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Ambition gap

What is Chinaʼs pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C?

1.5°C compatible pathways

China’s announced NDC update is slightly more ambitious than their current NDC, the latter amounting to an emissions reductions of 74-92% above 2005 levels by 2030 (or close to 13.7-15.1 GtCO₂ e p.a.), excluding LULUCF.3,4

The NDC update aims to peak CO₂ emissions before 2030, reduce carbon intensity by over 65% from 2005 levels, and increase non-fossil fuels energy share to around 25%.2,22 This would translate in emissions levels of 12.9-14.4 GtCO₂ e p.a. excluding LULUCF by 2030 (or 63-82% above 2005 levels).2

A 1.5°C compatible pathway would require the country to peak their GHG emissions almost immediately and achieve an emissions reduction of 17% (3-25%) below 2005 levels by 2030, excluding LULUCF – confirming results from previous studies. This translates to emissions levels of 6.6 (5.9-7.7) GtCO₂ e p.a. by 2030.5 Assuming China officially adopts its announced NDC target, the country would need to close an emission gap of at least 5.2 GtCO₂ e p.a. to be 1.5°C compatible.

Based on current GDP projections, the 1.5°C compatible emissions levels given above would correspond to a carbon intensity reduced by 85-91% by 2030 below 2005 levels.39 China’s newly released 14th Five Year Plan, covering the years 2021 to 2025, has set a target to reduce current carbon intensity by 18% over those years.23,44 China beat their previous five year target (also 18% reduction) and realised an 18.8% reduction between 2015 and 2020.24 Meeting the 14th Five Year Plan carbon intensity target and a further 18% reduction between 2026 and 2030 would allow China to achieve their proposed NDC update target.45 However, greater reduction would be necessary to be 1.5°C compatible.

Long term pathway

President Xi Jinping’s September 2020 announcement includes the long-term goal of carbon neutrality by 2060.

This announcement does not specify if neutrality refers to CO₂ or all GHG emissions. If the former, the target would lead to around 2050 MtCO₂ e p.a. in 2060 (excluding LULUCF) or emissions reductions of around 75% below 2005 levels. If the target were to cover all GHG emissions, 2060 emissions would be around 600 MtCO₂ e p.a. (excluding LULUCF), or around 92% below 2005 levels.5

To be 1.5°C compatible, GHG emissions should peak immediately and when excluding the contribution of LULUCF sinks, China CO₂ emissions would need to reach zero around 2060 showing emissions reductions of 93% (90-98%) below 2005 levels by 2050 and GHG emissions would need to drop to around 20% of 2005 levels by 2050.41,49

Remaining GHG emissions will need to be balanced through the use of carbon dioxide removal approaches, including sustainable a/reforestation, direct air capture of carbon dioxide, or sustainable bioenergy coupled with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

Of the 1.5°C compatible illustrative pathways analysed, negative emissions from industrial processes feature prominently in those scenarios which assume a high reliance on Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), particularly after 2040. The scenario which assumes low CDR and high energy demand has agriculture as the leading emitting sector after 2040, followed by industry, and these emissions are offset by negative emissions in the energy sector.

1 Jinping, X. Full Text: Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Climate Ambition Summit. Xinhuanet (2020).

2 Climate Analytics. CAT Climate Target Update Tracker – China. Climate Action Tracker. (2020).

3 Climate Action Tracker. China. CAT December 2019 Update. (2019).

4 People’s Republic of China. Enhanced Actions on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. (2015).

5 Yvonne Deng, Ursula Fuentes, Hare, B., Welder, L. & Gidden, M. U.S. and China Climate Goals : Scenarios for 2030 and Mid-Century. (2020).

6 Liu, Q. et al. Pathway and policy analysis to China’s deep decarbonization. Chinese J. Popul. Resour. Environ. 15, 39–49 (2017).

7 Zheng, X. et al. Drivers of change in China’s energy-related CO2 emissions. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 117, 29–36 (2020).

8 IEA. World Energy Balances 2019. (2019).

9 Climate Action Tracker. China CAT September 2020 Update.

10 Bahr, A. China’s coal capacity surge need not be at odds with ambitious climate action. China Dialogue (2020).

11 Myllyvirta, L., Zhang, S. & Shen, X. Analysis: Will China build hundreds of new coal plants in the 2020s? Carbon Brief (2020).

