China decisively leads the world in the fight against climate change. Emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas are about 70 percent of the cause of climate change. To alleviate climate change, we must transition from burning fossil fuels.
The best way to do this is to generate electricity to meet all energy needs because there are scalable and economical technologies for electricity generation that do not emit CO2 — namely, wind, solar and nuclear. Once zero-carbon-emitting electricity is generated, it must be applied to all energy uses. This means that the needs previously met by using fossil fuels must be met by electricity. Hence, electric vehicles must replace internal combustion engines, and electric heat pumps must replace fossil fuels for space heating.
China leads the world in all of these areas. China leads in generating electricity with zero-carbon-emitting power. According to RMI, an American energy think tank drawing data from BP and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China dominates the deployment of renewable (wind and solar) electricity. In 2021, China generated almost 1,000 terawatt-hours of electricity from solar and wind (1 trillion kilowatt-hours). By comparison, the US and the EU each generated less than 600.
China leads in the construction of nuclear power plants. It has 53 in operation and 21 more under construction, for an additional 23.5 gigawatts, well ahead of second-placed India which has eight under construction for an additional 6.6 GW.
Furthermore, China not only constructs its own wind and solar power plants, it also supplies the world with equipment for them to do it. According to the International Energy Agency, China supplies more than 80 percent of the world’s solar panels. Chinese company Goldwind last year was the largest supplier of wind turbines worldwide in terms of gigawatts, edging out Vestas of Denmark.
Adding electric-power generation requires building long-distance high-voltage electricity transmission lines to bring the electricity to where it will be used, especially if the generation is from wind or solar power plants that are remote from populated areas. China has built more UHVDC (ultrahigh-voltage DC) lines than anyone worldwide. More will be needed as zero-carbon-emitting electric generation continues to ramp up.
While many countries are making “net-zero” promises, China is taking the most meaningful action toward the possibility of achieving that goal. Furthermore, the more this goal is embraced in other countries and action is taken, China’s lead in creating the technologies and the products needed for the transition and exporting them will power its continued strong economic growth for decades to come
To utilize that electric power and displace fossil fuels, electric vehicles will have to replace fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, and heat pumps will replace heating with fossil fuels. China’s fleet of electric vehicles numbers more than 13 million, while the European Union’s is less than 9 million and the United States’ less than 4 million. China is also a leading producer of electric vehicles. According to statista.com, “China is projected to produce around 13 million battery electric vehicles (BEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) by 2023, more than any other nation worldwide.” And it is a leading producer of heat pumps. According to the International Energy Agency, “around 40 percent of heat pumps worldwide are manufactured in China, making the country the largest producer and exporter of this technology”.
Until the energy transition has proceeded to the point where even the manufacture of low-carbon-emitting technologies can be done without using fossil fuels, it is necessary to burn fossil fuels to produce these technologies. China has become the world’s manufacturer in the last 30 years because it can do it cheaply. But to do it, it needed to burn a lot of coal. This must continue to manufacture the equipment required for the energy transition. Unlike the US, China does not have low-cost natural gas to substitute for coal, so it has been unable to reduce carbon emissions by replacing coal with natural gas, which emits half as much carbon.
Another climate benefit often mentioned is the planting of trees. According to Carbon Brief, a UK website specializing in the science and policy of climate change, from 1990-2015, China planted the largest amount of new forest in any country. Planting trees can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while the trees are growing, but when they die, their CO2 will return to the atmosphere.
But afforestation — the planting of new trees — is essential to China’s climate plans for another reason. Many national and corporate plans to help mitigate climate change call for “net zero” carbon emissions at some future date. It is true that to put a complete halt to atmospheric warming, the level of carbon in the atmosphere will have to be stabilized. But for many of the technologies we need for our current level of civilization, such as concrete production, it is extremely difficult to eliminate carbon emissions entirely. Hence, it is anticipated that some means of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere will have to be implemented.
While most technologies to extract CO2 from the atmosphere are currently far too expensive, China’s plan is one of the more plausible. It plans to grow forests and harvest agricultural wastes, burn them in power plants to generate electricity while capturing their carbon dioxide emissions, then bury that CO2 deep underground in geological storage such as salt domes. While this will take a great deal of research and development and scaling up to make it viable, it is one of the few CO2 extraction proposals that may be viable and economical.
In short, while many countries are making “net-zero” promises, China is taking the most meaningful action toward the possibility of achieving that goal. Furthermore, the more this goal is embraced in other countries and action is taken, China’s lead in creating the technologies and the products needed for the transition and exporting them will power its continued strong economic growth for decades to come.
The author is a mathematician and economist with expertise in the finance, energy and sustainable-development fields. He is an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS