China: getting to net zero by 2060

China is the world’s biggest greenhouse emitter, the second biggest economy and the biggest manufacturer of wind turbines, solar panels and batteries in the world. It is both the problem and the solution to climate change. In September in an address to the United Nations General Assembly China’s President Xi Jinping said that China would strive to reach net zero emissions by 2060.

It’s a big call, the most ambitious emissions reduction signal yet by the world’s most populous country. Obviously highly conditional in its aspiration, it was nevertheless breathlessly seized upon by global media as signifying a great leap forward in Chinese climate ambition.

China is re-living the European industrial revolution, only faster and bigger. It is using low cost coal-fired electricity to underpin rapid industrialisation, dragging more than a quarter of million people out of poverty over the last two decades, compared to 25 million europeans more than a century ago.

The command and control design of the Chinese economy creates a curious economic balancing act for its leadership. The sometimes woeful losses in economic efficiency from such a vast economy being centrally planned is sustainable only if the rate of economic growth is fast enough. China is like an economic supernova. If it runs out of growth, it risks exploding in on itself.

This economic paradox is critical when considering China’s decarbonisation ambitions. Its leaders get the same science as everyone else, and presumably would like to cut emissions as fast as possible. But it’s not that simple. China needs to maintain enough economic growth while decarbonising. That could be tricky, especially given the sheer scale of engineering involved.

The International Energy Agency said as much in its recent review of the Chinese announcement. “Achieving this goal of net-zero emissions would represent a milestone in modern Chinese history comparable to 1949. To do so, would require China to quickly embark on an ambitious multi-decade effort to transform its economy, as it did after 1978. Net zero would have to serve as a guiding principle for policymaking that is comprehensively embedded into structural reforms, investment policies and innovation priorities.”

How authentic is this ambition? The Wall Street Journal is cynical. It sees President’s Xi’s statement as more focussed on short term negotiations with Europe on trade, technology and human rights, in an attempt to soften EU attitudes and prevent Europe aligning with the US. This will only intensify with a Biden Administration in the wings.

There is a practical question to China’s bold statement. Maths-science students will be keen to point out that 2060 is 40 years away. Many things are possible in such a timeframe. But not all things.

The most advanced source of abatement is electricity. China hosts a roughly 2000 gigawatt electricity system which will continue to grow for decades. For sense of scale the National Electricity Market in eastern Australia is around 54 GW. That means a process of transformation to deliver at least 40 times more low/zero emissions generation and storage required to power a decarbonised Chinese electricity system.

The idea of a renewable based electricity system is still academic. No one has done it yet, certainly not at the colossal scale needed to run mainland China. The emerging school of thought it that renewables firmed by storage can get to around 80 per cent of capacity, but then require some sort of engine to balance out the system, recharge storage during winter and be able to help out as speakers during periods of high demand. That translates into at least 400 GW of nuclear or hydrogen power stations.

China consumes around 4700 terawatt hours of electricity per annum. To produce this with wind energy alone with a capacity factor of around 25 per cent would require 2000 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity. That’s 2 million MW of capacity or a bit less than 1 million wind turbines. Global wind installations are running at around 60GW per annum. In practice this number will probably be higher because of losses from storage devices, economic growth and the declining efficiency of wind turbine sites.

The equivalent of this in solar PV electricity production is 2600 GW (2.6 million MW). Global installation of solar PV is currently tracking at around 100 GW per annum, so for sense of scale China’s energy demand would be equivalent to all global solar PV installed capacity for a quarter of a century. Based on the ARENA estimate of a hectare per MW of generation, that would require 2.6 million hectares of solar PV. That’s 26,000 square kilometres.

These are huge numbers, but then everything about China is huge numbers. They’re theoretically do-able, but will require probably gigawatts of storage technologies, and a few gigawatts of nuclear engines too. The IEA is probably right. Net zero by 2060 is possible for China, but the entire will of the economy will be needed to deliver it.