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On Monday, September 21, 2015, Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law co-hosted a discussion on Meeting China’s Climate Goals. Speakers were:
David Sandalow, Inaugural Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy and former senior official at the White House, State Department and U.S. Department of Energy;
Kelly Sims Gallagher, Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy, The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and former Senior Policy Advisor, Office of Science and Technology Policy, The White House;
Zhu Liu, Fellow, Resnick Sustainability Institute, California Institute of Technology and Associate, Kennedy School, Harvard University; and
Valerie Karplus, Assistant Professor of Global Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School, and Director of the Tsinghua-MIT China Energy and Climate Project.
Some key points follow:
China is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the world – with emissions roughly equal to those of United States (US) and European Union (EU) combined. Rapid economic development has contributed to the growing Chinese GHG footprint, as evidenced by GHG emissions increasing at a similar rate as GDP growth. The Chinese people have benefitted from the most successful anti-poverty program in history, but at a high cost in terms of local air pollution. China’s per capita GHG emissions are less than half those of the US and roughly comparable to those of the EU.
China’s economy-wide targets include a goal of peaking CO2 emissions by 2030 and increasing non-fossil energy to 20% of primary energy production by the same date.
Panelists were optimistic about China’s ability to peak GHG emissions even before 2030. There is substantial political will for addressing climate change in China today and the Chinese governments views clean energy as a priority industry.
China has ambitious renewable energy, nuclear energy and energy efficiency goals in place. Half of the nuclear facilities currently under construction in the world are in China.
China is closing down small inefficient coal plants, especially near big urban centers. Despite the recent fall in coal demand in China, more large-scale coal plants are under construction. If these trends continue, Chinese coal-fired plants will have low utilization rates in the years ahead.
China has the opportunity to tackle both air pollution and climate change at the same time. Currently, 90% of China’s energy use is fossil-based. China can address air quality while lowering GHG emissions.
China is introducing a far-reaching national emissions trading program. There are currently seven pilot programs. Accountability and transparency of the emissions trading program will be critical to its success, as market participants will require trust in the system.
China is investing in research and development for advanced coal, energy efficiency, clean vehicles and other clean energy technologies. China sees these investments as a crucial pathway towards peaking emissions by 2030 while achieving sustained economic growth. However, without market-based policies, it is very hard to attain commercialization of these technologies.
Though Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama have numerous important issues on their agenda, climate change has been a consistently high priority at their summits.
For emerging economies such as China and India, gathering economic and energy data is often not easy. Therefore, findings with respect to China’s emissions may not be precise. For example, some sources have used emissions factors from US and EU coal in estimating Chinese emissions, but China’s coal quality is dissimilar.
Several China’s state owned enterprises (SOEs) are investing in carbon capture utilization and sequestration (CCUS). However, costs remain high, with minimal economic incentives for using captured carbon.
China’s contribution to global warming in the decades ahead will be a function of the year in which it’s emissions peak, the level at which it emissions peak on the pace at which emissions decline after.