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What Does China’s “No.1 Central Document” Say About Climate Change?

An unprecedented framing of agriculture and rural development in the context of climate change, a “prominent challenge”

For the last two decades, the yearly “No.1 Central Document” — the first official document jointly released by China’s top party and state bodies after the Chinese New Year holiday — has talked about the “three rural issues” of agriculture, rural areas, and farmers.

This year’s document, released on February 22, is no exception. It outlines the key tasks for “comprehensively pushing forward rural revitalization.” It also, for the first time, mentioned climate change as a “prominent challenge.”

The front page of the Chinese government’s website, announcing the No.1 Central Document.

Clearing up some terms

“Rural revitalization” includes not just agriculture and husbandry, but also forestry and fishery. In China, these are collectively known as the first sector.”

Jointly issued by the Central Committee of Communist Party of China (CCCPC), the highest political body of China’s ruling party, and the State Council, the highest administrative body of the Chinese government, the No.1 Central Document sits at the top of China’s public policy pyramid.

(Similarly, the “1” document of China’s “1+N” framework on addressing climate change is jointly issued by CCCPC and the State Council, while the series of “N” documents have been or will be issued by the State Council and various ministries.)

A reminder: “three rural issues” are climate issues

In China, as well as globally, agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In 2014, the sector emitted 7.4% of China’s total GHG; when counting indirect emissions such as those resulting from water and electricity use and fertilizer production, its share rises to 10.7%.

Like the rest of the first sector, China’s agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Over the period 2008-2018, China suffered $153 billion in disaster-related agricultural losses, accounting for 55% of the global figure.

At the same time, China’s agricultural sector and rural areas are indispensable in reaching the dual-carbon goals. Scientists estimate that China’s agricultural sector has the potential to offset more than its own emissions through measures like carbon soil sequestration, fertilizer use reduction, and agricultural biomass development.

The first sector is also key to making sure China’s decarbonization is a just transition. In 2021, it only accounted for 7.3% of China’s GDP but employed almost a quarter of China’s workers. First sector workers are rapidly aging. Besides, 292 million rural residents are migrant workers, living outside their hometowns to seek better economic opportunities.

What does the new policy document say about climate change?

A PROMINENT CHALLENGE. The new policy lists climate change alongside the pandemic and the “weak recovery” of the global economy as three “extremely heavy and arduous” challenges facing China’s social and economic development.

Listing it in the first line, the No.1 Central Document places “climate change” front and center.

To put this in context, the last No.1 Central Document — published three months after China’s leader, Xi Jinping, first announced the “dual-carbon” goals — did not mention “climate” or “climate change.” (It did mention “improving the capacity for preventing weather disasters.”)

In short, such an explicit framing of rural revitalization in the context of climate change is unprecedented.

EXTREME WEATHER. Following the extreme rainfall that flooded parts of Henan province in the summer of 2021, a few international media outlets said China “avoids mention of climate change” or that the authorities “skirt climate change.”

I disagreed at the time (see my tweets then). But if there ever was any hesitancy to mention the risks of climate change, it is definitely gone now. The No.1 Central Document names “extreme weather (events)” as one of the “major hazards” facing agriculture, and calls for better monitoring and early warming, and enhanced response capacity.

FAREWELL FOSSIL FUELS? The document calls for bringing “clean energy” to rural China, including upgrading rural power grids and constructing solar and biomass facilities to generate clean energy.

Compared to last year, mentions of fossil fuels have disappeared. Whereas 2021’s document called for “promoting gas fuels,” “constructing reliable LPG stations,” “developing micro-network gas systems,” and “enhancing clean utilization of coal,” this year’s document only talks about clean energy.

This is no surprise: as China accelerates the energy transition in rural areas, it aims to establish a “clean, low-carbon, diverse, and modern” energy system in which fossil fuels are no longer favored.

SOLAR UP. For the first time, the No.1 Central Document links energy access and poverty reduction policies with climate change.

It suggests, promoting solar power and developing solar industries in rural areas can bolster poverty alleviation efforts. As of 2020, such projects have cumulatively installed over 26 megawatts of solar power generating capacity (10% of the national total) and created 1.25 million jobs.

REDUCING EMISSIONS. The new policy document lists several measures that could lead to emissions reductions in the agriculture sector, including adopting new agricultural technologies and improving rural and animal waste management.

These measures are most likely aimed at mitigating the agriculture sector’s non-CO2 emissions, especially methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). In 2014, the sector accounted for 40% of China’s methane emissions, the biggest source after the energy industry, and was the biggest emitter of N2O, accounting for 60% of total emissions.

CARBON CREDITS. Also for the first time, the No.1 Central Document introduces “carbon credits” as part of the agriculture sector and rural areas’ “green development.”

