By Lunyan Lu Climate and Energy Programme Director and Liangchun Deng, Climate and Energy Programme Manager, WWF-China
China is on track to deliver its pre-2020 pledge, and is planning to deliver the higher end of that pledge: a 40-45% ‘carbon intensity’ reduction by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. (‘Carbon intensity’ is the ratio of CO2 emissions against GDP.)
Although it’s a developing country, China’s size means it could play a bigger role in international climate progress. The road to the Paris climate conference could be a strategic opportunity for China to show leadership – to prove it’s responding to climate science and meeting its responsibility as a big power.
The joint announcement between China and the US in 2014 set the world’s largest developed and developing countries on track to climate leadership. It was also the first time China officially announced its intention to use an ‘absolute emission peak’ to target emissions reductions (as opposed to ‘carbon intensity’), with a goal of peaking around 2030 or earlier.
China’s top-down system means the government plays a leading role, leveraging other key sectors – including businesses, think-tanks and the public – and necessary resources. There’s a lot of focus on monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV), and there is enforcement and consequences for those who fail to deliver.
The ‘energy revolution’, as called for by President Xi, with more ambitious energy transition away from coal to renewables, could also hugely benefit China domestically.
IF THERE’S ONE THING CHINA COULD DO PRE-2020 TO ENHANCE ITS CLIMATE AMBITION, IT WOULD BE TO MOVE AWAY FROM COAL.
But if there’s one thing China could do pre-2020 to enhance its climate ambition, and lay a solid foundation for a national emission peak, it would be to move away from coal. Coal is the most consumed fossil fuel in China. It’s also the dirtiest fuel – causing air pollution that bothers hundreds of millions of Chinese – as well as a serious carbon emitter driving global warming.
China is targeting a coal consumption cap of 4.2 billion tonnes by 2020 (up from 3.6 billion tonnes in 2013), with coal’s share in China’s total energy mix planned to drop to under 62% by 2020. WWF thinks this coal cap should be an absolute peak for China’s coal consumption – and it should come even earlier than 2020. We also want to see coal’s share in the energy mix decline faster, to below 60% before 2020, otherwise many of China’s energy, environment and climate goals won’t be achieved.
The good news is, for the first time since 2000, China’s total coal consumption actually decreased in 2014, according to official statistics. The ‘carbon intensity’ of the economy also dropped remarkably – down almost 5% for the year. This makes 2014 the year of lowest carbon growth in the country’s history, and moves China much closer to delivering its 2020 pledge.
WE’D LIKE TO SEE CHINA SPEED UP THE PHASING OUT OF OLD AND INEFFICIENT COAL-FIRED POWER PLANTS RIGHT AWAY.
We’d really like to see China speed up the phasing out of old and inefficient coal-fired power plants, right away, and also cancel plans for new ones – which would likely end up becoming ‘stranded assets’ and bad investments in any case.
In one of WWF’s scenarios, China could also phase out all coal in its electricity-generating sector from 2040, with the aim of making it coal-free by 2050. Reducing coal consumption could also make room for other cleaner options to grow, particularly renewable energy. It’s an achievable vision, and even calculated to be much cheaper than any fossil-fuel or nuclear-dominant energy future.
Very importantly, China seems to be moving away from resource and energy-intensive development – including in industries such as cement, iron and steel – as the whole country steps into a ‘New Normal’ economic phase. Less reliance on real estate prosperity and more innovation will help create a cleaner, stronger economy.
China’s leaders needs to be determined to make sure this strategic revolution will boost environment progress and economic efficiency. China’s actions could also help persuade other developing countries to take a healthier and more sustainable path.
Ancient Chinese wisdom teaches us that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Coal control is the first step for energy transition in China.