Carbon neutrality has been an important topic globally for several years now. In these last few years, many countries, including China, have started taking action to reduce carbon emissions while balancing the need for national development.
It was on 12 December 2015 that 196 countries joined the Paris Agreement at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) held in Paris, France. The treaty was set up to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius while pursuing means to limit the increase even further to 1.5 degrees.
Research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has shown that a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius will have serious impact on the Earth’s ecological environment — from accelerated melting of the polar ice caps and rising sea levels, to ocean acidification and more frequent extreme weather events. The greater concern is that some of these effects will be irreversible.
The main factor causing global warming? Man-made greenhouse gas emissions. According to IPCC’s latest data, human activity is estimated to have caused the increase of approximately 1.0 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.
In order to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions must meet a decline of 25% by 2030 and reach net zero around 2070 .
How is China progressing towards carbon neutrality?
China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for 26% of global emissions between 2010 and 2019. Meanwhile, carbon emissions are still rising due to increasing demand for domestic energy — up 3.1% in 2019 from the year before.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, from a historical perspective, China is still developing and its carbon emissions will peak at some point before it reaches net zero. This is a process that all countries go through during development. Before 2000, China’s annual carbon emissions were lower than those of the United States and European Union countries. Historically, China’s emissions (1899-2019) accounted for only 13.3% of the world’s total, half that of the United States and far below 31% of the European Union. Secondly, coal-rich China has relied heavily on this natural resource as a long-term energy source for electricity, heat generation and industry. The country lacks oil and gas, making it difficult to completely resolve its dependence on fossil fuels.
What is China currently doing to achieve carbon neutrality?
The Chinese government has always attached great importance to carbon reduction. In 2009 the government publicly pledged to reduce carbon intensity by 45% between 2005 and 2020, with China eventually achieving a 48.4% reduction over that period. Last year, China announced that it will strive to bring CO2 emissions to a peak before 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060. At the just concluded National People’s Congress, peak emissions targets and carbon neutrality were written into the government’s work report for the first time. At the same time, in the Chinese government’s 14th Five-Year Plan, energy and carbon intensity cuts are clearly listed as priority targets. It is worth noting that the plan does not include specific quantitative targets for GDP growth in the next five years. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has said that one of the aims of this approach is to ensure the country’s future development goes hand in hand with the protection of the ecological environment.
State government departments have made it clear that they will introduce carbon neutral action plans across various fields as soon as possible, with a focus on energy and industrial structure optimization.
On the energy front, there will be vigorous development of renewable energy, smart grids and energy storage technology, while supporting multi-field electrification transformation to balance the generation and absorption of new energy. On the industrial front, further optimization and adjustments will be made, backward production capacities will be eliminated, and industrial upgrading will be accelerated to reduce emissions while improving energy efficiency. On top of that, the country is accelerating the building of a unified national carbon trading market, using market-driven means to continue to reduce carbon emissions.
What are the promising technologies to accelerate carbon neutrality?
With China’s large-scale development of renewable energy, mainly solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power generation, an important supporting measure will be new energy storage technology. Both solar PV and wind power generation “rely on the weather for a living”. During periods of low energy demand, if electricity produced cannot be absorbed or stored, the problem of electricity abandonment will occur. On the other hand, during peak hours of electricity use, supply cannot be guaranteed all the time because of the unpredictability of the climate. To solve this supply-demand mismatch, the development of new generation energy storage technology has become an important issue.
Hydrogen energy storage is currently the most attractive technology. Unconsumed electricity derived from solar and wind energy can be converted into hydrogen by electrolyzing water. Hydrogen is then used for transport and storage. The cost of hydrogen production from electrolyzed water is high but has been reduced by 40% over the past five years. If the industry scales up, costs could fall further. China already has the lowest cost electrolyzers, while European countries have been announcing aggressive plans for electrolyzer deployment as part of their stimulus measures following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will be another important technology in global carbon neutrality plans. Alongside emission reduction targets, CCS technology creates carbon sinks to absorb carbon and therefore regulate levels in our atmosphere and environment. The capture of CO2 emissions for permanent storage or use is particularly critical for industries that are struggling to reduce their emissions, especially industrial sectors that are unable to break away from fossil fuel dependence. In addition, these negative emission technologies can help to cool the planet, not only during the period of carbon neutral action, but also after global carbon neutrality is achieved. The technology for CCS is available now, but due to the high costs, it has not been widely used. However, we can look forward to the opportunity of further development and deployment.