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A zero-carbon and prosperous China by 2050? Possible new ETC report suggests

China can achieve the twin goals of net-zero carbon emissions and becoming a rich developed economy by 2050, according to a new report by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC). Strong policy support, accelerated innovation, and expanded investment can enable China to cut its final energy demand while trebling its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita.

China can achieve the twin goals of net-zero carbon emissions and becoming a rich developed economy, a new report by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) has shown. Strong policy support, accelerated innovation, and expanded investment can enable China to cut its final energy demand while trebling its GDP per capita.

Launched on November 22, 2019, the report “China 2050: A Fully Developed Rich Zero-Carbon Economy” was produced by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), an independent, non-partisan non-profit, whose mission is to transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future

ETC is a global coalition of leaders from across the energy landscape – including RMI, energy producers, energy-intensive industries, technology providers, finance players, environmental NGOs – committed to achieving the Paris climate objective of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and ideally as close as possible to 1.5°C.

Technically and economically feasible

The report shows that it is technically and economically feasible for China to simultaneously become a fully developed economy and reach net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.

According to the report to achieve this objective, the investment required can easily be afforded given China’s high savings and investment rate, and the impact on China’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in 2050 will be minimal.

Committing to achieving zero emissions by 2050 will spur investment and innovation, and it will also deliver large improvements in local air quality and enable China to establish technological leadership across multiple industries.

For the world to deliver the Paris Climate objectives, it is vital that China has a strategy to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century. Given China’s central role in the global economy, its vast renewable energy resources, and its technological leadership in key industries, China is uniquely positioned to lead the global energy transition and to decarbonize its economy completely by 2050. This report shows how it is technically and economically possible and describes the actions which policymakers and companies need to take to seize the opportunity, said Adair Turner, Chair of the ETC.

Reduce energy demand

The report demonstrates how China can reduce final energy demand, while living standards continue to rise. Reduced demand for steel and cement, more circular use of all materials — especially plastics — and the inherent energy efficiency advantages achieved by the electrifying of surface transport and building heating will enable China to enjoy a GDP per capita and standard of living of three times the current levels while reducing final energy demand from 88 exajoules (EJ) today to 64 EJ in 2050.

According to the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) report, China would be able to reduce final energy demand from 88 EJ in 2016 to 64 EJ in 2050, where industry would experience the most significant reduction (minus 30%) but would continue to account for 60% of final energy demand (graphic courtesy ETC/RMI).

Within this projection, the industry sector would experience the most significant reduction (minus 30 percent) but would continue to account for 60 percent of final energy demand in 2050.

The report reflects six months of work and covers all sectors of the Chinese economy. It draws upon previous analyses from the ETC and broader literature review. It also integrates feedback from several rounds of consultation with representatives of Chinese companies, academia, and institutions as well as global companies and institutions operating in China, said Chen Ji, Principal of RMI, lead for the Chinese Secretariat of ETC.

China’s total primary energy demand could fall by 45 percent from 132 EJ today to 73 EJ in 2050. This larger fall in primary energy demand than in final energy demand largely reflects the elimination of the energy losses involved in today’s thermal electricity production system.

This would also see a dramatic change in the sources of energy, with fossil fuel demand falling over 90 percent, while non-fossil energy would expand by 3.4 times.

A massive expansion of decarbonised power and hydrogen

At the supply side, to achieve net-zero emissions will require the total decarbonization of electricity generation and the massive expansion of electricity use of around 15 000 TWh in 2050, compared with only 7 000 TWh in 2018.

Approximately 75 percent of total electricity generation could be from wind and solar resources with a portfolio of grid flexibility and storage options that help balance supply and demand.

In aggregate, achieving a zero-carbon economy in China by 2050 will require an increase in electricity generation from 6 000 TWh in 2016 to something around 15 000 TWh in 2050 (graphic courtesy ETC/RMI).

It could also require a more than threefold increase in the production and use of hydrogen, from 25 million tonnes to over 80 million tonnes in 2050.

There will also be important but more limited roles for increased bioenergy production and for carbon capture and either storage or use.

China has the institutional, financial and technological advantages of ‘concentrating resources to accomplish large undertakings,’ which makes it well placed to stimulate long-term and large-scale investment once setting up strategic goals. This helps lay a solid foundation for China to pursue zero-carbon objectives by 2050 and gain the economic and environmental advantages which would result, said Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of RMI.

The report highlights key sectoral actions to achieve the zero-carbon target as follows:

  • Accelerate massive increase of renewable electricity generation with capacity improvement on storage, flexibility and demand response.
  • The use of electrification, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and bioenergy to achieve full decarbonization of heavy industries such as steel, cement, and chemicals (ammonia, methanol and high-value chemicals [HVCs]).
  • Total electrification of surface transport (road and rail services) while supporting a threefold increase in transport use to typical European levels.
  • The use of biofuels, synthetic fuels, hydrogen or ammonia to drive decarbonization of long-distance international aviation and shipping, combined with the use of battery-electric hydrogen and hybrid options over short distances.
  • A shift toward a more circular economy, with far more efficient use and greater recycling of key materials such as steel, cement, fertilizers, and plastics.
  • The wider deployment of advanced heat pump technologies plus state-of-the-art building insulation to deliver heating and cooling to houses and offices in a zero-carbon fashion, with long-distance industrial waste heat transportation and biomass also playing a role in specific circumstances.

The report also points out that clear targets and forceful public policies are required to achieve the zero-carbon target. Key policy levers to accelerate the transition should include:

  • Clear policies to support increased investment in a zero-carbon electricity system, including generation, transmission, distribution, and energy storage systems.
  • A national carbon price system to drive decarbonization across the whole economy and particularly in heavy industry.
    Strong regulations to drive the electrification of surface transport and building heating, and to ensure ever-improving standards of building insulation.
  • Regulations and incentives to support an increasingly circular economy of materials recycling and reuse, particularly in the plastics sector.
  • Government procurement to stimulate demand for low-carbon products.
  • Public support for the development and early deployment of the new technologies required to build a zero-carbon economy.

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