A rapid Chinese energy transition is far more feasible than you think | RenewEconomy

A rapid Chinese energy transition is far more feasible than you think

China’s goal is to hit net zero emissions by the year 2060, which means an incredible, deep shift in just a few decades.

Credit: Yang Shiyao/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

The future gets described in confusing ways. Things that are likely, improbable and impossible are constantly muddled. As RenewEconomy has documented for a good part of the past decade, the recent history of clean energy has sat in the middle of this muddled language. Many have peeked into the future, and declared the rapid growth of renewables improbable, or impossible. To simplify it, here’s what the past few decades have looked like: 

A recent announcement by the world’s largest single emitter of greenhouse gases, China, has us falling into the same old traps, so we need to be painfully clear about the future.

China’s announcement is simultaneously significant, insufficient and undetailed. The goal is to hit net zero emissions by the year 2060, which for a country the size of China, means an incredible, deep shift in a few decades. But there is currently little-to-no short term detail on how to make emissions peak in 2030, and even that goal will only keep global emissions under 1.5 if it’s paired with equivalent action from other countries. So, is it even possible? 

Can China do it?

The back-of-the-envelope calculations have already begun. One of the more reputable was published in Bloomberg, looking at the fall in fossil fuels and rise in zero carbon sources required to meet this goal, conducted by the Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy, a group that works often with the Chinese government.

“The share of non-fossil fuels in total energy demand will grow from about 15% last year to 20% by 2025, 24% in 2030, 62% in 2050, and 84% in 2060”, writes Bloomberg. The report places heavy reliance on large growth in wind, nuclear and solar in China: 

There are some scary-sounding percentages in there. 587% more solar by 2060? It sounds like a lot, right? As some have already pointed out on #EnergyTwitter, the growth rates in that study are not as far removed from what we’ve seen historically in China, over the past few decades, for zero carbon sources.

The study seems to be referring to customised approximations of primary energy, just as shown in BP’s recent ‘Statistical Review of World Energy‘ (BP_SWR). With that in mind, let’s compare those number to China’s historical energy consumption for wind, solar and nuclear. These pathways just seem like a logical extension of what’s happened over the past decade: 

According to this modelling, China will need roughly 1.4 exajoules of additional wind and solar per year. 1.1 exajoules were added between 2017 and 2018. Because these additions are accelerating, as opposed to growing linearly, China will probably hit the ‘new zero carbon energy per year’ quantity it needs to be on track by around the mid 2030s, and accelerate even further after that, on the assumption that fossil fuel phaseouts begin (a gargantuan ‘if’).

We know for sure that the country is capable of an energy transition over 40 years, because it just did exactly that. As we can see by looking at China’s ‘radical’ transformation into a high-carbon economy. That’s a big, steep curve of ‘carbonisation’ over forty years – the same timeline over which fossil fuels must decline, from now to 2060:

Another recently released BP report, the 2020 Energy Outlook, details a range of future scenarios, including net zero by 2050, for the world’s major emitters. For China, the results roughly match the Chinese study cited by Bloomberg, above (with just over 60 exajoules of wind and solar by 2050, in the net zero scenario). But in the ‘business as usual’ scenario, fossil fuels decrease but continue to dominate in 2050. It’s a bad outcome, and would definitely put 1.5 to 2 C out of reach for the world. 

It is worth keeping in mind that BP is a fossil fuel company, among the largest in the world, and as such presents these outlooks from their own vantage point of wanting to prolong the decline of fossil fuels. But the thrust of their point is solid: China can stagnate, or change. Both are possible, but only one is compatible with global human safety. Their report – like the reports of many others, show that the best climate outcomes depend on two things – the demise of fossil fuels, and the massive growth of wind and solar, far more than hydro and nuclear:

What is China going to actually do?

We’re at a sensitive junction point. There is no guarantee of China’s success at shutting down fossil fuels or building out new zero carbon sources. Recent performance has not been good, with far greater quantities of money being directed at fossil fuel stimulus than clean options, but there are early signs of these policies beginning to feed through into industry and local government. “China’s energy policy is like a two-headed beast, with each head trying to run in the opposite direction”, says Greenpeace’s Li Shuo.

Though new coal plants are indeed surging in China, these tend to run increasingly infrequently, leaving plants idle (and importantly, not releasing air pollution and carbon emissions). The Global Energy Monitor analysis firm writes that “So far in 2020, the Chinese power industry has proposed 40.8 GW of new coal plants – an amount comparable to the entire coal fleet of South Africa (41.4 GW)”, but adds that “the average thermal power plant was generating electricity at 49% of capacity, down from 50% in 2015 and 60% in 2011”.

It’s a mess, with plenty of money being wastefully poured into white elephant coal plants. It could easily be reversed, with the already-impressive renewables boom accelerated as post-COVID19 stimulus goes towards a useful, renewables-focused goal instead. In worrying news, there is some suggestion this could take the form of a ‘carbon intensity’ target, rather than an absolute target. This means less pressure to reduce fossil fuel output, and far more loopholes – but again, these are early days.

It won’t take that long before we know whether this announcements was geopolitical posturing, a clear intention for change, or perhaps both. What we can say for sure is that a transition of this scale is far closer and far more feasible than the skeptics would have you think.

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