In September, China made the surprise announcement that it would aim to become carbon neutral by 2060, and that its emissions would peak by 2030. The news came as a surprise to many who weren’t expecting such a bold target. Theories abound as to how the country, currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, will achieve such a target, but researchers have suggested that China will first need to generate most of its electricity from zero-emission sources and then expand this clean energy wherever possible. It will also need to explore carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. 

Renewable Energy

To achieve its target, electricity production would need to more than double, to 15 034 terawatt hours by 2060, largely from clean sources. This is according to Zhang Xiliang, a climate modeller at Tsinghua University in Beijing, whose model is the primary one to support government policymaking.  

This growth would need to be driven by a massive increase in renewable electricity generation to replace fossil fuels, including a 16-fold increase in solar power and a 9-fold increase in wind power. Nuclear power would need to increase sixfold and hydroelectricity would need to double. 

Because fossil fuels would still account for 16% of energy consumed, CCS technologies would need to be used as well, or emissions could be offset by planting forests. 

However, this shift away from fossil fuels in such a short amount of time would be extremely expensive; coal-fired power currently accounts for almost 65% of China’s electricity generation, with more than 200 new coal-fired power plants planned or under construction. Those industries that rely on fossil fuels will be extremely unhappy with this proposal.

Another significant cost would be the energy storage required to integrate wind and solar, however battery storage has become cheaper over the past decade, a trend which will hopefully continue. If current trends of renewable costs continue, China could generate more than 60% of its electricity from non-fossil fuels by 2030. Additionally, ensuring stable operation of the electricity grid with renewable energy will be another challenge.

Nuclear Energy

The Energy Research Institute, National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in Beijing has also created a model which would see emissions in China peak in 2022, followed by a steep drop to net zero emissions by 2050. 

To achieve this target, electricity production would double up to 14 800 terawatt hours by 2050. This would be generated mostly by nuclear power (28%), followed by wind (21%), solar (17%), hydropower (14%) and biomass (8%). The other 12% would be made up by coal and gas. 

Following this plan, China’s nuclear capacity would need to increase fivefold to 554 gigawatts by 2050. While nuclear energy is able to provide a more consistent base load than solar and power, and latest nuclear plant designs produce minimal radioactive waste, cost and time requirements have increased significantly over the years and perhaps more importantly, previous notable nuclear plant meltdowns have made building nuclear plants unacceptable to much of the public. 

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Carbon Capture and Storage Technologies

Other models include the use of CCS technologies to reach the carbon neutrality target. However, this would require significant investment, because China currently has only one large CCS facility in operation, while seven more are being planned or built. 

While CCS would allow for the use of coal in the long-term, it is very expensive to deploy. 

Coal

Many existing coal plants will reach the end of their life before the neutrality deadline, according to Kaare Sandholt, an energy systems modeller at the NDRC’s China National Renewable Energy Centre, who is based in Copenhagen. For this reason, China should stop building new coal-fired power plants, or risk having stranded assets. 

However, China must also be mindful of the 3.5 million workers in the coal mining and power industry, as well as the people who rely on cheap electricity and heating. Will the government provide training for the workers and re-deploy them in renewable power plants? As of yet, this is unclear, but it is certainly a salient concern.

While much of China’s path to carbon neutrality remains unclear, officials are in the process of drafting the country’s latest five-year plan for social and economic development, which will be released in March and is likely to include policies to achieve neutrality. Further, like all nations that have signed the 2015 Paris Agreement, China is obliged to submit increased emissions-reduction targets before the end of the year. 

Meanwhile, according to energy consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie, China ’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2060 will require investments of more than USD$5 trillion.

Nevertheless, this news could encourage other countries to act faster to decarbonise than they otherwise would have. 

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