China reaching peak emissions
It’s fair to say that if China doesn’t get renewable energy right then we are all in a lot of trouble. It’s role in the future of the world is as important as that of the USA – although thankfully China seems to be taking it a lot more seriously in some regards than its Western counterpart.
The main problem China has is that both its population and economy continue to grow rapidly, meaning that its emissions have not reached a stable level from which we can start to talk about reducing them. In fact, Chinese emissions have doubled in the last decade, and this reality led to a pledge at the 2015 Paris Agreement to stabilise its output by 2030.
It can be tricky to analyse a country’s emissions, but a general rule of thumb is that they stabilise at about 10 tons of CO2 per capita per year, when the average GDP hits US$21,000. New calculations from a study led by scientists Haikun Wang, Xi Lu and Yu Deng show that China may be a lot closer to reaching a stable carbon output – peak emissions – than we thought. That is a very good thing indeed and puts the reality far ahead of the aforementioned 2030 pledge.
The study predicts that China will reach peak emissions between 2021 and 2025, and that this will equate to between 13 and 16 billion tons of CO2 per year overall. For context, the USA currently emits approximately 5.5 billion tons a year with less than a quarter of China’s population, making it a far more severe emitter per capita. It is to be hoped that the economic rise of China, and others such as India and Brazil, does not lead to their populations taking up lifestyles as extravagant as the average citizen in developed Western nations.
However, a large part of the predicted maximum yields for China are based on its emerging cities producing equivalent emissions to its mature cities, and there is the possibility that many of these rapidly developing parts of China could leapfrog many of the less efficient steps and go straight to an energy efficient endpoint. This happens regularly when parts of the world that are still developing are able to acquire new technologies.
A great example of this is telephonic communication in sub-Saharan Africa. In countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya, almost no one has a landline phone because there wasn’t the infrastructure for it when mobile phones became affordable. People simply skipped landline technology completely, and now somewhere around 5% of people in the region have a landline compared to 60% in the USA. The majority of sub-Saharan Africans simply use mobile phones instead.
There is no reason why everywhere on earth has to advance in the same order as the Western world did if there are modern alternatives available – and this is likely to apply to large parts of China. The country is building dozens of new cities but there is no rule to say they have to build them with old fashioned power grids. Alternatively, they can leapfrog carbon-intensive infrastructure and go straight to a more efficient, renewable model.
China is the world leader in solar installation, wind installation and the rollout of electric cars. In addition, it has gone beyond everywhere else in the development of advanced, energy saving grid technology and produces 60% of all lithium ion batteries in the world.
Given all of the above, and the fact that China has halted construction of new coal power plants in at least 15 regions, it seems likely that emerging cities such as Xiong’an will be built with a major proportion of power coming from renewable sources. This would ensure that China can bring forward the date it will reach peak emissions and, in turn, the country could promise a far more ambitious set of targets at the next climate international climate meetings in 2020.