12 Global Energy Monitor et al. Boom and Bust 2021: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline. (2021).

13 Climate Action Tracker. New momentum reduces emissions gap, but huge gap remains – analysis. Climate Action Tracker (2021).

14 Reuters. China to cut coal use share below 56% in 2021. Reuters (2021).

15 Wang, C. N. Brief: Coal phase-out in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): an analysis of Chinese-backed coal power from 2014-2020. (2021).

16 Deign, J. What Is Going On With China’s Crazy Clean Energy Installation Figures? Green Tech Media (2021).

17 Kusmer, A. China launches world’s largest carbon market. PRI (2021).

18 Farand, C. China launches world’s largest carbon market for power sector. Climate Home News (2021).

19 Jinping, X. Full Text: Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Leaders Summit on Climate. Xinhuanet (2021).

20 Xinhua. China unveils plan for new energy vehicle industry. Xinhuanet (2021).

21 Lutsey, N., Cui, H. & Yu, R. Evaluating Electric Vehicle Costs and Benefits in China in the 2020 – 2035 Time Frame. (2021).

22 Xinhua. Full Text: Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Leaders’ Side Event on Safeguarding Planet of G20 Riyadh Summit. Xinhuanet (2020).

23 Liu, H., Liu, J. & You, X. Q&A: What does China’s 14th ‘five year plan’ mean for climate change? Carbon Brief (2021).

24 Xu, M. & Singh, S. China cuts ‘carbon intensity’ 18.8% in past five years, in effort to rein in emissions. Reuters (2021).

25 IEA. Coal Information: Overview. (2020).

26 World Resources Institute. Accelerating the Net-Zero Transition: Strategic Action for China’s 14th Five-Year Plan. (2020) doi:https://doi.org/10.46830/wrirpt.20.00018.

27 IEA. Renewables 2019: Analysis and forecast to 2024. (2019).

28 IEA. World Energy Outlook 2019.(2019).

29 Murphy, B. Outline of the People’s Republic of China 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and Long-Range Objectives for 2035 (English translation). (2021).

30 Yu, Y. Renewable Energy in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan: Five Changes. Energy Iceberg (2021).

31 Hu, Y. & Cheng, H. The urgency of assessing the greenhouse gas budgets of hydroelectric reservoirs in China. Nat. Clim. Chang. 3, 708–712 (2013).

32 Li, S., Zhang, Q., Bush, R. T. & Sullivan, L. A. Methane and CO2 emissions from China’s hydroelectric reservoirs: a new quantitative synthesis. Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res. 22, 5325–5339 (2015).

33 Xie, X., Jiang, X., Zhang, T. & Huang, Z. Regional water footprints assessment for hydroelectricity generation in China. Renew. Energy 138, 316–325 (2019).

34 Yuefang, D. & Steil, S. China Three Gorges Project resettlement: Policy, planning and implementation. J. Refug. Stud. 16, 422–434 (2003).

35 Lewis, C. China’s Great Dam Boom: A Major Assult on Its Rivers. Yale Environment 360 (2013).

36 Yu, Y. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan for Power Industries (2): No Plans for Wind, Solar & Hydro? Energy Iceberg (2020).

37 IEA. World Energy Outlook 2020. (2020).

38 Among other targets. Please see details in “Current Situation – Targets and Commitments” table below. Non-fossil fuel energy is comprised of nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar, biofuels, and other renewables.

39 GDP carbon intensity reduction is based on the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) analysis. The CAT uses historical emissions data from China’s most recent inventory submission to the UNFCCC, historical GDP data from China’s 2018 Statistical Yearbook, and GDP projections from WEO 2019 and IMF. The CAT projection calculations are based on the GDP growth rate from the IEA WEO 2019 (5.2% annual growth) between 2018 and 2030, except for the years 2020 and 2021, which use other projections that account for COVID-19 impacts. For a full explanation, see Climate Action Tracker, Assessment of China.

40 Note that the current value given here refers to 2017 levels. Similarly, the current coal, gas, and power intensity values also refer to 2017 levels.

