Will China’s Climate Goals Actually Succeed?

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Wind turbines seen on the horizon.
China has made the commitment to reach ‘peak carbon’ by 2030 and zero emissions by 2060. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised the world with his speech at the UN General Assembly where he pledged to make China reach “peak carbon” by 2030 and then to attain zero emissions by the year 2060. Though the promises sound good, are these targets something that China can actually fulfill?

The goal

China’s commitment comes days after the EU set up its very own climate target for 2030. According to the Climate Action Tracker, if China were to succeed in fulfilling its goals, it would reduce the global heating forecasts for 2100 by 0.2°C to 0.3°C. Interestingly, China did not give a concrete action plan on how it was going to achieve its climate goals. At present, almost 85 percent of China’s energy mix is met by fossil fuels and just 15 percent by renewables. Beijing will have to implement massive changes to bring down the fossil fuel component of its energy mix to at or near zero by 2060. Michael Edesess, an expert on environment and sustainability, thinks that China’s targets might actually be achievable in the next four decades.

Pollution in the coal mining town of Linfen, Shanxi Province, China.
At present, almost 85 percent of China’s energy mix is met by fossil fuels and just 15 percent by renewables. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

“It would mean huge expansions of nuclear power as well as wind and solar power and high-power transmission lines, and perhaps carbon capture and storage. China is working on building additional nuclear power plants, and many could be completed by 2060 — enough to replace coal, in combination with the wind and solar power plants it is developing, which need more transmission lines for the electricity to be delivered to population centers. China is working on possible offshore locations for deep storage of carbon as well, but while nuclear power is a developed technology, large-scale carbon storage is speculative,” he said to Power Mag.

Industrial Securities Co. calculates that China will need somewhere around 80GW to 115GW of new solar capacity to be installed every year from now on to meet its goals. In addition, the country will have to increase its wind power by 36GW to 45GW annually. At present, China has an installed solar power capacity of 180GW and wind power capacity of 241GW. Beijing is expected to unveil its plans for achieving climate goals in its 14th 5-year plan scheduled for March next year.

The coal challenge

The biggest challenge to China’s targets would be its coal usage. In the first half of this year, the Chinese government approved around 23GW of new coal power projects. According to the Global Energy Monitor, this is more than the coal power projects approved in the past two years combined. As such, it makes one wonder why Xi Jinping has announced plans for cutting down carbon emissions at a time when his government approved even more coal power projects.

A coal power plant in China.
In the first half of this year, the Chinese government approved around 23GW of new coal power projects. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

China apparently has 400GW more coal power capacity than what is necessary to meet peak demand. As a result, the coal fleet of the county is running at only 50 percent capacity. Local governments prefer coal-based power in a bid to protect mining jobs. As such, it might be difficult to get them to shift away from coal.

When it comes to renewable energy, the industry has to pay higher loan interest rates and land taxes. Chinese investments in clean energy fell 8 percent in 2019. Subsidies for onshore wind farms will be ending in 2021. Since last year, dozens of renewable projects have been canceled. The reason — businesses who invested in these projects found it difficult to make money.

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