Paper - Environment and Natural Resources Program, Belfer Center

Low-Carbon Revolution in China

| March 2017

A Case Study of Shanxi Province


Over the last three years, the Environment and Natural Resources Program (ENRP) at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has hosted a number of senior Chinese practitioners from government as part of ENRP’s China Environmental Sustainability Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Energy Foundation China. In the course of their fellowship, they often focus on energy or environmental topics—or on other issues of great importance to China—and produce one or more papers, summarizing their insights and conclusions.

These papers have value, not only in providing officials and scholars in both the United States and China with a greater understanding of the topics, but also providing perspectives on questions of importance that contribute to the ongoing policy debates in both countries. These are not traditional academic papers, but rather overviews of important issues written by practitioners who have on-the ground experience and knowledge and will be part of the policy making process in China.

The Belfer Center feels privileged to host these fellows and to provide this forum for the products of their work at the Center.

Henry Lee, Director, Environment and Natural Resources Program.


Climate change poses challenges to all of humankind. Scientific studies and statistical analyses have shown that the climate is changing at an alarming rate and that human activity is the main cause. Glaciers are melting faster than ever. Problems such as unbalanced distribution of water, biodiversity loss, and increasingly frequent disastrous weather conditions are threatening social and economic development as well as human health.

As a vast country with a huge population, insufficient natural resources (as measured on a per capita level), fragile eco-systems, and sophisticated climate patterns, China is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on many fronts. These fronts include: national economic security, energy security, ecological security, food security, human health, and socioeconomic development. Low-carbon economic growth and actions to slow the rate of climate change are required for sustainable development and the protection of fragile ecosystems. They also bring significant opportunities for economic restructuring, growth mode transformation, and a new type of industrialization. 

Climate change is a challenge that can only be tackled through international cooperation. All of the 150 countries present at the Global Climate Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 approved United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which was the first international convention to address the negative influence of global warming on the world’s economy by controlling the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions. It offered a basic framework under which countries could work together to tackle the climate issue. The COP 21, held near Paris-Le Bourget in the northern suburbs of Paris between November 30th and December 12th of 2015, witnessed the signg of a legally binding Agreement, featuring innovative mechanisms for taking action, bottom-up approaches based on voluntary emission reductions, and expanded involvement by more nations. Developing countries, such as China, proposed specific measures for emission reduction, which were well received by the international community. Each country is expected to adopt low-carbon actions to combat climate change based on fairness, capacity, and the principle of common, but differentiated responsibilities. 

With the increasing global effort in curbing climate change, China has intensified its own efforts. At the 18th National Congress of China’s Communist Party, which was held on November 8th, 2012, China introduced the concept of “eco-civilization,” which required “Green, Sustainable, and Low-Carbon Development.” During the third plenary session of the central committee of the CPC National Congress, arrangements were made to institutionalize the effort to develop an “eco-civilization” by pursuing low-carbon development. On June 30th, 2015, China submitted its “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDC) to the UNFCCC Secretariat, affirming its intention to peak its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65% from 2005 levels by 2030. The INDC also includes the goal of increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in China’s primary energy consumption to 20% by 2030. At the fifth session of the CPC central committee of the 18th CPC National Congress, the Party set clear goals to adopt environmentally friendly industrial production, build a low-carbon society, and effectively control carbon emissions. As the combat against climate change gains strategic importance and the targets of emission reduction become clearer, China is developing a carbon emissions trading market.

1. Shanxi Province

The economy in Shanxi province relies on natural resources due to the province’s position as an energy and heavy chemical industrial base. Due to its unique economic situation, Shanxi has prospered as a result of its natural resources, but its resource wealth has also created problems inherent in “Resource Traps,” such as a lack of industrial diversity, environmental degradation, high energy consumption and carbon emission levels, and unsustainable development.

1.1 Factor Analysis on the high carbon emissions in Shanxi Province

In 1970, Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren developed the “IPAT Equation” to describe the impact of economic development on the environment. The equation argues that the impacts of human activity on the environment (I) are the product of Population (P), Affluence (A), and Technology (T). In 1990, Yoichi Kaya developed the “Kaya Identity” in the IPCC work report in which four factors were incorporated to the equation, including carbon intensity (emissions per unit of energy consumed), energy intensity (per unit of GDP), GDP per capita, and population.  

Shanxi’s rising carbon emissions are mainly caused by its economic expansion, determined by its energy mix and its industrial structure. The following analysis assesses the causes of Shanxi’s high-carbon growth. 

