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Pathways to a low-carbon future

China has a number of potential sustainable development paths, but none of them will be easy to achieve. This is the conclusion of a recent report by Wang Tao and Jim Watson, which develops a set of low-carbon scenarios to 2100.

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China's continuous economic growth over the past 30 years has significantly improved the living standards of many of its citizens. The Chinese government claims that 400 million people were lifted out of poverty between 1980 and 2000, and GDP per capita has increased five times since 1981. Alongside economic expansion, China has also experienced a large increase in energy demand, especially after its economy moved into a stage of heavy industrialisation and urbanisation early this century.

This dramatic increase in energy demand, most of which is met by the use of coal, meant that China became the world’s largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter in 2006. China’s recent energy demand growth has also led to concerns about energy supply, local and regional environmental pollution and social stability. China’s participation is a key to the success of a post-2012 international climate framework. However, such a framework must incorporate the development needs of China and other developing countries. This raises a fundamental question: can China develop within the tight global carbon emissions constraints that climate science now says are necessary?

The Tyndall Centre’s recent research on China’s low carbon development paths has explored this question, and the results are summarised in a new report: China’s Energy Transition. The report investigates the potential trajectories of carbon emissions that China could follow to achieve a given global climate change target. The report investigates in detail how these emission trajectories could be achieved, through changes in China’s economy and society, and the policies and technologies that shape the country’s energy system.

The target for China used in the report is a cumulative emissions budget over the twenty-first century. This is derived from a global target of stabilising the atmospheric concentration of CO2 at 450 parts per million (ppm). According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) latest assessment, achieving this target would mean that the world has a significant chance of avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change. The total global budget is 490 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) over the twenty-first century. The report analyses four scenarios that are based on two different apportionment approaches for global emissions: namely equal emissions per capita and equal emissions intensity of GDP. Within this, China is given a cumulative emission budget ranging from 70 GtC under the former approach, to 111 GtC under the latter. These approaches were just used to provide an illustrative range for China’s potential cumulative emissions under a given global target rather than argue for legitimate carbon emission share for China. Combined with different medium-term carbon emissions pathways, these budgets imply that China would reach a peak in its emissions between 2020 and 2030, followed by a decline. The four scenarios for China with their different emissions trajectories are shown in Figure 1 (labelled S1, S2, S3 and S4).



Figure 1: Carbon emissions in China: historic data, projections and Tyndall scenarios

The four scenarios analysed in the report are distinctive from each other, but in general are divided by their relative positions on two critical issues: promoting innovation, and the approach to social inequality. This report is not intended to be prescriptive about which of these budgets – or the many alternative pathways – China should follow. The scenarios are designed to illustrate some of the possibilities, and what the consequences of these might be for investment, economic structure and policy if they were followed. The research does not reach a firm conclusion on which scenario is the most desirable.

Within the scenarios, the Chinese economy in 2050 grows to between 8 and 13 times larger than that of today (see Figure 2). The economy in every scenario is dominated by the service sector, as is the case in most of today’s industrialised countries. The structure of other industries varies between the scenarios. In scenarios S1 and S2, high technology and high value-added industries will become the largest subsector in industry, while the other two scenarios will see more contributions from conventional and heavy industries. The total primary energy demand for 2050 also varies among scenarios, ranging from only 15% higher than 2005, to twice the 2005 level.

As a result, the energy intensity of Chinese economy is reduced by 76% to 87% between now and 2050, while carbon intensity is cut further to just 4% to 7% of the 2005 level. China’s carbon emissions rise to between 24% and 72% higher than 2005 by 2020 and subsequently decline to between 15% and 70% less than the 2005 level by 2050. Among all the sectors of the Chinese economy, transportation has the highest growth within the scenarios. Changes in households and industry also hold the key to a successful transition to low-carbon development in the next few decades.
Figure 2: Growth of total
gross value-added of Chinese economy in each scenario

Within the Tyndall Centre scenarios, renewable energy plays a much bigger role in China’s energy system in 2050, adding to a more diverse energy structure. Coal reduces from more than 60% in 2005 to around 30% in total primary energy demand, while oil and gas continue their steady growth in the energy mix. Nuclear has the most diverse picture, from negligible in S2 to more than 12% in S3. This reflects different priorities between advanced renewables, such as wind and solar photovoltaics (PV), and nuclear for low-carbon energy supply. Even with a similar level of renewable energy in the scenarios, there is still large variance in technology choice within the renewable options, as well as in the way they are deployed (for example, in centralised facilities or in small-scale micro-generation).

Renewables contribute 37% to 61% of electricity generation in 2050 and differences exist in specific renewable sources in each scenario. For example, the power generating capacity in S2 in 2050 is more than 3,000 gigawatts, four times today’s size. Within this, more than a quarter is from solar and another 22% from wind (Figure 3). This implies an increase at about 10% every year for wind power and 16% every year for solar power between 2010 and 2050. A large portfolio of renewable energy could significantly improve some aspects of China’s energy security, for instance by reducing the exposure to fossil-fuel price volatility. Stability of the energy system with large contributions from renewables will be a serious issue, but could be managed with smarter grid technologies.



Figure 3: Power generation capacity and percentage of each source in 2050 (S2)

Even with the huge expansion of renewables, coal- and gas-fired power generation still account for 34% in this scenario. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) therefore becomes a crucial technology in helping China to develop within a carbon budget. CCS is not assumed to be implemented on a large scale in China until 2030, and will have to be diffused quickly so that decarbonisation of the power system could be achieved in these scenarios. By 2050, CCS will have to be installed on 80% to 90% of fossil-fuelled power plants in scenarios S3 and S4, in which coal will account for higher percentage of power generation than in S2. This means that action is required now, on an international basis, to assist China with the demonstration of CCS technologies. It is also important for China to bear in mind the need to retrofit CCS at a later date when new coal-fired power plants are built.