41 While global cost-effective pathways assessed by the IPCC Special Report 1.5°C provide useful guidance for an upper-limit of emissions trajectories for developed countries, they underestimate the feasible space for such countries to reach net zero earlier. The current generation of models tend to depend strongly on land-use sinks outside of currently developed countries and include fossil fuel use well beyond the time at which these could be phased out, compared to what is understood from bottom-up approaches. The scientific teams which provide these global pathways constantly improve the technologies represented in their models – and novel CDR technologies are now being included in new studies focused on deep mitigation scenarios meeting the Paris Agreement. A wide assessment database of these new scenarios is not yet available; thus, we rely on available scenarios which focus particularly on BECCS as a net-negative emission technology. Accordingly, we do not yet consider land-sector emissions (LULUCF) and other CDR approaches which developed countries will need to implement in order to counterbalance their remaining emissions and reach net zero GHG are not considered here due to data availability.

42 China had a total renewable generation capacity of 795 GW in 2019. The previously largest net addition of renewable capacity, 82.4 GW, occurred in 2017. Please see the IEA’s Renewables 2020 Data Explorer for further details. The renewable capacity accounted for about 40% of the total installed capacity, 1,991 GW.37

43 Analysis shows that EV efficiencies, for the various vehicle classes, will have to improve by a minimum of 1-2% p.a. to achieve the 12 kWh/100 km by 2035 target.21

44 While China’s emissions growth rate has declined in recent years (five-year average of annual emissions growth dropped from 10% in the period 2003-2007 to 1% in the period 2013-2007), GDP growth has remained steady and at a high level, showing some level of decoupling of emissions from economic growth. In 2017, their emissions intensity was 42% below 2005 levels. See Climate Action Tracker’s data portal for more details.

45 China’s carbon intensity (including LULUCF) in 2015 stood at 0.67 ktCO₂ per million USD (2012 PPP). Reducing this by 18.8% (for period 2015 to 2020), then 18% (for period 2021 to 2025), and 18% again (for period 2026 to 2030) would result in a carbon intensity of around 0.37 ktCO₂ per million USD (2012 PPP), or a 60% reduction from 2005 levels.

46 While coal is by far the largest contributor to China’s primary energy supply, the most recent statistics show that over the decade up to 2019, the share of coal in primary energy decreased by 11% and 19% in terms of production and consumption respectively. Comparatively, over the same period natural gas production and consumption grew by 46% and 131% respectively, while that of primary electricity and other energy grew by 92% and 80%, respectively. The National Bureau of Statistics of China includes hydropower and electricity generated by nuclear energy and other means such as wind power and geothermal power, etc, in the category of primary electricity and other energy. For details statistics on production and consumption of primary energy, please see tables 9-1 and 9-2 in the 2020 China Statistical Yearbook.

47 See table 9-9 in 2020 China Statistical Yearbook.

48 Renewable heating comprises bioenergy, renewable district heating, solar thermal, geothermal, and renewable electricity. China saw significant growth in the latter three technologies between 2012 and 2018.

49 As China has included a significant forestry stock target in their NDC (and more so in the proposed update) it is worth considering the role of forestry carbon sinks in the country’s emissions reductions. The additional forest stock target of 4.5 billion m3 (6 billion m3 in proposed updated) represents about 26-34% of the country’s current forest stock (average of 2014-2018 values as per 9th National Forest Inventory ). LULUCF historical values are provided by the Climate Action Tracker, China assessment and had an average value of -860 MtCO₂e p.a. in 2010-2014. Using a linear regression of changes in LULUCF on changes in forest stock, we can forecast a value of -1.04 GtCO₂e (-1.16 GtCO₂e for proposed update target) for forest sinks if NDC target is achieved.

50 In 2017, China generated about 6,590 TWh of electricity. That same year, the IEA reports that 25,606 TWh of electricity was generated globally.

51 Wind and solar capacity grew at an average of 17% and 54% p.a. respectively between 2015 and 2019. This is compared to average annual growth of thermal capacity (5%) and total generation capacity (7.8%) in those years. Please see the 2020 China Statistical Yearbook for further details. Installed capacity of power generators may be found in table 9-15.