1.2 Rising carbon emissions with relatively fast economic growth

Since 1979, China’s economy has experienced rapid growth, which has brought significant changes to people’s lives. Supported by economic liberalization, Shanxi maintained significant economic growth over this period. The total GDP of Shanxi increased from RMB 184.57 billion in 2000 to RMB 1.28 trillion in 2014, a 6.9-fold increase in just 14 years. The per capita Regional Domestic Product increased from RMB 5,722 in 2000 to RMB 35,100 in 2014, a 6.1-fold increase. Despite the huge impact of the global financial crisis between 2008 and 2009 and the slump in 2013 and 2014, the provincial GDP continued to realize a 10% annual growth. 

The Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) uses an inverted U curve to describe the relationship between economic growth and environmental pollution. Environmental quality tends to get worse and emissions grow as average incomes increase in the initial stage of development. When development reaches a certain level, degradation is stabilized as the average income continues to rise. To be specific, a 1% rise in income is accompanied by a 1% increase of pollutants before the income level reaches the Kuznets “turning point.” But thereafter, pollutant levels decrease at a faster rate than the increase in average income. Shanxi’s economy has not reached that tipping point. Levels of CO2 emissions and sulfur pollutants are still rising as the economy grows. In 2014, the burning of fossil fuels emitted three times more CO2 than in 2000. The growth of CO2 emission at that time was positively correlated with economic growth. Since 2003, this correlation has weakened, with GDP growing faster than carbon emissions due to intensified energy conservation efforts.

Despite its progress in reducing its carbon intensity, Shanxi trails other provinces such as Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shandong, and Zhenjiang (see Figure 1). The per capita GDP in Shanxi has been lower than the national average and the gap has been widening since 2008 (see Figure 2). Studies carried out by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory showed that the per capita CO2 emission and energy consumption of developed countries peaked when urbanization and industrialization reached a per capita GDP above USD 10,000. Shanxi still has a long journey before its per capita GDP reaches that level. 


Figure 1: The GDP of Shanxi province and others in 2000-2014
Figure 1: The GDP of Shanxi province and others in 2000-2014


Figure 2: The GDP per capita of China, Shanxi Province, and others in 2000-2014
Figure 2: The GDP per capita of China, Shanxi Province, and others in 2000-2014


1.3 High carbon emission from the energy sector due to the dominance of coal in the energy mix

Shanxi is one of the largest bases for coal production and coal-fired power plants in China. A significant portion of Shanxi’s coal is exported in the form of electricity. Since 1985, the proportion of coal output and production increased rapidly (see Figure 3). The amount of the exported power and power generation increased more than 35% in 2014 (see Figure 4). 

Coal and electricity are crucial for Shanxi’s economy. Coal comprised 30% of Shanxi’s industrial value added between 1985 and 2005. This figure has increased even faster since 2008, exceeding 60% in 2012 before decreasing to 51% in 2014, due to the national policy to reduce the total consumption of coal.


Figure 3: The raw coal production and exported coal production of Shanxi Province
Figure 3: The raw coal production and exported coal production of Shanxi Province


Figure 4: Electricity production and power output in Shanxi Province
Figure 4: Electricity production and power output in Shanxi Province


Energy consumption in Shanxi has shown different characteristics in different stages of its socioeconomic development. From 1978 to the early 1990s, energy consumption increased slowly but persistently. It was quite stable during the mid-1990s, dropping a little bit by the end of that decade. Growth in consumption began to increase again in 2000 and maintained high growth levels throughout the decade, but at a slower rate than that of economic growth. However Shanxi still consumes too much energy—around 1.52 tons of standard coal/RMB 10,000 of GDP in 2014—more than twice the national average.

Relying on coal production and related energy and heavy-chemical industries, Shanxi’s economy is dominated by coal. The China Statistical Yearbook shows the provincial coal consumption as a percent of the total energy mix at around 90%. The share of non-fossil fuels in Shanxi energy mix is far below the national average (see Figure 5). Approximately 60% of the coal is used to generate power, which makes Shanxi a major consumer of bunker coal in China (see Figure 6). The coal-dominated energy mix leads to higher CO2 emissions per unit of energy consumption compared with the national average.

Figure 5: The structure of primary energy consumption of the world in 2014. Note: Data from BP Statistical review of world energy 2015.
Figure 5: The structure of primary energy consumption of the world in 2014. Note: Data from BP Statistical review of world energy 2015.