Energy demand from households and transport will continue their growth in all scenarios as living standards increase in China. Energy-efficiency improvements in appliances and buildings, and contributions from micro-renewables will help to reduce emissions growth from household sectors. High-carbon energy sources, such as coal, will be completely phased out from household use by 2050. The transport system becomes a major carbon emissions source in all scenarios due to high demand growth as well as the difficulty of decarbonisation. Private road transport accounts for most of this growth. But in some scenarios climate-change impacts are reduced with demand-side changes – in mobility patterns, for instance; large scale-ups in of alternative fuel use – such as electricity and sustainable biofuels; and significant developments in public transport.

Renewables contribute 37% to 61% of electricity generation in 2050 and differences exist in specific renewable sources in each scenario. For example, the power generating capacity in S2 in 2050 is more than 3,000 gigawatts, four times today’s size. Within this, more than a quarter is from solar and another 22% from wind (Figure 3). This implies an increase at about 10% every year for wind power and 16% every year for solar power between 2010 and 2050. A large portfolio of renewable energy could significantly improve some aspects of China’s energy security, for instance by reducing the exposure to fossil-fuel price volatility. Stability of the energy system with large contributions from renewables will be a serious issue, but could be managed with smarter grid technologies.

 
The scenario analysis is intended to inform policy-making both in China and in international climate-change negotiations. Some of the key policy implications of the report’s analysis follow:

• Decoupling carbon emissions growth from economic development in China is challenging, but is in principle achievable – and there is more than one way to realise it. The four scenarios demonstrate different ways to square China’s continuing development within a carbon emissions constraint, with different priorities in governmental decision making, infrastructure investments and social preferences.

• It is vital to start slowing emissions growth as early as possible. This will maximise China’s room for manoeuvre in deciding when it is appropriate for emissions to peak. The later the slowdown in emissions growth and the peak, the more difficult it will be for China in the future. Furthermore, later peaks are often associated with steeper subsequent reductions in emissions, which are likely to be more challenging for policy and social stability. Our analysis clearly demonstrates that 2040 is too late: a peak in Chinese emissions between 2020 and 2030 is therefore a plausible contribution that China could make to global action to stabilise the climate.

• The success and speed of economic and industrial structural change towards a more balanced economy – with a greater role for services and high tech industries – is likely to be crucial to China’s low-carbon development. This fits well with recent policy pronouncements of the Chinese government, which is keen that China moves away from its recent energy-intensive development path. The storylines associated with the scenarios suggest that economic growth could be much faster, more sustainable and resilient to external shocks in scenarios where this shift is implemented more quickly.

• Energy efficiency is vital, but the challenges vary across different scenarios. Currently the largest potential for energy efficiency improvement lies in China’s industries. But the fast growing demand for energy in the household and transport sectors points to the need for early action on efficiency in these sectors too if China’s overall efficiency targets are to be met.

• The transition to a low-carbon development pathway does not only depend on technology choices. Social choices and the potential carbon lock-in associated with life styles and behaviour patterns will have significant impacts on future emissions. Encouraging low-carbon lifestyles and consumption within China’s growing middle class could have a strong exemplary effect on the wider population regarding the development pathways that are desirable. This is an essential aspect of China’s future story that should be addressed alongside measures for low-carbon investment, institutional change and policy incentives.

• While a focus on China’s potential future carbon emission trajectories is very important in terms of climate change, these scenarios have wider implications: they include potentially important impacts on the availability of fossil and non-fossil energy resources as well as other natural resources, such as water and land use. It is also important to consider the energy-security threats that China faces.

The pathways for low carbon development illustrated by the Tyndall Centre scenarios have a particular resonance in the context of the current economic crisis. As in many other countries, there is an active debate within China about the extent to which economic stimulus packages to tackle the crisis can encourage more sustainable forms of development. Low-carbon development not only means the deployment of low-carbon technologies in China, but also presents an opportunity for China to build low-carbon industries and new institutions to foster low-carbon innovation. There are increasing signs that Chinese firms could soon develop world-leading capabilities in key low-carbon technologies, such as wind power. But even if such potential is realised, developed countries still have an obligation to make good on their repeated promises to assist developing countries like China with technology and finance. Without such assistance, there is a greater risk that China will not move fast enough towards the low-carbon development pathway that is necessary to enable the world to avoid the most dangerous consequences of climate change. 

For more details, please download the full report here: China’s Energy Transition: Pathways for Low Carbon Development.

Dr Tao Wang is research fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Sussex Energy Group at SPRU, University of Sussex, United Kingdom. Contact him: tao [dot] wang [at] sussex.ac.uk

Dr Jim Watson is Director of the Sussex Energy Group at SPRU and deputy leader of the Tyndall Centre's Climate Change and Energy Programme. Contact him: w [dot] j [dot] watson [at] sussex.ac.uk 

Homepage photo by Madiko83

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匿名 | Anonymous

情景2

不知道按照发展情景2的预测,煤炭的比重降低了,但是总的使用量是否也相对05年降低。yfy

Forecast in scenario 2 projects a lower level of consumption for coal; however, what is unclear is whether or not the total amount of consumption is also lower compared with that in 05.

- The comment was translated by Jo

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

居民和交通运输部门

随着中国经济增长,居民和交通运输部门的能源需求必定会迅速增长迅速。在这些方面政府将如何应对呢?

Residents and the transport sector

With China's economic growth, the transport sector and residents' demand for energy will rapidly increase. How does the Government respond in this respect?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

推行规章

比起制定规章,推行这些规章更為实在。
—— Csumao

Practice

Putting into practice is more substantial than regulations.
POSTED BY CSUMAO