Low-carbon energy transition is the most important pathway to achieve the 'dual carbon' goals
China and the United States recently signed the Sunnylands Statement on Enhancing Cooperation to Address the Climate Crisis, which prioritizes energy transition in bilateral climate cooperation and brings about new development opportunities for the energy transition around the world. This also shows that the transition to a low-carbon energy system is at the heart of the climate challenge.
The low-carbon energy transition is the most important pathway for achieving China's dual carbon goals. The goals and pace of the energy transition are determined by social values, social goals and the challenges facing society.
As climate change becomes a major crisis threatening the sustainable development of human society, the energy transition is mainly determined by the global response to the threat of climate change, keeping the average global temperature rise this century to below 2 C above pre-industrial levels and preferably limiting the temperature increase even further to 1.5 C.
To achieve its carbon peaking and carbon neutrality as scheduled, it is imperative for China to adhere to a path of long-term transformation featuring deep decarbonization.
During this process, the country should take energy security as the redline and properly handle the ever-changing relationship between technology choices and energy supply and consumption, as well as the relationship between renewable energy and fossil fuels.
The first step is to peak carbon emissions before 2030, wherein carbon dioxide emissions are first stabilized before declining. The second phase is the deep decarbonization period from 2030 to 2050, wherein the pace of the new-type industrialization and urbanization will slow down and low-emissions or zero-emissions technologies will be applied on a large scale, and all greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced at a faster pace. The third phase is the pursuit of carbon neutrality in the period from 2050 to 2060, wherein the remaining greenhouse emissions will be offset by negative emissions technologies and land carbon sinks.
Technological innovation is the major driver of the energy transition, which necessitates a systematic plan with phased targets.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic's negative impacts, China has remained steadfast in seeking to peak its carbon emissions before 2030. It's predicted that by 2050, China's per capita carbon emissions will be on a par with the global average, decreasing from the current 8 metric tons per person per year to 1 to 1.5 tons per person per year. This is a quite challenging task. It means that China needs to slash its carbon emissions by 500 million tons a year from 2030 to 2050.
Therefore, in the following 10 years, China should not only be committed to achieving the goal of peaking emissions through progressive innovations in technology, but also make forward-looking plans for the research and development of disruptive, breakthrough technologies in preparation for a rapid decline in carbon emissions after the peaking of emissions. After 2050, the remaining greenhouse emissions will be in those sectors in which it is difficult to reduce emissions, such as the industrial production processes, road transportation, aviation, agriculture and non-CO2 greenhouse gases, which calls for the application of a large number of negative emissions technologies.
Achieving the necessary energy transition calls for striking a balance between energy supply and demand. It is vital to step up the use of non-fossil fuels, particularly renewable energy, to optimize the energy mix. China aims to gradually increase the share of non-fossil energy consumption in the country's energy structure to around 25 percent by 2030 and over 80 percent by 2060.
China could develop the circular economy, improve the technical process and enhance the energy efficiency, and accelerate the substitution of fossil fuels with electricity, hydrogen and biomass energy. In the recently released Sunnylands Statement, China and the US pledged to sufficiently accelerate renewable energy deployment through 2030 from 2020 levels, saying that in this critical decade of the 2020s, both countries support the G20 Leaders' Declaration to pursue efforts to triple renewable energy capacity globally by 2030.
The energy system's transition from fossil fuel dominance to non-fossil fuel dominance is a formidable task, requiring long-term input.
According to research by the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University, non-fossil fuels need to account for at least 70 percent of the energy mix by 2050 to meet the 2 C climate goal and 85 percent by 2050 to meet the 1.5 C goal. Therefore, the generated energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, must grow exponentially. That said, the intermittency and instability in renewable energy generation requires the complementary use of fossil fuels. But the role of fossil fuels needs to be changed. The use of traditional fossil fuels needs to be accompanied by the use of biomass as well as carbon capture, sequestration and utilization technologies.
Establishing a safe, new-type energy system will provide the essential guarantee for the energy transition, as well as a solution for balancing economic and social development with the green transition.
Carbon neutrality is a brand-new thing across the globe. Some countries may have a head start in the race to net-zero emissions, but the gap is not that large. What really matters is that we should put our feet on the ground in pursuing technological breakthroughs and embrace energy technology innovations with an open mind.
The author is a professor and president of the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University and secretary general of the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.
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