Foundations of Decarbonization in China: A Post-2030 Perspective

| July 2017

Post-Workshop Summary

The Harvard-Tsinghua Workshop on Low-Carbon Development and Public Policy is the fourth annual joint workshop between the Harvard Kennedy School’s Environment and Natural Resources Program and the Center for Science, Technology, and Education Policy at Tsinghua University. The workshop convened leading experts on climate and energy from the United States and China at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, on June 1-2, 2017.

The workshop was divided into five sessions. The first two sessions focused on the scope of the climate problem and the options for addressing it. The following three sessions explored specific options: renewable energy, nuclear power, and air pollution regulation.

Stabilizing the climate system requires substantial reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mainly through changes in energy systems that are currently dominated by fossil fuels. In the Paris Agreement, countries pledged to take voluntary carbon mitigation actions over the next 10-15 years. The climate system responds to cumulative GHG emissions, and carbon dioxide (CO2) can remain in the atmosphere for several centuries. Therefore, stabilizing CO2 emissions is not sufficient. The goal must be one of deep decarbonization, reducing global CO2 emissions to zero by the end of this century.

As the first and second largest CO2 emitters in the world, both China and the United States face critical challenges in the design, development, and implementation of deep decarbonization. China has pledged to peak its carbon emissions by 2030, and to increase the share of non-fossil energy in total primary energy to 20%. The United States pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, a goal that is now being questioned as a result of President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. While these targets promise near- and mid-term steps to mitigate carbon emissions, much stronger efforts will be needed after 2030 to eventually achieve zero or negative emissions. Therefore, the path towards deep decarbonization will likely involve multiple stages, and the policy priorities will vary with each stage. For instance, the first stage, pre-2030, will focus on increasing wind and solar generation, and replacing coal with natural gas. The second stage, from 2030-2050, may focus on a continuing expansion of renewables, deployment of storage technologies, as well as electrification of the transport, heating, and industrial sectors. The third stage, post-2050, may focus on deploying CCS for natural gas use, biofuels and synthetic fuels, as well as advanced nuclear technologies.

Compared to the United States, the fundamental challenge faced by China is its heavy reliance on coal. Analyses on potential decarbonization pathways for China highlight two findings. First, reducing carbon emissions beyond stabilization will be difficult. Multiple factors have contributed to reductions in the use of coal, including economic slowdown and the urgency to curb conventional air pollution. Under various assumptions on GDP growth projections, urbanization rates, and reductions in carbon intensity, the CO2 emissions peak is anticipated before 2030. However, the share of emissions from the electricity sector as a percentage of China’s total emissions is expected to continue to grow beyond 2030. A few key variables that will affect such a change after 2030 include the speed of renewable and nuclear scale-up, the level of efficiency improvement of incumbent coal power fleet, and the development of natural gas plants to meet demand when renewable energy is interrupted. In summary, it is widely acknowledged that achieving an energy mix that is decarbonized (necessary for deep reduction in carbon emissions) is a much more difficult task than the near-term target of 20-25% (necessary for peaking carbon emissions

Second, deep decarbonization scenarios for China’s energy system often depend on significantly scaling up renewable and nuclear generation in the electricity sector, as well as electrification efforts in the end-use sectors. Although these scenarios are carefully designed based on a deep understanding of China’s current energy system and projected growth, they still contain uncertainties. How to manage the intermittency problems for renewables and address safety concerns for nuclear energy are important challenges in almost every decarbonization scenario.

In this report, we start with a summary of the three key topics: electricity sector reform, synergies between climate and air pollution control efforts, and nuclear power development. We then focus on four cross-cutting themes that are relevant for all three topics: (a) implications of current policies on long-term decarbonization, (b) challenges in energy and climate governance, (c) public participation and engagement, and (d) decarbonization and the pursuit of other societal goals. Finally, we draw some preliminary conclusions and discuss potential directions for future scenarios.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Environment and Natural Resources
For Academic Citation: Lee, Henry, Wei Peng and Pu Wang. “Foundations of Decarbonization in China: A Post-2030 Perspective.” , July 2017.

The Authors

Henry Lee