China will have to clean up its entire power sector by 2050 if the world is to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of holding global warming to 1.5°C, meaning its carbon emissions must peak much earlier than currently planned.
The country, which is the planet’s biggest emitter, made a surprise pledge last year to reach “carbon neutrality” by 2060, leading to a fresh wave of research on how it can end its huge reliance on coal and green its fast-growing economy.
An analysis published today adds to the growing consensus that China’s electricity sector must be fully decarbonised by 2050. At the start of last year, coal provided around two-thirds of electricity supplies in the country, with renewables, including hydro, at around a quarter.
That picture needs to change radically, says Hongbo Duan at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He and his colleagues suggest that wind and solar power must dominate the country’s energy supply by mid-century, backed up by nuclear power and coal plants using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
The team looked at nine models of how the Chinese economy needs to transform by 2050, finding that its CO2 emissions must fall 90 per cent to help the world stay below 1.5°C of warming, as the Paris Agreement demands.
“Keeping to 1.5°C is largely consistent with the 2060 carbon neutrality goal,” says Hongbo. “The first important contribution [to CO2 cuts] is energy demand reduction, by 73 per cent. The second part is energy substitution of renewables for fossil fuels.” Negative emissions technologies, including CCS and machines to suck CO2 from the air, are seen as delivering a fifth of the required CO2 reductions.
However, the modelled pathways for China’s energy mix reveal the disconnect between ideal trajectories and reality. For example, the models consistently found CO2 emissions needed to start decreasing “steeply” last year. In reality, China was the only major economy where emissions grew in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Such failure to cut emissions early will be more costly, Chunping Xie at the London School of Economics has found. “I agree they should play a big role, but I think it is risky to depend on negative emission technologies at a later stage rather than to peak earlier,” he says.
Yet China’s official short-term goal remains for emissions to peak around 2030, which is unchanged since it was set six years ago in the run-up to the Paris climate summit.
“The short-term reality is China is still growing. It’s going to double the size of the economy, it’s still urbanising, energy demand is still increasing. There is still an imperative for growth,” says Michal Meidan at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies in the UK.
China’s new five year-plan, approved last month, was also a “big disappointment” in terms of its carbon-intensity targets – a measure of emissions per unit of electricity generated – and continued coal power expansion, says Isabel Hilton of UK and China-based non-profit organisation China Dialogue.
Others are still optimistic. Haikun Wang at Nanjing University in China thinks the shift to a more service-based economy means emissions could still peak within the next five years, ahead of the official “around 2030” target.
Sue Biniaz at the US Department of State says action by China in the 2020s is key to keeping the 1.5°C goal alive, and a joint US-China climate agreement on 17 April was a positive step. “[It has] lots of references to taking action now in the 2020s, which is the thing we’ve been most concerned about with China,” she says.
Bill Hare at non-profit organisation Climate Action Tracker says there is still time to turn around China’s coal expansion and rising emissions. “One of the top-level messages here is the need to go hard and early on mitigation to start CO2 emissions declining quickly,” he says. “That will reduce the need for large-scale deployment of CCS negative emissions technologies.”
Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aba8767
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