What China's Carbon Neutrality Means for its Building Stock

Scenarios for China’s building-related CO2 reductions. Adapted from: China Association of Building Energy Efficiency (2020)
Scenarios for China’s building-related CO2 reductions. Adapted from: China Association of Building Energy Efficiency (2020)

By Wei Yang and Jie Li (Tianjin University, CN)

China's pledge to become carbon neutral will have profound effects on its existing and new buildings. Scalable scenarios from national to district levels have been created to begin a process of assessing and apportioning carbon budgets.  A range of new economic, social and technical measures will be needed to achieve this radical transformation.

In June 2015, China provided its Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement: its overall carbon emissions would peak around 2030 (Department of Climate Change, National Development and Reform Committee of China, 2015). At the end of 2020, President Xi Jinping (2020) stated China’s new national goal of carbon neutrality: to become carbon neutral before 2060 with a peak in carbon emissions before 2030 and more than 65% reduction per GDP carbon intensity (based on the 2005 level). Roadmaps for fulfilling those overarching goals have been planned at national, regional, and urban levels, and even for each urban district.

Buildings and the built environment contribute about half of the China’s total carbon emissions. Building operation accounts for about 22% of the national energy-related emissions, whereas the embodied emissions in the construction materials, construction operations along with associated transport contributes a further 28% of the national total.

The main strategies for reaching carbon neutrality in the building stock include increasing the energy efficiency of the new and existing buildings, extensive application of building integrated renewable energy, decarbonization of the energy sources (mainly the grid electricity), electrification of the building energy system, and the carbon sink of natural vegetation and water bodies (Figure 1). Moreover, carbon capture & storage will facilitate the last step to reach the carbon neutrality goal (China Association of Building Energy Efficiency, 2020).

Scenario studies had shown that strict measures should be taken immediately in order to keep the temperature rise within 1.5 oC and to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. The construction rate of new buildings (about 4 billion m2 per year) has remained steady in the recent years (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2020). It is expected that the building stock will grow at the same rate in the next decade in the business-as-usual scenario. In order to reach the carbon neutrality targets, all new and existing buildings will need to be zero carbon in the operational stage, which means a vast amount of investment. The roadmap studies for peak carbon and carbon neutrality at smaller scale had shown dilemmas for future new construction and the carbon reduction goals. Although the national targets do not simply scale down evenly to each individual district, there is still a need to restrict the amount of new construction and at the same time improving the sustainability of the existing building stock - approximately 66 billion m2 (China Association of Building Energy Efficiency, 2020). This suggests there will be a great need for energy efficient retrofit in the coming decades (Chen et al., 2020). Therefore, higher education and professional education will gradually emphasise the sustainable management of the existing building stocks and energy efficient / zero-carbon retrofit. Specific programs on those topics are expected to be established in the near future.

Scenario and policy studies had shown that stricter building energy saving targets and standards are needed and a life cycle approach should be applied. China has already issued the Building Carbon Emission Calculation Standard (MOHURD, 2019a) and the Technical Standard for Nearly Zero Energy Building (MOHURD, 2019b). Subsidies are available for ultra-low energy buildings and building integrated renewable energy utilization. The costs of solar PVs had decreased by 80% in the last 10 years. R&D for sustainable building materials also contributes to the reduction of embodied carbon. Carbon trading will be introduced into the building and real estate sector, and this will improve the economic feasibility of zero-carbon buildings and the energy efficient retrofit of existing buildings. Nonetheless, it is more important to consider the carbon emissions of the whole building stock in a long-term and life cycle perspective, and to plan the roadmaps at different scales and different sectors with a holistic understanding of the built environment.


Chen, B., Faeste, L., Jacobsen, R., Kong, M.T., Lu, D. & Palme, T. (2020). How China Can Achieve Carbon Neutrality by 2060. https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/how-china-can-achieve-carbon-neutrality-by-2060

China Association of Building Energy Efficiency. (2020). China Building Energy Research Report [in Chinese]  https://www.cabee.org/site/content/24021.html

Department of Climate Change, National Development and Reform Committee of China. (2015). Enhanced Actions on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. https://www4.unfccc.int/sites/submissions/INDC/Published%20Documents/China/1/China%27s%20INDC%20-%20on%2030%20June%202015.pdf

