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The joint announcement signed by presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing brought climate change back to the international headlines. The document set targets for both sides to achieve and was welcomed or damned in equal measure.

Although the announcement binds neither side, it was seen by many politicians and observers as a step forward. Two key global powers, the largest CO2 emitters, had come to an agreement on climate change. China had for the first time committed itself in an international agreement to targets. In the announcement. China stated that it, “intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030”.

But the critics and sceptics have been many, especially of the targets China has set. One criticism had been that the emissions target is too loose, and allows China to continue emitting CO2 without constraint until 2030. Another, focusing on the non-fossil fuel target, has been that it is too easy, in fact setting out no more than what China plans to do anyway.

The announcement made the point, emphasized by President Obama, that meeting the target would require China to install 800 to 1000 GW of zero-emissions energy generating capacity by 2030, which is greater than the current coal-fired generating capacity in China. One man at least, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who believes in the future of coal, was happy with the apparent weakness of the target on the grounds that according to him it meant that by 2030 80% of China’s energy would still come from coal. His government predicts that since China will still need to import large quantities of Australia’s coal its economic future is thus assured.

The EU has been pretty much on the sidelines in all of this, but it too has a stake in China’s commitments. The stake is not just political concern over global policy on climate change. Like others, the EU has an interest in the future direction of the Chinese economy. The EU does not have much coal of offer, but it does have environmental and energy technology and know-how that would find a market in a China committed to reducing energy use and emissions.

Predicting China’s future energy demand and emissions is difficult. The variables to be taken into account lead to huge differences in possible outcomes. But one of the most important elements in China will be government policy and its targets. In China this gives some idea of whether it will meet its commitments in the announcement, at least the 20% non-fossil fuels target for 2020.

In 2013 China’s primary energy production (in Standard Coal Equivalent (SCE), the measure used in China) was 75.6% coal, 8.9% oil, 4.6% natural gas, and 10.9% hydro, nuclear and wind. In this mix, coal has recently declined slightly, oil has also declined, while natural gas and non-fossil fuels have been rising. But primary energy consumption shows a different picture. Primary energy consumption in 2013 was 66% coal, 18.4% oil, 5.8% natural gas and 9.8% hydro, nuclear and wind. Coal has clearly declined from a recent peak of 71.1% a few years ago, oil has remained more or less at the same level for several years, while natural gas and non-fossil fuels have increased their share. The difference between primary energy production and consumption is accounted for by imports and exports. China imports most of its oil and increasing amounts of natural gas. In recent years, despite huge domestic production, it has also imported significant amounts of coal.

Table 1: China Share of Primary Energy Production Source: National Bureau of Statistics

 

Table 2: China Share of Primary Energy Consumption Source: National Bureau of Statistics

As these figures show, Tony Abbott’s belief that in 2030 80% of China’s energy will still come from coal is already wrong. He appears to suffer from two possible confusions. While it is true that currently close of 80% of primary energy production is coal this is not the case for consumption, which is what the announcement refers to. Abbott’s other possible error is a belief that even if China meets the target that 20% of energy consumption will come from non-fossil energy in 2020, then the remainder must come from coal.

Will China meet the target? Earlier this year Xi Jinping spoke of the need for a revolution in China’s energy production and consumption. At the time, he referred only to broad principles. The State Council has issued a Strategic Action Plan for Energy Development (2014-2020) which gives some detail on how this revolution will be achieved. The plan sets some targets. Non-fossil fuels are targeted to reach 15% of energy consumption by 2020, natural gas more than 10% and coal less than 62%. Although it is not specified, this leaves about 13% for oil.

The plan also calls for an installed capacity of over 200 GW of wind power in 2020, over 100 GW of solar photovoltaic (PV), 350 GW of normal hydro power and 58 GW of nuclear, with a further 30 GW of nuclear to be under construction. By comparison, at the end of 2013 China had 91.4 GW of grid-connected wind capacity and 19.4 GW of grid-connected solar PV capacity. The goals are reachable. In 2013 added 12.9 GW of solar PV and 16.1 GW of wind capacity, both the largest in the world. It also added 29.9 GW of hydro capacity.

Is not clear whether these targets will be the final word for the 13th Five Year Plan (FYP) which will cover a key period from 2016 to 2020. In recent years targets for renewables have been repeatedly raised as previous ones have been exceeded. One recent article in the Chinese media quoted an official from the planning department of the National Energy Agency (NEA) discussing the 13th FYP as saying the target for 2020 would be for coal to account for less than 60% of primary energy consumption, and he also said that the target for 2030 would be less than 50%.

On the current trend, the target for coal to account for under 62% of energy consumption by 2020 seems feasible. If the target of 15% for non-fossil fuels by 2020 is achieved, which on today’s rates of installation it probably will be, then another 5% in the following decade will not be difficult. One of the reasons why the target will be “easy” is not because it is low, but because China already is the largest investor in renewables in the world. Even if China merely continues renewable energy installations at the current rates over the next 16 years it will reach the added capacity the announcement says is required in the range of 800 to 1000 GW by 2030 with some to spare.

There are many uncertainties in all of these outcomes. President Obama has taken a political gamble on China’s energy revolution, while Tony Abbott is betting against it without apparently really understanding the odds. From a European perspective, a bet on rather than against China’s energy revolution seems wiser.

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