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IEA study: China can peak emissions by mid-2020s to help meet global Paris goal


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Essential Energy Insights - October 2021

IEA study: China can peak emissions by mid-2020s to help meet global Paris goal

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Chinese workers install a solar farm project atop a flooded coal mine in China's Anhui province.
Source: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images News via Getty Images

China can exceed its global climate change commitments if it adopts a proposal to raise the consumption of non-fossil energy sources to 20% by 2025 and succeeds in efforts to cut carbon intensity by 18%, the International Energy Agency said.

Asserting that "no pledge is as significant as China's" when it comes to slashing greenhouse gases, the IEA on Sept. 29 issued a roadmap detailing how the world's largest emitter can speed up its transition from fossil fuels.

The report was released a month ahead of a high-stakes United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where countries are expected to significantly ratchet up their ambitions. The Chinese government requested the report from the agency, which works with nations to develop energy strategies.

Several recent scientific reports have warned that the goal under the Paris Agreement on climate change to keep warming to 1.5 degrees C from preindustrial levels is rapidly slipping away. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has declared the current situation "a code red for humanity."

With China consuming more energy and accounting for more carbon releases than any other country, its success in shifting away from coal and natural gas will determine whether the 1.5 degrees C goal is attainable, the IEA analysis asserted.

If China meets several short-term goals it developed in the last year, which are not yet reflected in the country's 2020 "nationally determined contribution" under the Paris climate accord, the country's carbon dioxide emissions could peak several years ahead of its current 2030 goal, the IEA said. It also could reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 as called for by the agreement instead of by 2060 as called for by China's current Paris climate accord pledge.

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The IEA said China has the tools needed to speed up the transition to net zero.

"When you look at China, don't think only of the fossil fuel part, because China is today a leader of clean energy," Fatih Birol, the IEA's executive director, said at the launch of the report. "Number one in the world for hydropower, number one in the world for electric cars, number one in the world for electric buses, and as such China is a clean energy powerhouse."

Building on its massive investments in renewables since 2015, the country's expansion of clean energy technologies is affordable, the IEA said. China also has launched a carbon market and reformed its power market that can support a more rapid decline in coal use and industry energy efficiency gains. With the right policies in place, energy sector emissions could decline nearly 20%, by more than 2 gigatons, from today's levels, the agency projected.

"China has the capabilities, economic means and policy skills to reach [an emission] peak in the mid-2020s," Birol said. "This would increase the world's chances of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 °C, which would be, of course, wonderful news." The IEA chief also cited China's recent promise to stop building coal plants overseas.

But Dave Jones, global program lead for the clean energy think tank Ember, said the report also showed the gap between China's current emission trajectory and what is needed to meet the Paris Agreement goal.

"At the moment, runaway electricity demand is taking Chinese coal generation in the wrong direction," Jones wrote in an email. "The IEA shows that China's emissions would need to be about 20% lower by 2030 than currently anticipated, and that gap would need to come mostly from lower coal generation."

With a population of 1.4 billion and a growing economy, China still depends on coal for 60% of its electricity. The country has been on a coal plant building spree in recent years even as many other nations began to phase out coal. Nearly 90% of the country's emissions are produced by the energy sector, according to the IEA.