Figure 6: the coal consumption of power industry in Shanxi Province
Figure 6: the coal consumption of power industry in Shanxi Province


1.4 Concentrated carbon emissions due to a focus on heavy industry 

As one of the “Old Industrial Bases” established in 1949, Shanxi hosted 18 of the 156 key national projects between 1953 and 1957. The Chinese government invested significantly in Shanxi between 1958 and 1962, during which time a modern industrial system took shape, emphasizing manufacturing, heavy machinery, locomotives, military industry, steel, chemical engineering, textile, food, electricity, and building materials. China’s economic boom started in 2000, and during this boom, demand for coal was boosted by increased prices. The coal industry peaked over the following ten years, which attracted huge investments, but also squeezed the space for development of other industries. It is not surprising that Shanxi prioritized the construction of an industrial base focusing on coal, power generation, metallurgy, and building materials due to its large coal reserves and rising nationwide demand for power.

The secondary industry (industry and construction) comprises 50% or even as much as 61.5% of the provincial economy, much more than the national average (see Figure 7). Within the secondary industry, heavy industry takes a much larger share. Light industry and heavy industry account for 11.8% and 88.2% respectively in Shanxi’s industrial added value in 2000. 

The natural resource-based industries contributed a large share to Shanxi’s total industrial added value. In 2014, these industries contributed RMB 484.4 billion of industrial added value, accounting for 95% of the province’s total. Coal mining contributed 51.75% to Shanxi’s total industrial added value in 2014, which was followed by electricity and thermal power (10%), metallurgy (9.6%), and coking (4.3%). Coal, coke, metallurgy, and electricity altogether accounted for 75.65% of Shanxi’s total industrial added value in 2014. 

The central position of heavy industries in Shanxi’s economy and industrial structure, concentrated on the lower part of the value chain, has undermined economic efficiency. The industrial mix results in high levels of energy consumption and severe pollution that has impacted the local environment. Factories are the sources of most of the carbon emissions. Around 90% of the CO2 emissions in Shanxi come from the industrial sector, of which the coal-fired power plants and metallurgy account for over 50%. 

Figure 7: The proportion of three industries in Shanxi Province in 2000-2014 (%)
Figure 7: The proportion of three industries* in Shanxi Province in 2000-2014 (%)

*Primary industry (Farming, Forestry, Animal husbandry and Fishery) Secondary industry(Industry, Construction) Tertiary industry (Transport, Storage and Post, Wholesale and Retail trade, Hotels and Catering Services and so on)


2. The Practice of Low-Carbon Development in Shanxi 

Climate change is high on the agenda of China’s government. Shanxi has been doing its part with the guidance of the central government by exploring low-carbon development paths.  

2.1 Top-level design for the low-carbon development

Shanxi introduced the Administrative Measures of Dealing with Climate Change, the first administrative document formulated by a provincial government concerning climate change. Other relevant documents include the Work Plan on Controlling Greenhouse Gases Emissions Within the Twelfth Five Year Plan Period, the Action Plan for Low-Carbon Innovation, and the Work Plan for Addressing Climate Change from 2013-2020. These plans have clearly defined carbon emission reduction targets of Shanxi’s per unit of GDP as well as main fields and chief countermeasures to control GHG emissions, providing scientific guidance for addressing climate change in Shanxi Province.

2.2 Setting up relevant mechanisms and management systems

Headed by the provincial governor and his deputy, a steering group has been established to lead the province’s effort in dealing with climate change. In 2009, the Provincial Development and Reform Commission set up a climate change division. The relevant management systems were established at the municipal and even county levels, and in 2014, the Shanxi Advisory Committee for Low-Carbon Development was established as a government affiliated agency to provide analytical support to the provincial government. Academics and other experts across China joined the committee. It established an evaluation system to check the effectiveness of municipal policies and initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP. These initiatives include industrial restructuring and investments in non-fossil fuels, forest coverage, and energy efficiency.

2.3 Optimizing the industrial structure

With the opportunities brought by economic restructuring, the provincial government has offered financial support to non-coal industries, including cultural tourism, equipment manufacturing, new materials, new energies, energy conservation and environmental protection, food and pharmaceutical industry, and modern services. Directives have been released to support newly emerging strategic industries, such as The Suggestions on Fostering and Developing Newly Emerging Strategic Industries, the 12th Five Year Plan for The Development of Newly Emerging Strategic Industries, and Measures on Boosting the Development of Newly Emerging Industries. An industrial investment fund was established with an initial capital infusion of RMB 10 billion. 

