Climate disappointment with the 14th Five Year Plan

The havoc of the past twelve months has made all of us that have survived more aware of uncertainty’s omnipresence than we were before the Covid-19 pandemic. If one year could turn over so much, then five years seems like an eternity. With that frame of mind, along with the ticking clock of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere (and especially the IPCC’s 1.5C report), the hopes that China’s 14th Five Year Plan might be a definitive document in the fight against climate change were strong. While the document calls for continuation of the country’s slow march towards decarbonization, it dashed hopes of more ambition (or realism, as some prefer).

The disappointment arises because this is the first major document to emerge out of China since Xi Jinping’s 2060 carbon neutrality pledge in September 2020. Some suggested that his pledge was Xi’s effort to save the world.

China Dialogue summarized the climate targets in the plan with this infographic.

These percentages essentially are almost precisely linear projections from the 13th five year plan. No radical move up of the carbon peaking date from 2030 to, say, 2025. No cap on total emissions. Should we have been disappointed? It’s hard not to be, but probably not. First, the five year planning process is an air craft carrier that is hard to pivot at the last minute. Xi’s announcement was a surprise for those inside as well as outside of China and so was not driving negotiations six months ago. Second, plans like this are meant to be not just passed but aced. Perfect score territory. So, the targets that are set are almost always exceeded, which means that we should take the statistics in the plan as minimums rather than best guesses as to where outcomes are going to end up.

The final reason to keep a chin up and avoid being overly disappointed with the 14th Five Year Plan is that Xi Jinping seems to be disappointed in it too, and his disappointment might move mountains. In the wake of the plan’s release and its tepid reception, more and more evidence is coming out of some disconnect between Xi’s notions of where things should be and the plan document itself. The China climate expert Lauri Myllyvirta put it this way last week:

Xi wants more.

Xi’s desires have a way of becoming the policy reality in China today, but not always and not immediately. Numerous organizations are holding meetings and signaling that they’d like to be seen as running to where Xi Jinping’s thoughts (not yet Xi Jinping Thought yet) are pointing. Journalist Liu Hongqiao provided a partial list in this thread:

To be sure, none of these meetings or pledges themselves are overly radical. There are no PetroChina or CNOOC executives swearing off black gold, nor steel plants shuttering after getting climate change religion. But, if they continue to make progress and build on past successes, then the path forward for China and the world seems less uncertain than it might have been.

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