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5 Most Important Things to Know About China’s 5-Year Plan

Climate
5 Most Important Things to Know About China’s 5-Year Plan

By Geoffrey Henderson, Ranping Song and Paul Joffe

China has officially unveiled its thirteenth Five-Year Plan, which will guide the country's economic and social development from 2016 through 2020. This latest edition builds on progress made over the last five years and makes clear that environmental stewardship is an increasingly integral component of China's development.

Installation of solar photovoltaic panels on the roofs of the Hongqiao Passenger Rail Terminal in Shanghai, China. Photo credit: Jiri Rezac / The Climate Group

The plan lays out targets and measures to address several sustainability challenges—including climate change, air pollution, water, urbanization, transportation and more. The new plan's high-level targets and policies will continue to strengthen China's efforts to shift to a more sustainable model of growth and deliver on its climate commitments.

Here's a look at the highlights and importance of the plan for China's action on energy and climate change:

1. What are the highlights of the plan for energy and climate?

China plans to develop its economy by more than 6.5 percent per year over the next five years. Under the plan, this growth will increasingly come from services—which will rise from 50.5 to 56 percent of the economy by 2020—and more innovative and efficient manufacturing. These sectors typically have lower air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions than China's traditional growth engines, like heavy industry and infrastructure construction.

The plan sets out a new round of targets for the carbon and energy intensity of China's economy. With China's new target for an 18 percent reduction in carbon-intensity from 2015 levels, we estimate that China will actually reduce its carbon intensity 48 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, exceeding its original target of a 40-45 percent reduction by that year. It will also be a first step toward achieving its Paris agreement pledge to reduce carbon intensity 60 to 65 percent by 2030. The plan also includes a goal to reduce energy intensity by 15 percent, suggests that China's most-developed eastern regions will be the first to peak their carbon emissions and builds on efforts to increase China's forest stock.

For the first time, the plan includes quantified guidance on energy consumption control, stating that China should limit its energy use to 5 billion tons of standard coal equivalent. As energy is the largest source of carbon emissions, limiting energy consumption is an important component of China's implementation of its Paris commitments. This guidance seems to be an effort to ensure an upper limit on energy consumption, as there are signs that China's energy use could be lower than 5 billion tons in 2020. Growth in China's energy use has slowed in recent years and China has the potential to achieve its economic goals with less energy through energy efficiency initiatives.

2. Why are these targets important?

The new targets in the plan underscore the fact that the country is no longer merely concerned with the pace of growth, but with the quality of growth. China's efforts on sustainable development and climate action are driven by strong national interests, such as concern about the impacts of climate change, hazardous air pollution and energy security. There's also evidence that China's leaders recognize the economic benefits of clean energy and that new drivers will be required for the economy to continue its rapid economic growth.

To achieve these targets, the plan calls for controlling emissions from energy-intensive industries like power and steel, building a unified national carbon emissions trading market, implementing emissions reporting and verification for key industries and establishing a green finance system, among other measures. The plan also states that China will be actively involved in the global effort to address climate change, including advancing its own contribution and will deepen its bilateral dialogue with other countries. These efforts will provide momentum toward stronger climate action both in China and internationally.

3. What are other signs of China's progress on climate to date?

China has already made substantial progress under the 12th Five-Year Plan, surpassing its targets for energy intensity (down 18.2 percent) and carbon intensity (down 20 percent), according to official figures. Services' share of China's economy has risen in recent years, eclipsing manufacturing's share in 2013. Consumption of coal leveled off in 2014 and output in heavy industries like steel and cement has begun to decline. Further, China is investing in clean energy and installing wind and solar power at world-record levels, making the country the global leader in solar power capacity last year.

4. Does the plan contain all the details?

The Five-Year Plan released this week can be thought of as China's overarching plan, which provides the broad contours of its policies for the next five years. But don't expect all the details of China's low-carbon transition to be apparent in this broad plan. Follow-on plans to be released in the coming months and years will provide more detailed targets and policies for specific provinces and sectors, such as energy.

5. What challenges remain?

Along with the above-mentioned carbon-intensity pledge, China's Paris commitments include a target to peak carbon emissions in 2030 and to make best efforts to peak earlier. While making progress, the country's effort to decouple emissions from economic growth at its present stage of development faces continuing uncertainties. For instance, China's work to further strengthen measures to improve efficiency and reduce demand in buildings and transportation (including through efforts on high-speed rail laid out in the plan) will be important to offset potential emissions growth from China's trends toward increased urbanization and vehicle ownership.

Studies make clear that the commitments made by countries do not go far enough to limit warming to below 2 C and avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change. In Paris, countries agreed to come back to the table by 2020 to review their targets. If significant progress were made on addressing remaining challenges during the next five years, then China could be in a position to revise its pledge.

At the same time, the debate over the precise timing of China's emissions peak may be less important than its continuing efforts to build a foundation for deep emissions reductions over the long term. China is continuing to develop and implement measures that can help achieve this goal, such as limits on coal and energy use, energy efficiency improvements, renewable energy deployment and grid integration, carbon pricing and steps to shift toward a cleaner model of development. The energy and other sectoral plans following the national Five-Year Plan will provide further opportunities to make progress on these efforts.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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