2.4 Adjusting the energy mix 

Shanxi has tapped into its advantages as a location for new energy resources such as hydroelectricity, wind energy, solar energy, and coal bed methane (CBM). The total installed electricity capacity of Shanxi province reached 63.06 GW, of which 55.6354 GW, or 88.2%, was from coal, 4.54 GW, or 7.2%, from wind energy and 3.05 GW, or 4.8%, from CBM. The total amount of CBM extraction in the province was 9 billion cubic meters, accounting for 53% of the country’s total. Of all the CBM extracted, 3.5 billion cubic meters were extracted through ground extraction, of which 3 billion cubic meters were utilized. 5.5 billion cubic meters of CBM was obtained from coalmines, of which 2 billion cubic meters were utilized. CBM and natural gas are taking an increasingly larger share of energy consumption and the share of coal consumption is decreasing gradually.

2.5 Faster improvement of energy efficiency

As required by the central government, Shanxi has intensified its effort to phase out outdated production facilities. In the meantime, the province made energy efficiency a yardstick for all energy-intensive industries. Shanxi has set energy use standards for over 50 different products. Further, energy conservation management and relevant technologies have been introduced for six energy-intensive industries, including metallurgy, coking, electricity, coal mining, chemical engineering, and building materials. From 2011 to 2014, Shanxi’s energy consumption per RMB 10,000 of GDP decreased by 14.73%, which exceeded the targets set by the central government. 

2.6 Actively carrying out basic capacity building

Research has been carried out to develop a greenhouses gas inventory for Shanxi. Firms or institutions consuming energy greater than 5,000 tons of standard coal equivalent, or which have emitted greenhouse gases of more than 13,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in any one year, are required to report their greenhouse gas emissions. Shanxi was the first province to establish monitoring stations and networks for greenhouse gas emissions. A database of greenhouse gas emission coefficients for industries, total emissions of key regions, and major companies has been assembled. The province participated in “National Low-Carbon Day” to raise people’s awareness and spread knowledge through TV and radio programs, newspapers, and the Internet. The province has hosted forums on low-carbon development and offered comprehensive training programs that covered many different sectors so as to enhance the government’s and companies’ capacity of tackling climate change.

2.7 Moving forward with innovation in low-carbon technologies

Guided by the Action Plan for the Low-Carbon Innovation, arrangements were made to implement a low-carbon innovation strategy at the Conference on Science and Technology in Shanxi. “Shanxi Scientific Innovation City” has attracted 35 coal-industry-based low-carbon research institutes to establish agencies in the city. Over 67 key relevant low-carbon R&D projects will be carried out through open tender. These institutes offer technological support to the provincial government in its effort to mitigate climate change. “The Low-Carbon Joint Fund Based on Coal Industry” has been established to pool expertise to solve major common scientific, technological, and engineering problems, focusing on coal mining, CBM, coal chemistry, coal-fired power plants, equipment manufacturing for coal mines, new materials, new energy, and energy conservation and environmental protection.

3. The Difficulties and Challenges that Shanxi Faces along its Journey to Achieve Low-Carbon Development

3.1 Shanxi is constrained by its own socio-economic development

Economists HB Chenery and M. Syrquin divided economic development into three stages: pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial. Industrial stages in turn were divided into three additional parts: the initial stage, mid-period, and late period. They based their conclusions on the following factors: average income, the industrial structure, employment structure, and urbanization (see Table 1).  

Table 1: The standard for dividing industrialization phases

Basic indexPre-industrialization phaseThe realization phases of industrializationPost-industrialization phase
Early phaseMiddle phaseLate phase
Per capita DGP (2005 USD, ppp)745-41901490-29802980-59605960-11170>11170
Production value structure of the tertiary industryA > IA > 0%, A > IA > 20%, I < SA < 10%, I > SA <10%, I < S
The unemployment proportion of the primary industry> 60%45-60%35-45%10-30%< 10%
Urbaniztion rate< 30%30-50%50-60%60-75%> 75%

Note: A refers to the primary industry, I is the secondary industry, S is the tertiary industry, PPP is purchasing power parity, and in 2005 the value of PPP is 2.147. Source: Chen Jiagui, Zhong Hongwu, Wang Yanzhong. The Report for the Industrialization Process in China. China Social Sciences Press, 2007.

