Nearly a month ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared, in a video message to the United Nations General Assembly, that China would become carbon neutral by 2060. Alongside this ambitious goal, Xi put forward another: he also stated that China would reach its peak emissions before 2030.
This declaration coming from China is particularly significant as it is the source of approximately 28% of global carbon dioxide emissions, making China, by far, the world’s largest emitter of CO2.
Xi’s declaration also comes at an important time. Due to the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic, such as the postponement of the annual United Nations climate change conference, the Conference of Parties (COP), ambitious climate pledges were not expected, to say the least.
However, the actual impact of this declaration will be determined by whether or not and how quickly China acts to ensure the viability of the goals put forth by Xi.
How China can reach this goal of carbon neutrality can be examined by firstly looking at its current energy profile. According to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) coal accounted for over 60% of China’s total energy supply (TES) in 2018, while oil constituted nearly 20% and natural gas approximately 7%.
Given such dominance of carbon-emitting energy sources in China’s TES, it will need to rapidly phase out such fuels and switch to zero-emission sources and also capture and permanently store, through carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, or offset CO2 emissions from any remaining fossil fuel use.
According to one model developed by Tsinghua University’s Zhang Xiliang, electricity production would have to increase by more than two-fold and originate from mostly carbon-neutral sources by 2060 for China to be able to achieve its goal. More specifically, this increase in electricity would need to come from an immense growth in electricity generation from renewable sources, with solar energy needing to increase by 1600% and wind power 900%. Furthermore, in order to phase out coal-fired power generation, there would need to be an increase of 600% in nuclear power and 200% in hydroelectricity, according to Zhang’s model.
Even if all of the aforementioned were to be made possible, carbon-emitting sources, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, would still constitute 16% of energy consumption. Consequently, the CO2 emissions from these sources would either need to be offset, through measures such as new forest growth, or these fuels would need to be used in conjunction with CCS technologies.
Other estimates as to how China might reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2060 are similar in that they also stress the importance of increasing renewable energy and decreasing fossil fuels. One such estimate by Bernstein puts the figure that China’s fossil fuel consumption must decrease to as below 25%. This estimate differs from Zhang’s model in that it predicts oil and coal will see the majority of the reduction, and the relatively cleaner alternative, natural gas, will show some modest growth from its current levels, which can be characterized as comparatively low.
Another point on which most plans agree, besides China having to obtain a majority of its electricity from zero-emissions sources, is that it needs to expand the usage of this zero-emissions power to all possible areas. The importance of transitioning to electric vehicles here is particularly pronounced. However, this is a transition that is already ongoing; BNEF analysts predict that, by 2030, China will have more electric vehicles on its roads than internal combustion engines.
Another model for realizing a carbon-neutral China sees a much bigger role for nuclear energy. In this scenario by Jiang Kejun, of the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in Beijing, China’s emissions would peak in 2022, and, by 2050, would plummet to net zero. While similar to Zhang’s model in its timeline, it differs in that nuclear would be the leading force in China’s electricity generation, accounting for 28%, followed by wind and solar, at 21% and 17%, respectively. As such, China’s nuclear energy capacity would need to increase to five times its current levels. Though many are sceptical about the cost and time associated with building such nuclear powerplants, alongside general negative public opinion concerning them, Jiang argues that new nuclear powerplant designs are safe and produce minimal levels of radioactive waste.
When it comes to industrial sectors that are much too energy-intensive to function on electricity, the role of hydrogen that is produced via renewable energy enters the picture. So-called “green hydrogen” will need to see its application increase and its cost decrease in order to decarbonize sectors such as steel production—a sector in which China is heavily involved.
Overall, it can be rightly assumed that the changes China needs to implement in order to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 will be quite expensive, to put it mildly. China will also need to factor in how it will handle the impact of these changes, especially in terms of the approximately 3.5 million workers involved in the coal mining and power sector. It will also need to consider the effects on those who depend on coal, a widely available and cheap fuel for heating and electricity.
However, there will also be certain benefits for China. Some of these include the boost that domestic renewable energy production will receive, given that China hosts some of the biggest solar and wind power companies in the world. Another is the reduction in oil imports that will take place as electric vehicles become more widespread. Furthermore, China is already a leader in electric vehicles, so it will not have to go through the same catch-up process it did with regards to traditional car manufacturing.
Reducing its carbon emissions will also benefit China in terms of reducing the social costs of its economic growth. It is predicted that China will be one of the countries most impacted countries by rising sea levels if climate change is left unaddressed. A such, China’s declaration to become carbon-neutral by 2060 will be beneficial both in the more concrete sense of decreasing global CO2 emissions (if the goal is reached), as well as more indirectly by setting an example and placing some necessary pressure on the rest of the world to follow suit.