Steady steps needed to achieve China’s ‘two carbon’ goals

By PAN JIAHUA, ET AL. / 12-02-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Wind turbines are capturing the wind’s power and converting it to electricity at Chongli County, Zhangjiakou City, Hebei Province. Photo: CFP

On Sept. 22, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the general debate of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly via video that China aims to bring carbon emissions to a peak by 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 with more forceful policies and measures. Since then, China’s “two carbon” goals have drawn wide attention at home and abroad from all walks of life. At the G20 Summit on Oct. 31, global leaders made a commitment to reach carbon neutrality “by or around mid-century” and to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

While developed countries have set 2050 for achieving that goal, China has aimed for 2060. We must see that carbon neutrality cannot be achieved overnight. China’s carbon neutrality process requires down-to-earth and steady steps to promote high-quality development and economic and social transformation, so as to build a community of a shared future for harmonious coexistence between human and nature.
Collective efforts
Historically, carbon emissions in developed countries peaked even before the start of the UN climate change negotiations, and there was almost no external pressure to the process. The United Kingdom, for example, peaked its carbon emissions in 1972. On the whole, the carbon peak in developed countries experienced a long period of high plateau fluctuation, with multi-peak bulges rather than a linear single peak. The United States produced a high level of carbon emissions in the late 1980s, and it did not go down until 2005.
The Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1997, mandated developed countries to cut emissions by 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2010, which subsequent negotiations revised to average emission levels for 2008-2012 rather than only the year 2010. After all, there are natural climate variations, economic fluctuations, and odd years of carbon emissions. The absolute reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries also change in fluctuations, rather than move in a linear manner. 
At present, China has not yet completed industrialization and urbanization. The goal of peaking carbon emissions by 2030 will require human intervention. In view of the lack of a competitive advantage in zero-carbon renewable energy, any hasty or abrupt large-scale withdrawal of fossil energy may interfere with the normal operation of the economy and society. Therefore, carbon reduction needs to take steady, yet careful, steps. 
After the implementation of the dual-carbon target, some actors failed to accurately understand the carbon peak, resulting in abrupt behavior that shook the energy supply and normal economic operation. In this light, we need to clarify that China’s total energy demand has not seen a sudden surge, and coal capacity has not disappeared, so if carbon reduction takes a one-size-fits-all approach, the normal operation of the economy and society will inevitably take an unbearable hit. Meanwhile, coal, electric power, and power grid enterprises with a certain monopoly position often fall short in response to market fluctuations, which are constrained by interests under the inherent pattern.
Nevertheless, it is certain that China’s carbon peaking is not a natural process. In reference to the law of carbon emissions trajectory, China is likely to now be in the stage of high plateau fluctuation, with multi-peak bulges. 
Therefore, it is necessary to scientifically comprehend carbon peaking to ensure a smooth path to carbon neutrality. First, we need to watch out for human intervention to avoid plummeting the energy sector into high intensity fluctuations, at best simulating a quasi-natural peak. Second, we need to prepare for possible multi-peak fluctuations. Third, peak carbon is subject to carbon neutrality, not the other way around. 
Objectively speaking, China’s industrialization and urbanization are now at the middle and late stages, the space for expansion of production capacity is limited, and there could even be natural reductions. Coal consumption has reached a high plateau since it reached its peak in 2013, and has not continued to increase, let alone sharply surge. The production and sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles in China has also reached saturation, and the demand for crude oil is unlikely to suddenly go up.
Current emissions
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report in August, 1970-2020 were the warmest 50 years in the past 2000 years. The global mean sea level rose 0.20 meters from 1901 to 2018, the fastest rise in the last 3,000 years. In 2019, global carbon dioxide concentration reached 410 ppm (ppm is a standard measure of the amount of a gas in the air), setting a record unprecedented in at least 2 million years. From 2010 to 2020, the global surface temperature increased by 1.09 degrees Celsius compared with that before the Industrial Revolution, of which 1.07 degrees Celsius was due to human activities. As we can agree, climate change and energy issues are among today’s most prominent global challenges, which concern the common interests of the international community and the future of the Earth. 
In recent years, China has been the world’s largest carbon emitter, accounting for more than a quarter of the world’s total emissions. However, China’s cumulative emissions were only equivalent to half of those of the United States. China’s level of carbon emissions per person is less than half of that of the United States. This is only part of the picture. 