Shanxi’s per capita GDP reached RMB 35,064, or USD 5,708, in 2014, which was more than USD 11,170 calculated by the purchasing power parity with the USD. Shanxi’s relative proportions of the primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors were 6.2: 49.7: 44.1. The primary sector employed 35.6% of workers. More than 54% of the people in Shanxi live in urban areas, so Shanxi is at a post-industrial stage in terms of per capita GDP. However, the per capita GDP calculated by purchasing power parity has overestimated Shanxi’s industrial progress. The relative proportions of the three economic sectors show that Shanxi has entered the early post-industrial stage. The employment figures and urbanization rate suggest that Shanxi is at the mid-period of industrialization. 

3.2 Restraints imposed by the unique industrial structure with coal related industries taking a large proportion in the energy mix

Currently, there are 38 industrial categories in Shanxi, among which five are extraction-related, 30 are manufacturing-related, and the rest are electricity, gas, and water production and supply. For every ton of CO2 emitted, the GDP generation capacity of different industries varies, from RMB 400 to 160,000. Electricity, steel, non-ferrous metals, and chemical industry generate less than RMB 5,000, which makes them traditional high carbon industries in Shanxi.  

According to the Action Plan for Energy Development Strategies and the Three Year Promotion Plan for Five Traditionally Advantageous Industries Including Coking, Steel, Non-Ferrous Metals, Electricity, and Coal-related Chemical Industry, major greenhouse gas emitters such as coal and electricity, even if they keep reducing their emissions, will continue to expand and make the requirements for greater emission controls more difficult to meet. Industrial restructuring will be Shanxi’s main task in the coming years, but industrial upgrading and the development of newly emerging industries are difficult. The transformation of high carbon industries will be an arduous journey ahead with so many obstacles. 

As the dominating industries in Shanxi both at present and in the foreseeable future, electricity, steel, cement, and chemical industry will rely on coal reserves. Given the demand for electricity in the developed provinces, the average electricity consumption is still very low. In 2012, domestic consumption per capita in Shanxi Province was only about 374 kWh/person, below the national average 461 KWH/person, about 8% of the U.S. average. The increasing electricity supply will boost coal consumption, which is consumed mainly in coal-fired power plants. Renewable energies and new energies are not sufficient or cheap enough to replace coal due to economic and technological limitations. The position of coal in the energy mix of Shanxi cannot be reduced easily because of multiple constraints in terms of cost, technology, industrial structure, and lifestyles.

3.3 The constraints imposed by a harsh natural environment and low awareness of low-carbon development

Shanxi is located on the Loess plateau, where the natural resources are quite limited and the ecosystem is vulnerable to climate change. Intensive, large-scale economic development has damaged the environment and made the ecosystem more vulnerable. In recent years, Shanxi’s average temperature has been rising, while precipitation has been decreasing. Thus natural disasters have become more frequent, destabilizing agricultural production. The damaged ecosystem struggles to recover and public health is under greater threat. According to the meteorological observation data, from 1961-2012, the average temperature in Shanxi Province shows an increasing trend. The warming rate is 0.25°C per decade; the average annual precipitation is 468.3mm, which presents a decreasing trend. In 2014, the water resource per capita of Shanxi Province was 305.1 m3, 15.3% of the Chinese average level and 3.8% of the world average. Extreme weather conditions and natural disasters have happened more frequently with ever more serious consequences. The threat posed by climate change to ecosystem and socioeconomic development is growing. 

The coal sector and the power sector are considered the leading industries in Shanxi Province, but they have become major sources of environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. From 2005 to 2009, the electric utility industry emitted 43% to 48% of the total SO2 emissions in Shanxi, and in 2012, its contribution exceeded 50% of the provincial SO2 and nitrous oxides emissions, among which soot emissions accounted for 21.33%. Pollution caused by particulates, SO2, and nitrous oxides is evident in environmental problems, and such issues seriously affect people’s life in forms of haze, respiratory health, and other concerns. Under this circumstance, the public awareness of environmental protection is growing, putting great simultaneous pressure upon the government and enterprises. The emissions of greenhouse gases incrementally increase background concentrations and the temperature, so over short periods (one to two years) the alteration may be hard to perceive in our daily lives. Hence, public awareness of climate change is disappointingly insufficient, so it is not likely that ordinary people will take actions and change their views towards a low-carbon lifestyle. 

3.4 The lack of core impetus for low-carbon development

Low-carbon development is not only a requirement but also a necessity in order to transform to a less resource-intensive development model. Innovation drives development and offers technological support to Shanxi’s endeavor to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Prosperity based on natural resources and the benefits of investing in related industries are not shared by other sectors because these industries have a lot of sunk costs with limited correlative effects and low positive externalities. Investments in these industries will drain most funding sources away from investment in education, human resources, and R&D. Only 8% of the enterprises above the designated size in Shanxi pursue R&D activities. Only 6% have R&D departments. The scientific and technological support for our low-carbon development and emission reduction is weak. The brain drain and the shortage of top talent exist side by side. The core competitiveness of Shanxi’s low-carbon development is still weak with insufficient institutional capacity, and very little effort is made to garner popular support for the establishment of environmental markets.

