Four neglected challenges for China’s low carbon future

Last year ended with a momentous political step forward on climate change. The Paris Agreement, signed at the COP21 climate conference in December, requires countries to work together to meet and surpass their ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs) with an objective of limiting global average temperature change to 2⁰C, and an aspiration of keeping within 1.5⁰C.

China is central to achieving the low-carbon transition needed to address global climate change. Beyond the marked progress to date, the country has ambitious plans for further decoupling of growth from greenhouse gas emissions. Its own INDC (covered in this report by our colleague Sam Geall) points to a reduction of carbon intensity by 60-65% on 2005 levels by 2030, and a peak in emissions by the same year.


Technological innovation has been put forward as a major response to the climate change challenge. Strong investment in R&D and support for other components of China’s innovation system have led to the build-up of technological capabilities in areas such as renewable energy and electric vehicles. But the immense challenge requires new approaches to innovation governance that go beyond traditional innovation systems thinking and respond to China’s changing political context.

Working with colleagues at Tsinghua University and the Collaborative Centre on Innovation Governance, the ‘Low Carbon Innovation in China’ project held a workshop this week to explore these challenges. Sharing insights from the project’s work since 2013 and research from other Chinese colleagues, we are paying particular attention to four neglected issues:

  • The opportunity to learn from demand successes, where China’s small and medium-sized enterprises have fostered innovation that serves users’ needs.
  • The role of social innovation, where communities have driven innovation for sustainability in the fields of agriculture, energy and more.
  • The challenge that public perceptions, particularly around scientific uncertainty, pose for top-down visions of technological innovation.
  • The changing pattern of national and local innovation systems, where provincial and local actors present challenges and opportunities for low-carbon transitions.

These perspectives should point to both opportunities and challenges for low-carbon innovation in China, illuminating the politics of low-carbon transitions and bringing greater attention to the practices of societal actors, including users and producers.

Image credit: Dennis Zuev