper-middle-income country, China might be expected to build on its recent successes and accelerate the pace of its low-carbon energy transition. Until recently, the Chinese government has been relatively successful in constraining the rise of emissions through a mix of economic, energy and technology policies. This trend appeared to be under threat in October 2019 when Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, argued that China should make better use of its domestic resources of coal, oil and natural gas to enhance national security of energy supply, presumably in response to the trade conflict. In contrast, almost one year later, in September 2020, President Xi Jinping announced that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. These two, apparently contradictory policy announcements, bracketed the launch and delivery of the national economic recovery plans.

In this context, the paper addresses the question of whether the year 2020 marks a critical juncture in China’s management of the low-carbon energy transition. In simple terms, the events of 2020 could yield one of three medium- to long-term trends: The juncture could become critical in a positive way. In this case, the pandemic, along with Xi Jinping’s announcement, would trigger an acceleration of country’s low-carbon energy transition. Conversely, a focus on economic growth, employment and security of energy and material supply might render the juncture critical in a negative way by undermining recent achievements and boosting carbon emissions. Finally, the juncture may not become critical in which case trends in the energy sector would continue as before. To address the question, this paper carries out a document analysis of the economic recovery plans and the energy policies announced in the first ten months of 2020 and reveals that the economic recovery plan has few distinctly green features. In the energy sector, these priorities favour fossil fuels and self-reliance. The paper then contrasts these policy approaches with President Xi’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2060 and concludes that whilst the preceding policies did not reflect a critical juncture, the President’s bold call may do so, but the challenges ahead will be formidable.

By: Philip Andrews-Speed , Sufang Zhang , Chao Wang