3.5 Lack of integration of administrative resources 

The implementation of the low-carbon strategy requires hard work in multiple sectors including industry, agriculture, transportation, construction, science and technology, and education. Since the low-carbon strategy was introduced only in recent years, some agencies are still not fully aware of its significance and urgency. Emission reduction and climate change are not incorporated into the work of specific departments nor taken into account in the process of making plans. Administrative resources scattered among different governmental agencies are not coordinated to form synergies, thereby undermining the scope and depth of emission reduction measures.


4. Shanxi’s Low-Carbon Development Outlook

Climate change is a development issue. It is of great importance to strike a balance between economic growth and the transformation to a low-carbon society, especially with China entering the “New Normal.” A low-carbon transformation should boost the economy in Shanxi. A low-carbon strategy should be put into practice which considers the economic character of the province and its historical reliance on coal based heavy industries. To meet its low-carbon goals, Shanxi should:

4.1 Realize the strategic importance of low-carbon development

Countries have proposed many different ways and measures to achieve low-carbon development according to their own needs and national realities. For example, The U.K. introduced the concept of “A Low-Carbon Economy” to find a new growth path for its economy. Japan proposed the idea of a “Low-Carbon Society” to mobilize its people to explore new paths to achieve greater low-carbon development based on its already high energy efficiency levels. The American version is a “Low-Carbon Path” that encourages technological innovation and boosts investment in alternative energy sources. As a less developed region, Shanxi needs to ensure economic growth on the one hand while slowing the rate of energy consumption and carbon emission on the other. So Shanxi should focus on transforming its economic model, which is a more complicated task than just reducing emissions. Shanxi needs to pursue investments in advanced technologies and alternative energy sources. Due to the carbon lock-in effect in the process of economic growth, Shanxi will need to balance its low carbon strategy with its reliance on an economy based on heavy industrialization and accelerated urbanization.  

4.2 Drive institutional innovation through nine approaches

The current targets for emission reduction proposed by China will be difficult to achieve. The regional low-carbon development requires significant institutional innovation. Given China’s current situation and Shanxi’s own reality, the following nine action items are recommended.

1. Establish an evaluation system to assess policies and programs to reduce CO2 emissions per unit of GDP.

The reduction of the CO2 emission intensity should be incorporated into the evaluation systems for socio-economic development and the performance of senior officials. Such a change will enhance the government’s responsibility and provide institutional incentive to achieve the targets for carbon intensity improvements within the 13th Five Year Period. The National Development and Reform Commission has issued the Evaluation Methods for the Reduction of CO2 Emission per Unit of GDP to evaluate the performance of local governments and its officials  

2. Improve the system for basic greenhouse gas data collection and calculation.

A system for greenhouse gas data collection and calculation should be established to incorporate improved greenhouse gas data into the government’s data collection system. Such a system can help to clarify the reduction targets for CO2 emission per unit of GDP, ensure the fulfillment of these targets, and compel the relevant parties to honor their responsibilities. In May 2013, the State Statistics Bureau and the National Development and Reform Commission jointly issued the Circular of Opinions on How to Improve the Statistical Work Related to Climate Change. Shanxi selected the indicators that best reflect its progress in dealing with climate change, thus establishing its own statistics system to collect emission data from the energy sector, industrial production, agriculture, and waste disposal. Shanxi seeks to make carbon emissions measurable, reportable, and verifiable.

3. Establish a system that requires key companies and institutions to directly report their emission data to relevant authorities.

China should establish a system that requires key businesses to report their emission data as a precondition to participate in intensified and standardized emission management as well as carbon trading. The central government has released the calculation methods and reporting guidance for companies in 24 industries, including steel, electricity generation, and cement. The Shanxi government should clarify which companies must report, sort out the reporting platform, and decide on the reporting system. Industries with high energy consumption and high carbon emissions, such as coal, steel, chemical industry, electricity generation, and cement, should submit their reports first. 

