In the past decade, China's unprecedented urbanization has paralleled a 250% growth in primary energy demand and urban areas have emerged as the crux of energy and CO2 emissions reduction in China. In recognition of cities’ importance in mitigating future energy and CO2 emissions growth, the Chinese government launched a demonstration program of 5 low-carbon pilot provinces and 8 pilot cities in 2010 to promote low-carbon urban development. As one of the first national programs to promote low-carbon urban development, the recent plans and policies adopted by these 8 pilot low-carbon cities can shed light on if and how low-carbon cities can shape China's future energy and emission trajectories. This paper reviews the historical development and context for low-carbon urban development in China and then presents an ex-ante comparative assessment of the low-carbon development plans and supporting measures formulated for each of China's 8 pilot low-carbon cities. We find that while the 8 pilot cities have made progress in establishing low-carbon plans, key barriers such as a lack of explicit definition for low-carbon city, complexity and confusion resulting from several parallel programs, and insufficient supporting policies and market-based instruments may hinder urban development that is truly low carbon.