Decarbonising China by 2050

The race to decarbonise China is a significant challenge, one that desperately requires a long-term emissions reduction target and a carbon price.

China Dialogue

The recent ‘breakthrough’ at UN-led climate negotiations at Durban involved all countries, developed and developing, for the first time agreeing to eventually sign up to some form of emissions target.

Regardless of whether this is genuine progress – or just a positive spin on yet another round of kicking the can down the road – it will undoubtedly start to focus minds in the biggest emitting countries, including the United States, China and India, on what those countries’ contribution to a global emissions reduction pathway should be. 

In China, such a focus is already present: there are numerous voices calling for an end to energy- and resource-hungry growth. The last two Five-Year Plans increased the prominence of sustainability and climate-change objectives. The Chinese government does not lack analysis when it comes to considering its emissions trajectory beyond the 2020 target that it pledged at Copenhagen in 2009.

A number of studies have been undertaken to assess the decarbonisation options in each of the major energy-supplying and energy-using sectors in China to 2050, and China’s Energy Research Institute is in the process of finalising the first incarnation of its own ‘2050 pathways calculator’, along the lines of a similar tool that was developed by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. But no quantified long-term target has yet been offered or discussed publicly in any detail. 

The Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, in partnership with Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), has recently completed its own assessment of how China gets from here (a coal-intensive, oil-importing emerging economy) to there (a largely decarbonised, energy-efficient economic giant powered by vast quantities of non-fossil energy).

The study (see the full report here) uses IIASA’s energy-technology modelling of the options to decarbonise the energy supply sectors (power generation, fossil fuel and biomass extraction and conversion) with the Grantham Institute’s analysis of the options to decarbonise the major energy-using sectors: transport, buildings and industry.

The resulting analysis highlights some of the pathways along which China’s economy could decouple economic growth from carbon-dioxide emissions, to the extent that by 2050 these emissions could be of the order of one-third the eight to nine gigatonnes estimated as current levels, and much lower than the 16 gigatonnes the International Energy Agency (in its Energy Technology Perspectives 2010) projects could result from a pathway closer to business-as-usual. (The report follows an earlier study by the Grantham Institute on the implications of China’s 2020 carbon intensity targets, available here).    

In modelling exercises for many different countries and regions, a common solution to the problem of decarbonisation is to increasingly electrify heating, road vehicles, rail and industrial processes, while at the same time shifting from fossil-fuel based power-generation sources to a mix of renewables, nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Such is the case in this assessment, where – technologically, at least – it is feasible to reduce the carbon intensity of electricity generation in China by a factor of 15 by 2050, such that it stands below 50 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour on average.

This is around the level the UK aims to hit by 2030, and which is deemed possible with a diverse mix of low-carbon sources. It brings with it all kinds of challenges, not only for China, but also for other countries.

Continued investment in research-and-development to bring down the costs of solar photovoltaics (PV) and to commercialise CCS will be a critical factor in achieving large penetrations of these technologies. Continued support for wind power will also be essential to ensure its deployment. Nuclear energy could also be a key technology, requiring careful consideration of access to uranium supplies, through either more efficient fast-breeder reactors or alternative (thorium) fuel reactors. And the changing climate and its effect on rainfall and water availability will be considerations for a number of power technologies, especially hydro power. 

One of the greatest challenges in providing decarbonised electricity will be in balancing the system to ensure that supply meets demand, as responsive generation plants such as those fired by coal (whose output can be varied relatively quickly in response to demand variation) is replaced by variable output renewables, such as wind and solar, or nuclear, which is currently best suited to base-load generation. Moreover China’s wind, solar, and hydro resources are highly dispersed geographically, and the development of a strong long-distance grid will be essential to exploit them fully. 

China’s industrial emissions also continue to grow rapidly as it produces a large share of the world’s iron and steel, cement, chemicals and other manufactures. Clearly, a major driver of future emissions from these sectors will be the extent to which China continues to dominate production of these goods. But even if significant growth in these sectors continues in line with economic development over the coming decades, it is still in theory possible to achieve large savings in energy-intensity and the carbon-intensity of production processes.

Electrification (combined with electricity decarbonisation) in the iron and steel and chemicals sectors; the replacement of older, less efficient cement kilns with state-of-the-art efficient kilns using today’s best available technologies; and the aggressive deployment of commercial-scale CCS in the cement, iron and steel sectors, could in combination lead to emissions reductions in the industry sector of the order of 80 per cent of business-as-usual emissions levels, without sacrificing production levels. 

In transport, even though there is much talk about decreasing China’s future oil import dependence by developing electric vehicles, equally if not more important across all transport modes will be improvements in energy efficiency, with increased biofuel usage also potentially providing significant carbon dioxide savings, provided that the biofuels are sourced from genuinely sustainable production methods and that the lifecycle emissions are kept to a minimum.

This is far from trivial and will require very careful planning around growth, harvesting and transport of the biomass. In addition, China’s continuing urbanisation will present opportunities as well as challenges to keep to a low-carbon development path, through urban planning that maximises public transport options and minimises the requirement for individual car usage.    

In buildings, the biggest opportunities for emissions reductions involve achieving much higher energy-efficiency standards across urban and commercial building stock, ensuring that low-carbon heating methods such as electric heat pumps and combined-heat-and-power (or cogeneration) replace today’s widespread heating from coal and unsustainable biomass, and achieving high average standards across all new lighting and appliance installations.

With such a rapidly urbanising country and the associated building boom that has come with this, whether China’s policymakers can ensure that building and appliance standards improve at the technically feasible rate is by far the greatest challenge for this sector. 

China’s abatement pathway presents a range of energy and resource considerations, in addition to the biomass and uranium issues already noted. Gas could represent an increasing element in China’s energy mix in an abatement scenario (replacing coal in both the power generation and industry sectors) but there remain considerable challenges to securing gas supplies from abroad or accessing potentially significant unconventional gas resources, including their climate and local environmental impact.

The question of whether, and to what extent, to develop the large coal reserves in China’s far-west is a major strategic decision for the Chinese government. This would require large scale investment in railways or electric transmission. 

As a result of its large market and production capacity, China’s low-carbon pathway is likely to have a major impact on the global development and cost reduction of key low-carbon technologies, such as solar PV, electric vehicles, wind, nuclear and CCS. But China could also benefit from existing international know-how: in advanced nuclear manufacturing; elements of solar PV and battery technology; urban planning for transport and buildings; and monitoring and regulation of energy-efficiency standards for buildings and appliances.

In addition, the increasingly apparent need for a long-term, stable carbon price to support several low-carbon technologies in China points to the benefits of policies such as domestic carbon-trading schemes, in which China is now looking at a range of pilot schemes. 

Ajay Gambhir is a research fellow at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London.