Just two weeks ago, the State Council’s new 14th five-year plan on rural development (2021-2025) outlined two focus areas in enhancing carbon sinks in the agriculture systems — improving arable land quality and developing ecological aquaculture.

The purpose is not just climate mitigation, but also tapping the value of carbon credits through “value realization mechanisms.”

TONE DOWN BIOMASS. Lastly, the new policy tightens the development of corn ethanol, a type of biomass, from “moderate development” to “strict control,” in accordance with the growing concerns over food security and the heightened demand for feed consumption.

What is the significance?

This eye-grabbing marriage between the “three rural issues” and climate change demonstrates that climate change is being integrated into overall social and economic planning, as Chinese authorities promised.

This is not the first and this surely won’t be the last policy document in which policymakers aim to generate synergies with climate change measures and their field. Since January 2021, China has released several policy documents that highlighted the role agriculture and rural areas will play in China’s decarbonization.

To be clear, this is a tone-setting document, not an implementation plan. As a “guiding opinion,” it is meant to be abstract, not detailed. It doesn’t set targets or assign responsibilities.

Like any other policy, whether and to what extent these climate-oriented agricultural measures will be executed on the ground depends on various factors. Many require sophisticated planning, institutional capacity, and, of course, adequate financing.

There will likely be further comments on the “three rural issues” and climate change in the 2022 Government Work Report, which will be delivered by the prime minister at the plenary meeting of the National People’s Congress in the week of March 5.

Other Policy Highlights

GOOD DAYS ARE BACK? In the last few weeks, Premier Li Keqiang addressed coal during two State Council’s executive meetings in a row, calling on coal power plants to “release their full potential” and “improve output to the fullest.” These comments, made in the context of industry-wide high debt levels and unprofitability, are most likely intended to pressure coal power companies to take their responsibilities in securing energy supplies. Yet, the coal advocators think differently. This week, a Chinese energy portal concluded that Li’s address sends messages of repositioning coal in the energy transition and that the “good days” for coal power have “come back.”

NEW COAL MINES. I have to admit, the optimism for “good days” doesn’t come from nowhere. This week, China’s state planner National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) approved three new coal mines in Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia, adding a total of 19 million tons of yearly mining capacity to the two biggest coal-producing provinces in China. And this is likely just the start: according to state-owned China Energy News, over 20 provincial governments mention “securing a stable coal supply” in their 2022 Annual Work Plans. The environment ministry also revealed that it has set up a fast track for projects that “release legal coal production capacity.” Similar to coal power plants: new research found more coal power plants entered construction in 2021 than any time since 2016

METHANE RECOVERY. This week, Inner Mongolia, which produces a quarter of China’s coal, issued a new five-year plan (FYP) on “coalbed methane development and utilization.” Targets included in the document suggest that less than one-quarter of the coalbed methane in the selected coal mine pilots will be recovered, and only if the plan is fully implemented. Also this week, IEA’s new Global Methane Tracker reveals, methane leaks from China’s coal mines are comparable to the total CO2 emissions from international shipping. China has not published its new 14th FYP (2021-2025) on coalbed methane recovery. Previously reported by state-owned China Energy: the country has missed its targets on methane recovery for three successive FYPs — a rare exception of the Chinese characteristic of “under-promise and over-deliver”. 

STABLE GROWTH. Following an 8.1% GDP growth in 2021, China published two comprehensive policy documents to promote “stable growth” of the industrial economy and smooth recovery of the service industry, respectively. Both policies cover a basket of incentives in fiscal, financial, and pricing. Published just two weeks before the “Two Sessions”, the most important annual political gathering in China, they unveil some of the key work priorities of the government in 2022  — reforming power tariff, optimizing the “dual-control” on energy, accelerating new investment in “new infrastructures”, transmission lines, industrial decarbonization, and “clean coal”. In particular, built on the “flexible management” on energy intensity, the policy explicitly asks policy implementers to “optimize the frequency of the assessments” and “coordinate the evaluation during the 14th FYP”, and to avoid restricting enterprises’ “normal energy use” due to “progress of completing energy consumption targets”. 

CLIMATE ADAPTATION 2035. China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) says it has deliberated on and approved the “National Strategy on Climate Adaptation 2035.” The plan will likely first be approved by the State Council before being made public. The first national adaptation strategy was published in 2013, led by NDRC, the then-ministry-in-charge of climate affairs. In 2020, the MEE launched the preparation of the new strategy. According to Li Gao, director of MEE’s climate department, China would explore “new models” on climate adaptation, integrating climate science, infrastructure development, and poverty relief.

The article is written by Hongqiao Liu and edited by Kevin Schoenmakers. It was firstly published in the "Shuang Tan" newsletter on 24 February 2022. 

Published in Newsletter