4. Establish a carbon trading system to allow entities to trade emission permits.

As a market-oriented approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, carbon trading offers an important way to reduce emissions. Documents such as the Provisional Regulation on Carbon Trading and the drafted Regulation on National Carbon Trading offer guidance to the development of the market. The nationwide carbon trading system is scheduled to be initiated in 2017. Companies with annual emissions of over 26,000 tons in six industries—namely electricity, metallurgy, non-ferrous metals, building materials, chemical industry, and aviation services—are included. The total trade volume could be as large as 3 to 4 billion tons of greenhouse gases. The establishment of the national carbon trading market will exert influence on carbon-intensive industries such as electricity, steel, non-ferrous metals, chemical industry, building materials, coal, and many others.

5. In order to be actively involved in the carbon trading, Shanxi needs to take the following steps: 

  • Study the impacts of incorporating Shanxi’s own social and economic situation, general trends, and the emission reduction requirements of the central government.
  • Adopt a bottom-up approach to set targets and distribute quotas for different industries and regions with a thorough understanding of their differences and characteristics.
  • Assess the impact of a nationwide cap and trade program on its macro economy and on individual industries. 

6. Shanxi should develop an environmentally, economically, and politically viable plan to control total carbon emissions.

China established a target to peak its CO2 emissions around 2030, which is of great significance to the development of a low-carbon economy. China’s announced commitments to safeguard its national interests show the image of a responsible country and support the reform of global governance to achieve a low-carbon future. In order to play a part in this vision, Shanxi needs to establish a system to consider total emission controls in light of Shanxi’s socioeconomic reality, historical emissions levels, reduction potential, and development plans. Shanxi should announce its own peak emissions. It should consider dividing the goal into smaller targets for different stages and distribute emission quotas among different regions and industries accordingly. Based on the national emission reduction targets, Shanxi can develop targets of total emission control for every year and make reduction plans annually.

 7. Establish a licensing system for greenhouse gas emissions.

A licensing system should be established to regulate what greenhouse gases can be discharged into the atmosphere and which industries should be covered in order to improve the efficiency of programs and policies to meet the emission quotas.  Research is needed to determine the emission standards for carbon-intensive industries such as coal, thermal power, chemical industry, building materials, and steel with the provincial standards for greenhouse gas emissions in these industries based on Shanxi’s macro-economic reality. 

8. Establish a system to assess greenhouse gas emissions in specific projects over a certain size.

Shanxi needs to establish an assessment and accreditation system for carbon emissions for specific investment projects. By doing that, the province can control and regulate the initiation of projects with high levels of carbon and conventional pollution and high energy consumption. 

9. Implement an accreditation system for standard and trademark identification.

The AQSIQ, China’s quality inspection authority, and the NDRC jointly issued the Regulations on Energy-Conservative and Low-Carbon Products Identification, which took effect on November 11th, 2015. According to these regulations, China will establish a unified Certification institution for energy conservation and low-carbon products to encourage people to buy energy efficient products. Pilot programs should be carried out for major industries or companies. Assessing the impacts of the emission quotas and energy consumption limits on major carbon-intensive industries, such as electricity, steel, chemical industry, cement, building materials, and transportation is an important step toward a low-carbon future.

4.3 Controlling the expansion of carbon-intensive industries while reinvigorating low-carbon industries

Rapid economic growth and a high carbon emitting industrial mix are the root causes of Shanxi’s resource and environmental problem. In the face of tight resource supply, severe environmental degradation, deterioration of the ecosystem, and greater economic volatility, low-carbon development may be the best economic strategy going forward. Industrial upgrading and restructuring can drive low-carbon development. 

Shanxi should actively introduce, digest, and absorb existing low-carbon and energy-saving technologies so as to press ahead with the “green transformation” of its coal-based industrial structure through adaptation of technological innovation. Priority should be given to the efficient, clean, and low-carbon utilization of coal, supported by the low-carbon transformation of traditional coal-based industries such as electricity, coke, and chemicals. Further expansion of industries with high carbon emissions should be limited and their share in the economy should be reduced so as to make room for low-carbon industries with advanced technologies and high added value. When there is little opportunity for potential reduction through technologies, Shanxi should rely on the market, but with increased government support, so as to boost the development of modern service industries. These emerging strategic industries will require initial government support—such as high-end equipment, manufacturing, new materials, and new energy sources, including renewables. Shanxi lags behind developed regions in terms of industrial scale, technological innovation, and competitiveness in the market. To overcome this deficit in human and financial capital, Shanxi should provide more targeted institutional incentives. 

