China’s surprise pledge last week to cut its net carbon emissions to zero within 40 years has reignited hopes of limiting global climate change to tolerable levels. The country is the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide (CO2), accounting for 28% of global emissions, and its move may inspire other countries to follow suit. But observers warn that China faces daunting challenges in reaching its goals. Kicking its coal habit will be particularly hard.
“We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told the United Nations General Assembly via a video link on 22 September. That’s “a very significant and encouraging announcement,” says Josep Canadell, an earth system scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. He says the new targets “won’t likely let us to stop at 1.5° Celsius [of global warming],” the preferred target set in the 2015 Paris agreement. “But below 2° might still be consistent with [Xi’s] announcement.” China’s commitment also “ratchets up pressure on other major emitters” to set more ambitious targets “while further isolating the Trump administration in its climate myopia,” Vance Wagner of Energy Foundation China wrote in a piece published online by the nonprofit China Dialogue.
China had previously said its CO2 emissions would peak “around” 2030, a target most analysts considered within reach. But achieving carbon neutrality before 2060 will require drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels in transportation and electricity generation and offsetting any remaining emissions through carbon capture and storage or planting forests.
China has not yet revealed details of how it will do this. But a research group at Tsinghua University presented a $15 trillion, 30-year road map on 27 September that calls for ending the use of coal for electricity generation around 2050, dramatically increasing nuclear and renewable power generation, and relying on electricity for 80% of China’s energy consumption by 2060.
Coal is both the biggest challenge and an opportunity. Last year, the carbon-heavy fuel accounted for about 58% of China’s total energy consumption and 66% of its electricity generation. In coal-producing regions, coal is also used to heat buildings. Recent advances in renewable energy have made replacing coal easier than cutting oil use in transportation and emissions from farm fields and livestock. “The power sector is the part of the energy system where zero emission technologies are the most mature and economically competitive,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, an air pollution analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki. Zero-carbon electricity could make charging electric vehicles cleaner and supplant coal for heating.
But it will require a U-turn. A recent study by Myllyvirta and colleagues found that China’s coal-fired generating capacity grew by about 40 gigawatts (GW) in 2019, to about 1050 GW. Another 100 GW is under construction and coal interests are lobbying for even more plants. “This is all despite significant overcapacity in the sector,” with plants running at less than 50% of capacity and many coal-power companies losing money, the study said. Canadell says the building boom is the result of misplaced incentives to build coal plants and create construction jobs. He predicts many of the new plants will barely be used or become stranded assets that have to be written off.
A related challenge will be reforming the electricity market. Renewable energy is increasingly cost competitive with coal, says Li Shuo, a climate policy adviser to Greenpeace China. But regulators allocate operational time among electricity plants to match generation to demand, with little consideration of economic or environmental implications, Li says. The system overwhelmingly favors coal-fired generation, partly because it doesn’t suffer from the variability of wind and solar power. The uncertain market access has already slowed investment in renewables, Li says. Given the power of coal and construction interests, the needed reforms will take considerable political will.
Expanding nuclear power presents challenges as well. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan sent ripples of concern through China, which mandated additional safety measures that made new plants more expensive. Public opposition is also growing. China has 48 nuclear power reactors in operation and 12 under construction, according to the World Nuclear Association. The government had aimed for 58 GW of nuclear capacity by this year but did not get beyond 52 GW.
China’s Five-Year Plan for 2021–25, now being drafted, may contain concrete measures to help realize Xi’s ambitious target. “China’s interest in climate change has waned in recent years, due to the slowing down of economic growth and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement,” says Zhang Junjie, an environmental economist at Duke Kunshan University. “The commitment on carbon neutrality reignited hopes for China’s climate action.”