How to tell a strong Chinese Five-Year Plan from a weak one?

As the first details of China’s five-year plan targets for 2025 are expected to emerge from the Chinese Communist Party plenum, how do we track the level of ambition on energy and climate based on the targets?


Progress on clean energy is a given in China’s 5-year plans – not least because the government like most others will choose targets and metrics that will show things going in the right direction. That’s why all you could read from planning documents was stellar achievements in reducing the energy intensity and CO2 intensity of the economy and increasing the share of clean energy, even during last decade when CO2 emissions were growing at double digits.

Furthermore, given China’s scale as the world’s largest coal consumer, it’s easy to be taken in by the impressive number of solar panels that will need to be installed and the amount of cash that will need to be invested to hit any target.

However, to understand whether China is truly bending the curve on emissions and how fast, we’ll have to get much more intimate with the numbers.

What’s coming out now?

The deliberations at the Central Committee meeting this week are agreeing some of the central elements of the overarching five-year plan on economic and social development, which will be approved and published in full at the largely ceremonial “Twin Meetings” of China’s legislature in March.

The overarching five-year plan will likely include targets for total energy consumption, share of non-fossil energy in the energy mix and carbon intensity reduction. All of these, or none, could be included in the official readout from the meeting.

The top-level plan will be followed by numerous sectoral plans later in the year or in 2022, including ones on energy, electricity, coal and renewables and climate. Key targets included in lower-level sectoral plans include targets for share of coal in the energy mix, total coal consumption, as well as power capacity targets for coal, wind, solar and nuclear.

Lit vs. meh

Projections and recommendations by the influential Tsinghua Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD, presentation) and Energy Foundation China (key slide) have provided metrics for what a relatively ambitious five-year plan might look like.

Looking at these targets one by one:

  • Meeting the 20% non-fossil energy target that China pledged for 2030 only requires a very modest increase by 2025, as the share will already stand at 16% in 2020. A linear path to the 2030 pledge would imply a 18% target, but that would mean substantially slowing down the rate of increase, which no one is expecting. At the same time, there might be reluctance to set targets above 20%, overshooting the Paris pledge. However, a linear path to the energy mix needed by 2050 would imply a target of 25% already by 2025.
  • Total energy consumption target will largely be dictated by the GDP target, so it might not be a useful metric for climate ambition. A high total energy target implies less confidence in economic transformation away from heavy industry, and maybe less attention on energy efficiency, but directly translates into a larger required addition of non-fossil energy to meet a given target for the share of non-fossil energy sources.
  • There have been calls for adopting an absolute emissions cap for 2025 in addition to the intensity reduction. This would fall short of moving the targeted peak date to 2025 but would guard against some nightmare scenarios where emissions keep rising through the second half of the decade. Setting such a cap could be announced in the overarching plan.
  • CO2 intensity of GDP will have fallen by almost 20% in 2015-2020, after recording even larger increases of 21 and 22% in the earlier five-year periods. However, these reductions happened when reported GDP growth rates were very high. Particularly if there’s no absolute emission target, the CO2 intensity target and the GDP target have to be assessed together. If the GDP target is set at 5.5%, a 20% intensity target will leave space for a 1%/year increase in CO2 emissions. However, if the GDP target is at 5%/year, the same target will only allow an increase of 0.4%, which will already bring emissions close to peaking by 2025. For a GDP target of 5.5%, a CO2 intensity target of 22% would have the same implications for CO2 emissions. If the GDP target is set relatively high at 6%, an intensity target of 20% would allow emissions to keep growing at the same rate as in 2015-2020, and an intensity target of 24% would be needed to substantially slow down emissions. 

Increase in CO2 emission from 2020 to 2025 under different GDP growth rates and CO2 intensity reduction targets

CO2 intensity / GDP 15.0%16.0%17.0%18.0%19.0%20.0%21.0%22.0%23.0%24.0%25.0%
A handy cheat sheet showing the basic algebra of GDP targets and CO2 intensity targets.
  • Wind power capacity increased by almost 120GW in the past five years, or 23GW per year. Installation rates will need to triple to around 75GW per year in 2025-2035 under the ICCSD projections, more if hydropower and nuclear fall short of targets as seems likely. This means that a wind power capacity target of around 500GW for 2025 would put the country on a linear path. 350GW would represent a “stable”, or stagnant, market, and 400GW a cautious growth path that would leave most of the heavy lifting to the second half of the decade.
  • Solar power capacity increased by around 200GW in the past five years, or 40GW per year. Installation rates will need to triple to over 100GW per year in 2025-2035 under the ICCSD projections. This means that a solar power capacity target of around 550-600GW for 2025 would put the country on the right exponential growth path. 450GW would represent a “stable”, or stagnant, market, and 500GW a cautious growth path.
  • For nuclear, capacity additions will be modest in 2021-25 because the country is falling far short of the target of having 30 gigawatts of capacity under construction by the end of this year – projects missing that deadline are unlikely to get hooked up to the grid by the end of the period. A new target for under construction capacity would give an indication of the level of ambition.
  • ICCSD recommends targeting a 51% share of coal in the energy mix, down from 57% in 2020. This would be a continuation of the trend from 2015 when the share was 63%. EF China calls for a target of below 50%. A linear path to the 2050 energy mix projected by ICCSD would imply a target of 48%, which would be a substantial acceleration.