4.4 Make the best use of conventional energy while vigorously tapping new energy sources

In the context of a global effort to deal with climate change, the global energy system is experiencing tremendous transformations. The carbon-intensive energy system based on fossil fuels is now being replaced by a low-carbon system based on new energy sources and renewable energy. Such a change can significantly reduce the carbon intensity and CO2 emission of electricity generation via fossil fuels.

Clean and efficient utilization of coal, the exploration of new energy sources, and changing the ways we use energy can play central roles in low-carbon development. Shanxi should invest in new technology research, equipment development, and policy support for the development of clean coal and new energy sources as well as ensuring the clean and efficient use of coal in key industries. Shanxi can tap investments in non-fossil fuels, including solar, wind, hydro energy, biomass, and geothermal energy, boosting their share of primary energy consumption. Distributed energy resources, combined cooling, heating and power (CCHP), and a smart grid can be further developed to transform the way Shanxi uses and produces energy. The production, transmission and sale of CBM should be coordinated and proper arrangements should be made for natural gas pipelines, storage technologies, and transportation facilities. Comprehensive and more efficient use of CBM should be promoted so as to make natural gas—and not coal—the primary fuel in Shanxi.

4.5 Intensified innovation for carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration

Innovation drives development and offers support to efforts to reduce emissions in the traditional energy sector. Shanxi should focus on the development of clean coal and boost the technologies required for large scale CBM or other non-traditional natural gas extraction. As for renewable energy, research should focus on approaches that are cost-effective and suitable for large-scale production: solar energy, solar building integration, fuel cell technologies, hydroelectricity, biomass, and methane. New studies should be conducted on the energy cascade use, residue heat and energy, alternative fuel and raw materials, and CCUS in industries with high carbon emissions such as coal, electricity, metallurgy, chemical industry, and building materials.

Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) is a new technology to control greenhouse gas emissions that could be of strategic importance. Shanxi is rich in CBM, which makes it an ideal place to pursue CCUS. Demonstrations of CCUS can help the province deal with the existing technological gap.

Shanxi has worked with other institutions in demonstrate on projects for CCUS such as the “Feasibility Study on CCUS with 350 MW Oxygen-Enriched Combustion,” in which CCUS was used for the displacement of reservoir oil, CBM, and food production. This project was jointly carried out by Shanxi International Energy Group, Babcock & Wilcox, Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., and West Virginia University. Jinchen Anthrocite Group has a lab focusing on how to extract coal and CBM at the same time, which conducted preliminary research on using CO2 to displace CBM. The Coal and Chemistry Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanxi has conducted research on producing methanol with CO2, using CO2 to synthesize methyl-carbonate and hydrogen. Shanxi Coal Geology Resources Environment Research Institute conducted a study on the use of CO2 capture and storage in deep coal seams. Shanxi should expand international cooperation on CCUS and work with experts from around the world to explore ways to lower the cost. The province is also willing to carry out CCUS R&D and CCUS demonstration projects in coal-fired power plants, the coal chemical industry, steel, and CBM extraction.

4.6 Coordinated progress of energy conservation and emission reduction

Low-carbon development covers many themes and disciplines and requires coordinated efforts of multiple departments. Its main approaches include industrial restructuring, energy mix optimization, energy saving, improvement of energy efficiency, and expanded carbon sinks.

To better coordinate the work related to low-carbon development and draw on the advantages of each department, Shanxi needs to review and improve its policies and regulations concerning agriculture, forestry, water resources, energy, cyclic economy, clean production, energy conservation, water conservation, environmental protection, and garbage disposal so as to make sure that all of its policies are consistent with a low-carbon growth strategy. Shanxi needs to pursue synergies between low-carbon development and other existing goals such as eco-civilization, cyclic economy, energy conservation, industrial restructuring, investment in non-fossil fuels, forestation, and environmental protection. Only with a comprehensive approach will Shanxi be able to transform its economy and its energy mix to meet China’s goal of a low-carbon future.



As one of the world’s leading energy producers and consumers, China is a major carbon emitter. Shanxi is a microcosm of China as a whole. Thanks to China’s major demonstration project to transfer resource-based economies, Shanxi can enjoy a systematic transformation on all levels.

Low-carbon development represents the impetus for—and future direction of—Shanxi’s transformation. Low-carbon development cannot be successful unless it is grounded in a historical and dialectical understanding of its characteristics in different development stages as well as a scientific outlook for its future in China. A historically informed and research-based lens on low-carbon development is the key to China’s success in achieving its low-carbon revolution as part of its national energy strategy.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wu, Dongsheng. “Low-Carbon Revolution in China.” Paper, Environment and Natural Resources Program, Belfer Center, March 2017.

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