China's Five-Year Plan: A Missed Opportunity or More to Come?

IMPA 202106 China Five Year Plan

China's Five-Year Plan: A Missed Opportunity or More to Come?

Impax Asset Management

This article has been written by Impax Asset Management, a specialist asset manager, investing in the opportunities arising from the transition to a more sustainable global economy.

The conclusion of the National People’s Congress was met with frustration by international climate commentators. Expectations were high that China might use its 14th Five Year Plan to outline ambitious actions on climate, following its recent surprise announcement that it would achieve carbon net-zero by 2060. However, while these hopes largely failed to materialise, we believe that President Xi may be biding his time to unveil more detail ahead of COP26 in November. We believe this is an inflection point in China’s green development, ushered in by significant structural shifts towards a market-based approach and increased delegation away from the centre.

The road to the National People’s Congress

China initially committed to reach peak carbon emission around 2030 in its Nationally determined contributions (NDC) submitted under the 2015 Paris Agreement. In September 2020, alongside the landmark announcement that it would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, China stated that it would strengthen its NDC and peak emissions before 2030. 

In December 2020, on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Summit, China updated this commitment with more details, including pledges to 1) Reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by over 65% from the 2005 level; 2) Increase non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25%; 3) Increase the forest stock volume by 6 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level; and 4) Increase wind and solar power generation capacity to at least 1,200 GW. 

Given these developments, international commentators had expected a further ratcheting up of China’s climate targets within the Five-Year Plan, for example bringing forwards the peak emissions target ahead of 2030. However, we believe that President Xi may well be holding back further statements of ambition in order to maximise their impact in the run up to COP26. Triggers for any further measures could include an updated US pledge (expected in April at the Biden-hosted Major Economies Meeting), or as the outcome of bilateral talks with the new US administration. This was the pattern of target escalation between leading emitters in the run up to the conference in Paris in 2015.

Delegation away from the centre 

While we were also disappointed that there is no clear target to restrict new coal capacity in the high-level 14th Five Year Plan, we think this, to a large extent, reflects a change of approach at the central government level. We are observing a shift away from detailed central planning to the setting of high-level goals (such as renewable energy consumption mix for each province) which are then delegated to provincial and local officials to work out how they will be achieved.  This approach aligns the achievement of the high-level goals with the career development of local officials. In our view this is likely to be more effective than the previous approach whereby local governments had an embedded interest in building out more coal capacity. 

Under the new approach, local governments will need to either build out enough local renewable capacity or purchase renewable energy from other provinces. This latter option is obviously more expensive and more negative for local investment, employment, and economic growth, so building renewable energy locally (rather than coal capacity) will be the obvious choice. 

Carbon trading scheme

In addition to the ‘delegation’ to local governments of the means to meet centrally-set goals, China is indicating a medium to long-term intention to shift away from top down ‘command-and-control’ administrative directives towards market-based policies such as carbon pricing, which could help wean China off coal as a fuel for both electricity generation and industry.

While the national carbon trading scheme which launched last month will only have an immediate impact on smaller coal-fired generators due to its narrow sector coverage, generous allocation of quotas and likely low prices, its reach and impact should rachet up over time.

It is worth bearing mind that EU carbon markets were initially ineffective at sufficiently pricing carbon and encouraging fuel switching, with the price remaining below €5 a tonne between 2005 and 2018. However, once the regulations were tweaked and refined (and an effective carbon central bank introduced), the EU emissions trading system is now finally doing what it set out to do and facilitating the transition away from coal.

An inflection point for green development

Following the approval of the 14th Five Year Plan by the National People’s Congress, the relevant ministries and local governments will now form and finalise their more detailed plans during the second half of the year. This will focus on how to achieve high-level goals including on renewable energy and carbon peaking, and some provinces and cities have already announced earlier peak years. 

We remain convinced that we are at an inflection point of the green development in China. This is being borne out by: 1) clean solutions (such as solar, wind, electric vehicles) becoming increasingly cost competitive; 2) a continued emphasis on energy efficiency (the Five Year Plan targets 14% reduction in energy consumption per unit GDP and 18% reduction of CO2 intensity of GDP); and 3) a transition from a quantity- to a quality-driven approach in infrastructure investment and pollution control effort as a whole.

This is reinforced by recent announcements around plans for new low-carbon technologies, such as state-owned Sinopec’s plans to build the largest hydrogen refuelling network in the world with 1,000 refuelling stations by 2025. 

Overall, we remain very optimistic that environmental equities in our key opportunity set (including renewables, energy efficiency, pollution control, water & waste) will continue to benefit from the policy support and investment needed to achieve the goals of peaking emissions before 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2060.