Skip to content

China Sectors

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

Power sector in 2030

China generates about a quarter of the world’s electricity.50

As of 2017, the country’s power mix is 71% reliant on fossil fuels, 1.5°C compatible pathways indicate that the country would need to phase out coal between 2030 and 2040, and increase the share of renewables in power generation to around 90% by 2030.53 Gas, which in 2017 accounted for around 3% of the power mix, would need to be phased out in the coming decade.54

Year on year growth for the country’s wind and solar capacity for power generation has remained high, particularly compared to that of fossil fuel-based capacity (bearing in mind that renewables make up a much smaller portion of total capacity and power production).51 The Chinese National Energy Administration reported 72 GW of new wind and 48 new GW of new solar capacity in 2020.16

Although the 1200 GW of installed wind and solar by 2030 targeted in China’s proposed NDC update is welcome, this is nonetheless a less than ambitious target given current policy projections and recent wind and solar capacity growth rates.52

Achieving the wind and solar target (while excluding other targets in the proposed NDC update) would still see China emit 14.6 GtCO₂ e/yr in 2030, which is more than double what would be compatible with a 1.5°C pathway.2

Towards a fully decarbonised power sector

For 1.5°C compatibility, China’s power sector would need to reach zero CO₂ emissions no later than 2040 and contribute to negative emissions thereafter. Carbon intensity would need to reach a level between 60-170 gCO₂ /kWh by 2030, a reduction of 91%-76% below 2017 levels.

Decarbonisation of the power sector could primarily be driven by the phase out of coal and the corresponding transition to renewable power generation. Some of our analysed scenarios show that carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) may also play a minor role in a 1.5°C compatible pathway. However, given that CCUS is not currently commercially viable, and that none of the three large scale projects under development is expected to come online before mid-century, this technology should not be seen as a substitute for the phase out of coal and gas.5

The 1.5°C scenarios analysed show renewables playing a dominant role in China’s future power generation mix, contributing 95-100% by 2050. Wind and solar capacity has grown significantly faster than hydropower capacity in recent years, and is poised to overtake hydropower in the near future.

However, in terms of power generation, hydroelectricity far surpasses wind and solar, the three generating respectively 1157 TWh (17.4% of total), 295 TWh (4.4%), and 131 TWh (2%) in 2017.28 The Chinese government aims to increase the country’s hydro capacity, alongside wind and solar.29,30 However, continuing development of hydroelectricity, particularly of the large-scale variety, poses significant environmental and social risk.31-33,34-36

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.

Chinaʼs power mix

gigawatt

Scaling
Dimension
SSP1 Low CDR reliance
201920302040205010 000
SSP1 High CDR reliance
201920302040205010 000
Low Energy Demand
201920302040205010 000
High Energy Demand - Low CDR reliance
201920302040205010 000
  • Nuclear and/or fossil with CCS
  • Unabated fossil
  • Renewables incl. Biomass
  • Negative emissions technologies via BECCS

Chinaʼs power sector emissions and carbon intensity

MtCO₂/yr

Unit
−1 00001 0002 0003 0004 00019902010203020502070
  • Historical emissions
  • Low Energy Demand
  • 100%RE
  • SSP1 Low CDR reliance
  • SSP1 High CDR reliance
  • High Energy Demand - Low CDR reliance

1.5°C compatible power sector benchmarks

Carbon intensity, renewable generation share, and fossil fuel generation share from illustrative 1.5°C pathways for China

Indicator
2019
2030
2040
2050
Decarbonised power sector by
Carbon intensity of power
gCO₂/kWh
560
0 to 60
0
−50 to 0
2030 to 2039
Relative to reference year in %
−99 to −89%
−100%
−109 to −100%
Indicator
2019
2030
2040
2050
Year of phase-out
Share of unabated coal
Percent
65
0 to 7
0
0
2030
Share of unabated gas
Percent
3
0 to 1
0
0
2025 to 2031
Share of renewable energy
Percent
27
90 to 91
93 to 97
94 to 100
Share of unabated fossil fuel
Percent
68
1 to 8
0
0

Footnotes