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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced the outlines of a new Five-Year Plan at the National People's Congress in Beijing today.

AP Photo/Andy Wong

China announces major boost for R&D, but plan lacks ambitious climate targets

China is targeting annual increases of 7% or more on R&D spending in each of the next 5 years, according to highlights of a draft outline of the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan, presented by Premier Li Keqiang to the annual session of the National People’s Congress, currently underway in Beijing.

The 7% figure is one percentage point greater than the 6% target for gross domestic product growth this year, which means R&D spending as a percentage of GDP is set to rise, says Cao Cong, a science policy expert at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, China. Cao estimates spending could reach 2.8% of GDP by 2025, up from an estimated 2.3% to 2.4% for 2020. The United States spent 2.83% of GDP on R&D in 2018; the European Union spent 2.18%.

The draft outline calls for the central government to increase spending on basic research by more than 10% as early as this year, in what Cao says is a response to the complaints of academic scientists about chronic underfunding of fundamental studies. The Five-Year Plan, which covers 2021–25, will also sweeten tax incentives for manufacturers to invest in research.

The target of spending “more than 7%” leaves room for even faster growth, perhaps in the double digits. In 2019, total spending on R&D rose 12.5% over the previous year, to 2.21 trillion yuan ($322 billion), according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China. The priority for spending will be to boost innovation, Li told the congress. More details on just how the money will be spent will likely be covered in a new Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development, due to be released later.

But the plan disappointed environmentalists hoping it would provide more details on how the country will start reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060, goals set by President Xi Jinping in September 2020. The plan calls for lowering energy consumption per unit of GDP by 13.5% and carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 18% over the next 5 years. But those targets are the same as for the previous Five-Year Plan. And the goal for increasing nonfossil energy use to about 20% of overall energy consumption is just a modest improvement over the 15% of the previous plan.

“This indicates there is no strong intention to accelerate decarbonization,” says Li Shuo, a climate policy adviser with Greenpeace East Asia. Zhang Shuwei, an environmental economist at the Draworld Environment Research Center, a policy think tank in Beijing, says the targets are “not stringent enough” to meet Xi’s goals, which he calls “worrying.”

China’s Five-Year Plans, whose targets are often met, set broad-brush goals; details are fleshed out in more specific sectoral plans by ministries and agencies. China’s National Energy Administration will have to resolve what to do about the country’s reliance on coal and current plans to build new coal-fired power plants, for instance. The National Energy Administration is supposed to set caps on coal and energy consumption. “The target for coal capacity is going to be a very, very political discussion, because either way you set that target it will make certain interest groups not very happy,” Li Shuo says. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment is charged with developing a plan to tackle climate change. Green groups are pushing for the inclusion of a target to limit total emissions, but it is not clear yet if there will be one.

The 14th Five-Year Plan will get a pro forma review by the congress and be approved at the closing session on 11 March.