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China must act fast to avoid breaching the world’s 1.5°C climate goal

Chinese solar panels

A employee becoming photo voltaic panels in Wuhan, China

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China can have to clear up its whole energy sector by 2050 if the world is to obtain the Paris Agreement goal of holding world warming to 1.5°C, which means its carbon emissions must peak a lot sooner than at present deliberate.

The nation, which is the planet’s greatest emitter, made a shock pledge final yr to attain “carbon neutrality” by 2060, main to a contemporary wave of analysis on the way it can finish its enormous reliance on coal and inexperienced its fast-growing economic system.


An evaluation revealed in the present day provides to the rising consensus that China’s electrical energy sector must be totally decarbonised by 2050. At the begin of final yr, coal supplied round two-thirds of electrical energy provides in the nation, with renewables, together with hydro, at round 1 / 4.

That image wants to change radically, says Hongbo Duan at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He and his colleagues recommend that wind and solar energy must dominate the nation’s vitality provide by mid-century, backed up by nuclear energy and coal crops utilizing carbon seize and storage (CCS) know-how.

The staff checked out 9 fashions of how the Chinese economic system wants to remodel by 2050, discovering that its CO2 emissions must fall 90 per cent to assist the world keep beneath 1.5°C of warming, as the Paris Agreement calls for.

“Keeping to 1.5°C is largely consistent with the 2060 carbon neutrality goal,” says Hongbo. “The first important contribution [to CO2 cuts] is energy demand reduction, by 73 per cent. The second part is energy substitution of renewables for fossil fuels.” Negative emissions applied sciences, together with CCS and machines to suck CO2 from the air, are seen as delivering a fifth of the required CO2 reductions.

However, the modelled pathways for China’s vitality combine reveal the disconnect between very best trajectories and actuality. For instance, the fashions persistently discovered CO2 emissions wanted to begin reducing “steeply” final yr. In actuality, China was the solely main economic system the place emissions grew in 2020, regardless of the coronavirus pandemic.

Such failure to minimize emissions early can be extra expensive, Chunping Xie at the London School of Economics has discovered. “I agree they should play a big role, but I think it is risky to depend on negative emission technologies at a later stage rather than to peak earlier,” he says.

Yet China’s official short-term goal stays for emissions to peak round 2030, which is unchanged because it was set six years in the past in the run-up to the Paris climate summit.

“The short-term reality is China is still growing. It’s going to double the size of the economy, it’s still urbanising, energy demand is still increasing. There is still an imperative for growth,” says Michal Meidan at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies in the UK.

China’s new 5 year-plan, authorized final month, was additionally a “big disappointment” by way of its carbon-intensity targets – a measure of emissions per unit of electrical energy generated – and continued coal energy growth, says Isabel Hilton of UK and China-based non-profit organisation China Dialogue.

Others are nonetheless optimistic. Haikun Wang at Nanjing University in China thinks the shift to a extra service-based economic system means emissions may nonetheless peak inside the subsequent 5 years, forward of the official “around 2030” goal.

Sue Biniaz at the US Department of State says motion by China in the 2020s is vital to conserving the 1.5°C goal alive, and a joint US-China climate settlement on 17 April was a optimistic step. “[It has] lots of references to taking action now in the 2020s, which is the thing we’ve been most concerned about with China,” she says.

Bill Hare at non-profit organisation Climate Action Tracker says there’s nonetheless time to flip round China’s coal growth and rising emissions. “One of the top-level messages here is the need to go hard and early on mitigation to start CO2 emissions declining quickly,” he says. “That will reduce the need for large-scale deployment of CCS negative emissions technologies.”

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aba8767

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