Top Chinese think tank sees emissions peaking a decade early

By Jean Chemnick | 04/06/2016 08:31 AM EDT

China could peak its carbon emissions a decade earlier than it promised as part of last year’s global climate deal, according to a new analysis by an influential Chinese think tank.

China could peak its carbon emissions a decade earlier than it promised as part of last year’s global climate deal, according to a new analysis by an influential Chinese think tank.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ (CASS) "World Energy China Outlook 2016" found that under one scenario, the world’s largest emitter would likely peak its CO2 emissions in or around 2020 if the country takes recommended steps to decarbonize.

Another scenario that CASS said reflects existing policies showed an emissions plateau a few years later. But that’s still well before a 2030 deadline China set for itself in a 2014 agreement with the United States, which was enshrined in last year’s Paris climate agreement.


That’s because the outlook, which had its U.S. debut yesterday at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, projects that the country’s power demand will stop growing in or around 2020 and hold steady for the following decade.

"Carbon emissions should peak accordingly, because carbon emissions come from fossil fuels," said Xiaojie Xu, a chief fellow at CASS, who presented the findings. The report itself is not available online.

Experts have long said the significance of the 2030 carbon peaking pledge largely depends on where emissions will be when they stop growing. The CASS outlook has emissions plateauing at 9.5 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent and decreasing to 8.3 billion by 2030.

That’s well shy of the 11 billion that many have projected.

Coal still ‘crucial’ but declining

China became the world’s highest greenhouse gas emitter in part due to runaway energy demand. But that, too, is slowing because of flagging economic growth, a higher baseline and improving efficiency measures.

The world’s largest developing economy will reach energy equilibrium within the next few years.

Xu noted that China’s power supply outstripped demand last year — a fact that the Chinese government has taken steps to remedy through mine closures and new rules for its power grid (ClimateWire, March 1). And efficiency will help China expand electricity access for its citizens while reducing the need for more supply, Xu said.

"It is possible for the two worlds to coexist," he said.

Meanwhile, coal will shrink somewhat as a share of the country’s total generation, ratcheting down from 65 percent of its portfolio in 2015 to 62 percent in 2020. It is expected to sink to 43 percent by 2030.

Xu affirmed that coal will remain "crucial and important" to the Chinese energy sector.

"Coal has contributed a great deal to the economic growth over the last 20 years," he noted, adding that it’s a resource China produces in abundance.

The challenge will be to reconcile a robust continuing role for coal-fired generation with better environmental policies that he called central to the "Chinese dream."

"Today’s coal is quite dirty," he said. "But we have full confidence that coal can be quite clean."

Embracing nuclear, gas, ‘clean’ coal

That could be done in part by decreasing coal use in areas other than electrical generation and by investment in "clean coal" technology that can allow coal to play an ongoing role in a carbon-constrained economy. These include carbon capture and storage technology, which will become more competitive as coal plants become more efficient, he said.

China also pledged in 2014 to increase its percentage of non-fossil-fuel energy to at least 20 percent by 2030. And Xu said that nuclear would be "indispensable" to China’s meeting that goal.

"It’s not impossible that China could be the highest nuclear-powered country" after 2020, he said, surpassing Germany.

In the short term, Xu said, China would shift to nuclear and liquefied natural gas to displace coal, but in the long term, solar and wind energy would edge out gas use, further decarbonizing China’s energy sector.

China has introduced policies recently to reform its power grid, increasing access for renewable energy that has sometimes been curtailed. Xu pointed to power distribution as a particular challenge for the coming years, but said, "I believe the momentum is there."

Even as coal loses some of its prominence in China, it will remain an important cornerstone of that economy, said Jane Nakano, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Coal is very important to China, whether we like it or not, because it’s a resource that they have available," she said. The United States and other developed nations are comfortable relying on the functioning of global markets, she added, but China prefers to rely on its own resources.