July 2, 2015

China’s INDC: Significant Effort or Business as Usual?

Stephen Eule

China yesterday submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, or INDC, to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The INDC sketches China’s post-2020 commitment that is expected to be part of a new international climate change pact to be adopted in Paris later this year. Here’s what China committed to doing:

  • Peak carbon dioxide emissions “around” 2030, with an effort to peak earlier;
  • Decrease carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP (i.e., CO2 emissions intensity) by 60% to 65% in 2030 below the 2005 level;
  • Increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to “around”—there’s that word again—20%; and
  • Increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters compare to the 2005 level.

The reaction of World Resources Institute Global Climate Director Jennifer Morgan to China’s INDC was of a kind with the responses from other environmental groups. She said in a statement China’s goals represent “a serious and credible contribution” and that meeting them “won’t be easy.”

Is this true? We’ll leave the forest question to others and focus on the first three energy-related goals: Do they represent a serious effort? Consider the following and decide for yourself.

  • Peak carbon dioxide emissions “around” 2030: The results of many well-regarded energy forecast models run well before the outline of China’s INDC was announced in November 2014 show China’s pledge does not deviate significantly from the direction projections showed the country was heading in anyway. The central forecast of the International Energy Agency’s most recent World Energy Outlook, for example, estimates that in the 2020s, China’s GDP growth will slow appreciably and its industrial output and coal use will flatten, causing its annual CO2 emissions to peak shortly after 2030 at a little over 10 billion metrics tons (about two times projected U.S. emissions in 2030). Citing similar trends, ExxonMobil’s latest forecast shows Chinese carbon dioxide emissions peaking five years earlier, in 2025, at 10.8 billion metric tons and declining thereafter. In short, China’s peaking goal amounts to business as usual.
  • Decrease CO2 intensity by 60% to 65% in 2030 from the 2005 level: According to IEA CO2 emissions data, in the 25 years preceding China’s new commitment period—that is, from 1980 to 2005—China lowered its CO2 emissions intensity by 58% to 61%. This occurred at a time when China was building coal plants at a break-neck pace and CO2 emissions were growing by nearly 300%. China’s new 60% intensity goal, therefore, is not materially different from the existing long-term trend. Again, this goal amounts to business as usual.


  • Increase the share of non-fossil fuels to “around” 20% of energy supply in 2030: IEA’s central forecast already estimates the non-fossil fuel share of China’s energy demand climbing to 18% in 2030 from 12% in 2012. Getting an additional percentage point or two of additional non-fossil energy should not be too difficult. And again, this goal amounts to little better than business as usual.

None of this should be taken as criticism of China’s INDC. As the Energy Institute has said before, most countries will always place national interests and economic development ahead of addressing climate change. That’s to be expected.

But touting China’s pledge as a major effort to tackle climate change amounts to rhetorical malpractice.