In addition, China’s move towards zero-carbon renewable energy started much later than that of developed countries. Despite this, from 2010 onwards, both installed capacity and power generation of renewable energy such as hydropower, wind power, and solar power rose rapidly. 
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, China’s total installed capacity of renewable energy accounted for 31.9% of the world’s total in 2020, up from 20.1% in 2011. The United States’ share fell by nearly one percentage point over the same period. In 2011, the photovoltaic (PV) installed capacity of the United States was almost twice that of China. Ten years later, by 2020, China’s PV installed capacity will account for 35.5% of the world’s total, 3.5 times that of the United States. In 2011, wind power generation in the United States was 69% higher than in China. In 2020, China surpassed the United States by 36%. 
What’s more, China’s new-energy vehicle battery technology leads the world, with many models having a range of more than 500 kilometers. From January to August of 2021, China’s new-energy vehicle production and sales reached 1.8 million units, a year-on-year increase of nearly double. China accounts for 98.2% of the total stock of 505,000 electric busses in the world.
Since the start of the 21st century, greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries, both in total volume and per capita, are mostly on a downward path. On the one hand, it is the development stage. On the other hand, natural gas, a relatively low carbon fossil energy, has replaced coal, which is relatively high carbon. Thanks to the so-called “shale gas revolution,” coal’s share of total primary energy consumption in the United States fell from 22.5% in 2010 to 10.5% in 2020. Over the same period, China has reduced its coal share from 70.2% to 56.6%, but coal is still a dominant energy source. As a developing economy, China’s per capita GDP is only 1/6 that of the United States and 1/5 that of the European Union, lower than that of many developing countries in ASEAN, OPEC, North Africa, and South America. China faces severe challenges in achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
High-quality transformation
The European Union pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, while the Biden administration vowed to realize carbon-free electricity by 2035. Developed countries have taken the lead in proving that carbon neutrality is feasible and safe, and if they can do it, so can we. Moreover, we should learn from their experience and carry out active and effective cooperation.
Further, developed countries are making steady progress as a result of their obvious advantages in energy structure, income level, and time of transformation. It is all the more necessary for us to actively advocate net-zero emissions based on our national conditions. Global net-zero emissions have to take a differentiated approach.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, emissions cuts vary among member states. Given that developed countries at the same level of development with similar energy structures set different targets, it is unrealistic to ask actors at different levels of development to achieve net-zero emissions simultaneously. The US’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto targets shows that the “top-down” distribution arrangements cannot yield good results. The Paris Agreement, which adopts a proactive “bottom-up” approach can encourage emissions reduction and seek win-win cooperation.
The fossil energy sector is highly capital intensive, and the economic payback period is long, ranging from 25 years to more than 50 years. Therefore, there is no need to ban all fossil energy projects now, let alone immediately shut down those that are still in economic operation. But it is worth noting that further investment in fossil energy must take into account the exit difficulties. Nevertheless, there is time for China to actively advocate net-zero emissions and achieve high-quality development transformation. 
In the best scenario, hydropower, wind power, and solar power will complement each other to ease coal power out of the market. Pure electric vehicles will completely replace fossil fuel vehicles and reduce oil demand, thus increasing the market risk of high carbon fossil energy projects. This requires us to have a clear timetable for the orderly withdrawal of fossil energy. 
In this regard, given that the carbon emission of coal is higher than that of oil with the same calorific value, and oil is higher than that of natural gas, economic logic dictates that an environmentally effective exit should first remove coal, then oil, and finally natural gas. Coal, oil, and natural gas use could continue in small amounts even in 2060, for the sake of economic and livelihood security. Germany’s carbon neutralization plan, for example, will still produce 60 million tons of CO2 emissions by 2050, which will need to be neutralized by carbon removal. China’s carbon neutrality by 2060 cannot be mechanically interpreted as net-zero emissions.
To achieve the “two carbon” goal, we should first accurately understand the scientific connotation of carbon peaking and carbon neutrality, follow the internal law of carbon peaking, and incorporate carbon peaking into the overall planning of carbon neutrality.
Pan Jiahua is a CASS Member and deputy director of the 4th National Expert Committee on Climate Change; Li Meng is from the Research Institute for Eco-civilization under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS); Zhang Kun is from the Institute of Ecological Civilization at Beijing University of Technology. 
Edited by YANG XUE