China’s carbon emissions are vast and growing, dwarfing those of other countries.
Experts agree that the world cannot win the fight against climate change unless China drastically reduces its emissions.
China’s President Xi Jinping has stated that his country’s emissions will peak before 2030 and that carbon neutrality will be achieved by 2060.
However, he has not stated how China intends to achieve this extremely lofty goal.
While all countries face difficulties in reducing emissions, China faces the most difficult task.
China’s emissions per person are roughly half those of the United States, but its massive 1.4 billion population and explosive economic growth have propelled it far ahead of any other country in terms of overall emissions.
China overtook the United States as the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter in 2006, accounting for more than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
It is expected to face intense scrutiny over its commitments to reduce these at the COP26 global climate summit in November.
China agreed in 2015, along with all other signatories to the Paris Agreement, to make changes in order to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.
China increased its commitments in 2020, but Climate Action Tracker, an international group of scientists and policy experts, says the country’s current efforts to meet that goal are “highly insufficient.”
Shift from coal
Getting China’s emissions down is achievable, according to many experts, but will require a radical shift.
Coal has been the country’s main source of energy for decades.
Researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing say China will need to stop using coal entirely for generating electricity by 2050, to be replaced by nuclear and renewable energy production.
And, far from shutting down coal-fired power plants, China is currently constructing new ones at more than 60 sites across the country, with many sites housing multiple plants.
Because new power plants typically operate for 30 to 40 years, China will need to reduce the capacity of newer plants as well as close old ones if it is to reduce emissions, according to Philippe Ciais of the Institute of Environment and Climate Science in Paris.
Some may be able to be retrofitted to capture emissions, but the technology to do so on a large scale is still in development, and many plants will have to be written off after only a few years of operation.
China claims it has the right to do what Western countries have done in the past, namely emit carbon dioxide while developing its economy and alleviating poverty.
But China is switching to green energy
According to Tsinghua University researchers, nuclear and renewable energy should account for 90% of total power generation by 2050.
Moving toward that goal, China’s leadership in green technology manufacturing, such as solar panels and large-scale batteries, could be a big help.
China first adopted green technologies to combat air pollution, a major issue in many cities.
However, the government believes they have enormous economic potential, providing jobs and income to millions of Chinese while also reducing China’s reliance on foreign oil and gas.
“China is already leading the global energy transition,” says Overseas Development Institute’s Yue Cao. “China is one of the reasons we are able to deploy cheaper and cheaper green technology.”
China produces more solar energy than any other country. Given China’s enormous population, this may not seem like much, but it is a sign of where the country is heading.
In 2020, China’s wind energy installations were more than triple those of any other country.
China says it wants to generate 25% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, and many observers believe it will meet that goal sooner than later.
China ranks seventh in the world in terms of electric vehicle sales, but given its massive size, China manufactures and purchases far more electric vehicles than any other country. One out of every twenty cars purchased in China is an electric vehicle.
Calculating how much the switch to electric vehicles reduces emissions is difficult, especially when manufacturing and charging sources are considered.
However, studies show that emissions from electric vehicles are typically lower than those from gasoline and diesel equivalents over their lifetimes.
This matters because transport is responsible for around a quarter of carbon emissions from fuel combustion, with road vehicles being the largest emitters.
China will also by 2025 be producing batteries with double the capacity of those produced by the rest of the world combined.
Observers say that will enable the storage and release of energy from renewable sources on a previously impossible scale.
China’s land is getting greener
Getting to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions does not imply that China will stop emitting them.
It means that China will reduce emissions as much as possible while absorbing the remainder through a variety of strategies.
Plants absorb carbon dioxide, so increasing the area of land covered in vegetation will help.
Here again, there is encouraging news. China is getting greener at a faster rate than any other country, largely as a result of its forestry programmes designed to reduce soil erosion and pollution.
It is also partly a result of replanting fields to produce more than one harvest per year, which keeps land covered in vegetation for longer.
The world needs China to succeed.
“We’re not going to beat climate change unless China decarbonises,” says Prof David Tyfield of the Lancaster Environment Centre.
China has significant advantages, most notably its ability to stick to long-term strategies and mobilise large-scale investments.
The Chinese authorities face a monumental task. What happens next could not be more crucial.