52 The 2020 China Statistical Yearbook has solar and wind capacity at 413 GW in 2019. In the years 2015 to 2019, an average of 58 GW of new solar and wind capacity was added each year. With the 120 GW of solar and wind added in 2020, and assuming the aforementioned average annual additional capacity, it would take about 11 years for China to reach their 1,200 GW target.16

53 Across the different models, coal is phased out on average by 2040 and at the earliest by 2030.

54 Based on our analysis, the 100% RE model show a phase out of gas already by 2024, mostly driven by a low current share in the power mix and a high uptake of renewable energies.

Methodology

Chinaʼs total GHG emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂e/yr

Displayed values
Reference year
−100%−50%0%50%100%19902010203020502070
Reference year
2005
1.5°C emissions level
−18%
Proposed 2020 NDC
+70%
Ambition gap
−88%
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Current policy projections
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Historical emissions
2030 emissions levels
Current policy projections
Proposed 2020 NDC
1.5°C emissions level
Ref. year 2005
7 770MtCO₂e/yr

Energy system transformation

China’s recently proposed NDC update states that it aims to increase the share of non-fossil sources in their total primary energy consumption to 25% by 2030. In 2017, non-fossil sources (renewables, biomass, nuclear) made up 11% of primary energy supply while coal made up 64%.

China’s coal consumption tripled between 2000 and 2013, and since 2007 the country has accounted for around 50% of the world’s coal consumption.25,45 In 2018, the country used coal mostly for the production of electric power and heat (48% of total consumption) and manufacturing (41%). Of the coal used in manufacturing, 30% is for the processing of petroleum, coal, and other fuels.47

To realise a 1.5°C compatible pathway, which avoids high reliance on carbon dioxide removal approaches in the future, the country would have to double their 2030 non-fossil target. Some 1.5°C pathways show that, with the development and utilisation of zero or low-carbon emissions technologies such as nuclear energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS), 1.5°C compatibility is possible with lower penetration of renewable energy. However, there is no fossil fuel–fired power generation with large-scale CCS in operation or in construction in China and this technology is currently not a commercially viable option in the power sector.5

Switching from reliance on coal to decarbonised electricity in primary energy and improving energy efficiency in industrial processes are proven and cost controllable options for China to achieve deep emissions reductions.26

With regards to heating, China has seen rapid growth in the deployment of renewable energy for heating in recent years.48 The IEA projects this growth to continue and for the country to also take up renewable district heating in the near future.27

Methodology

Chinaʼs primary energy mix

petajoule per year

Scaling
SSP1 Low CDR reliance
2019203020402050100 000
SSP1 High CDR reliance
2019203020402050100 000
Low Energy Demand
2019203020402050100 000
High Energy Demand - Low CDR reliance
2019203020402050100 000
  • Negative emissions technologies via BECCS
  • Unabated fossil
  • Renewables incl. Biomass
  • Nuclear and/or fossil with CCS

Chinaʼs total CO₂ emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂/yr

−2 00002 0004 0006 0008 00010 00012 00019902010203020502070
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Historical emissions

1.5°C compatible emissions benchmarks

Key emissions benchmarks of Paris compatible Pathways for China. The 1.5°C compatible range is based on the Paris Agreement compatible pathways from the IPCC SR1.5 filtered with sustainability criteria. The median (50th percentile) to 5th percentile and middle of the range are provided here. Relative reductions are provided based on the reference year.

Reference year
Indicator
2005
Reference year
2019
2030
2040
2050
Year of net zero GHG
incl. BECCS excl. LULUCF and novel CDR
Total GHG
Megatonnes CO₂ equivalent per year
7 770
13 633
6 400
5 828 to 8 120
3 188
2 113 to 3 421
1 611
1 349 to 1 777
Relative to reference year in %
−18%
−25 to 5%
−59%
−73 to −56%
−79%
−83 to −77%
Total CO₂
MtCO₂/yr
5 995
11 224
5 243
4 816 to 6 509
2 490
851 to 2 914
549
207 to 1 439
2067
2056
Relative to reference year in %
−13%
−20 to 9%
−58%
−86 to −51%
−91%
−97 to −76%

Footnotes