China's energy regulator gets warning over slow transition


Dimitri de Boer

Special Advisor of CCICED; 

China Country Director, ClientEarth


Following an environmental inspection, China's National Energy Administration (NEA) has been urged to step up the energy transition. NEA was among the first batch of ministry-level departments to receive an environmental inspection. It reflects the high emphasis China's leadership is placing on climate action, and integrating environmental considerations into broader government decisions.

NEA was reminded that the laws and regulations it recently proposed do not adequately reflect, and in some cases even water down, environmental protection and low carbon requirements. Examples were included from the recently proposed Coal Law revision, Energy Law revision, and Electricity Law revision.

This is a highly encouraging development – environmental inspections are a very powerful tool, so it's great that they are being deployed to accelerate the climate transition. They can directly impact on the decisions of key leaders in government and large state-owned enterprises, because serious problems uncovered in the inspections can have consequences for their careers. Also, follow up inspections are conducted six months later to check whether problems have been rectified.

In October last year, Director-General Li Gao of the Department of Climate Change at MEE had already announced that carbon peaking would be included in this system.

I expect that in 2021 specific, time-bound carbon emissions targets will be set for the national level, for provinces, and for high emissions sectors and/or large state-owned enterprises. This would help to provide more tangible indicators to measure performance.

Although China committed to peaking its carbon emissions before 2030, the country's total carbon emissions continue to rise, and international observers have expressed concern about the approval of a series of new coal-fired power plants in the first half of 2020. The NEA, provincial government leaders, and large SOE bosses play a key role in approving such developments. Therefore, the inclusion of carbon emissions to their scorecard could make a big difference in the amount of new coal developments around China.

In 2016, China started to conduct environmental inspections, where teams of environmental officials accompany anti-corruption inspectors to check on the environmental performance of key officials such as governors, mayors, and leaders of state-owned enterprises. The system has proven extremely effective at curbing air pollution in the past years. In 2018, 12,000 officials were punished following such inspections. Previously, the environmental inspections looked at issues like air, water and soil pollution, and major incidents, but it didn't cover carbon emissions.

The China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), an international advisory body to China's State Council, has recommended to incorporate climate indicators into the environmental inspections, in the Policy Recommendations of 2019 and 2020. CCICED

The views do not necessarily reflect those of CCICED.