MOHURD (2019a). Building Carbon Emission Calculation Standard (GB/T51366-2019).http://download.mohurd.gov.cn/bzgg/gjbz/GBT%2051366-2019%20%E5%BB%BA%E7%AD%91%E7%A2%B3%E6%8E%92%E6%94%BE%E8%AE%A1%E7%AE%97%E6%A0%87%E5%87%86.pdf

MOHURD (2019b) Technical Standard for Nearly Zero Energy Building (GB/T51350-2019). http://download.mohurd.gov.cn/bzgg/gjbz/GBT%2051350-2019%20%E8%BF%91%E9%9B%B6%E8%83%BD%E8%80%97%E5%BB%BA%E7%AD%91%E6%8A%80%E6%9C%AF%E6%A0%87%E5%87%86.pdf

National Bureau of Statistics of China. (2020). China Statistical Yearbook 2020, Beijing: China Statistics Press. Table 14-23.

Xi, Jiang (2020). Speech at Climate Ambition Summit. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202012/13/WS5fd575a2a31024ad0ba9b7ac.html

Latest Peer-Reviewed Journal Content

Journal Content

Heat stress: adaptation measures in South African informal settlements
J M Hugo

The urban expansion of Berlin, 1862–1900: Hobrecht’s Plan
F Bentlin

Common sources of occupant dissatisfaction with workspace environments in 600 office buildings
T Parkinson, S Schiavon, J Kim & G Betti

Urban growth in peri- urban, rural and urban areas: Mexico City
G M Cruz-Bello, J M Galeana-Pizaña & S González-Arellano

Overcoming the incumbency and barriers to sustainable cooling
J Lizana, N D Miranda, L Gross, A Mazzone, F Cohen, G Palafox-Alcantar, P Fahr, A Jani, R Renaldi, M Mcculloch & R Khosla

Assessing climate action progress of the City of Toronto
K R Slater, J Ventura, J B Robinson, C Fernandez, S Dutfield & L King

Meeting urban GHG reduction goals with waste diversion: multi-residential buildings
V MacLaren, E Ikiz & E Alfred

Climate action in urban mobility: personal and political transformations
G Hochachka, K G Logan, J Raymond & W Mérida

Transformational climate action at the city scale: comparative South–North perspectives
D Simon, R Bellinson & W Smit

Stretching or conforming? Financing urban climate change adaptation in Copenhagen
S Whittaker & K Jespersen

Embodied carbon emissions in buildings: explanations, interpretations, recommendations
T Lützkendorf & M Balouktsi

Pathways to improving the school stock of England towards net zero
D Godoy-Shimizu, S M Hong, I Korolija, Y Schwartz, A Mavrogianni & D Mumovic

Urban encroachment in ecologically sensitive areas: drivers, impediments and consequences
M H Andreasen, J Agergaard, R Y Kofie, L Møller-Jensen & M Oteng-Ababio

Towards sufficiency and solidarity: COP27 implications for construction and property
D Ness

Local decarbonisation opportunities and barriers: UK public procurement legislation
K Sugar, T M Mose, C Nolden, M Davis, N Eyre, A Sanchez-Graells & D Van Der Horst

Integrating climate change and urban regeneration: success stories from Seoul
J Song & B Müller

Canadian cities: climate change action and plans
Y Herbert, A Dale & C Stashok

Energy, emerging technologies and gender in homes [editorial]
Y Strengers, K Gram-Hanssen, K Dahlgren & L Aagaard

See all

Join Our Community

Latest Commentaries

Dismantling Power and Bringing Reflexivity into the Eco-modern Home

Can renewable and smart energy technologies in the home avoid negative consequences for gender, power, and nature-society relations within the domestic sphere? Olufolahan Osunmuyiwa, Helene Ahlborg, Martin Hultman, Kavya Michael and Anna Åberg comment on ‘Masculine roles and practices in homes with photovoltaic systems’ (Mechlenborg & Gram-Hanssen, 2022) – published in a recent Buildings & Cities special issue ‘Energy, Emerging Tech and Gender in Homes’.

The Launch of SURGe at COP27: Breakthrough or Déjà Vu?

The overall outcomes of COP27 (held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt) have been reported by some as disappointing. However, leading city networks such as C40 and ICLEI claim that subnational governments and cities have made a significant breakthrough with the launch of the Sustainable Urban Resilience for the Next Generation initiative (SURGe). This commentary explores how much of a breakthrough this really is.