Ditching China’s coal addiction will take decades, warns expert

Despite renewables growth, top energy expert Yufeng Yang predicts slow reduction in China’s emissions 2030-2050

Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama agreed to take joint action on climate change in November 2014  (Pic: Flickr/U.S. Embassy The Hague)

Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama agreed to take joint action on climate change in November 2014
(Pic: Flickr/U.S. Embassy The Hague)

By Ed King

China will face few problems peaking greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, but don’t expect it to radically cut carbon pollution after that date.

That was the message from one of the country’s top energy analysts in the week Beijing is set to submit its climate action plans to the UN.

Coal use is only projected to fall to 2005 levels by 2050 said Professor Yufeng Yang, lead author of the annual China Energy Outlook and deputy director at the Energy Research Institute, a state run body.

Despite recent reports that coal use is slacking, Yang, speaking at the Grantham Institute on Climate Change in London, insisted in-country demand would not drop off radically.

“Coal is very important for China. In the future we cannot leave coal as we need steel… so we need to work on the demand side,” he said.

Yang’s comments come as China prepares to reveal what level of carbon cuts it will commit to ahead of proposed UN climate deal.

The country accounts for 28% of global emissions. A strong commitment to reducing pollution from its energy and industrial sectors is seen as critical to avoiding dangerous warming.

Last week Premier Li Keqiang said the government would “strive” for an emissions peak in 2030, but did not explain what could happen after that date.

Yang’s assessment of China’s emissions trajectory on the China 2050 Pathways portal is that they will rise from 8 gigatonnes a year in 2015 to 8.7Gt in 2030. That falls to 7.6Gt in 2040 and 6.1Gt in 2050, around a 30% drop on 2030 levels.

For a 66% chance of keeping warming under the globally-agreed 2C target scientists say only 1,200Gt can still be emitted. With 40Gt released in 2014 this gives the world less than 30 years before the “budget” is breached.

Based on Yang’s figures, China’s emissions alone would pass the 270Gt mark by 2050.

Tough challenge

In his presentation, Yang said heavy industry will rely on the world’s most carbon intensive fuel for years to come, use of which would likely peak at four billion tonnes a year in 2025.

Air pollution concerns had caused the Xi Jinping government to pay more attention to its energy mix, but change in what was a “complicated transition” would be slow.

“Scenarios must consider what is practically happening in the field,” he said, stressing that steel and cement were the “hardest areas to cut emissions”.

Further reductions could be achieved through the advent of more efficient energy systems or the widespread use of carbon capture technology.

Gas had the potential to replace much of the demand for coal in the coming decades he said, which would likely come from imports or by converting coal into gas.

(Pic: Yufeng Yang/ERI)

(Pic: Yufeng Yang/ERI)

Still, renewable energy is heading into what Yufeng labelled a “golden era” and a combination of onshore and offshore wind, nuclear and hydropower would meet expected rises in energy demand.

And the 2030s were likely to see a “series of peaks” for industrial production, steel and cement he predicted.

Future energy and development plans would also need to ensure water reserves are protected.

Drought, overuse and poor management are blamed are China’s shortages, which he said are a “serious constraint for development.”

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