Scientists in China are scrambling to support the government’s plan to reach “net zero” carbon emissions by 2060, as Ling Xin discovers
As the COVID-19 pandemic rampaged across the world in 2020, resulting in lockdowns and a bold race to create the first vaccine, Chinese president Xi Jinping was keen to tackle another huge scientific issue: the climate. In a surprise announcement to the UN general assembly in September 2020, he announced a bold plan to transition the country from one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters to a “net zero” carbon society by 2060.
That ambitious aim came as a shock to many in the country, including regional government officials who are still processing what the goal means and what policies they need to adopt to meet it. Since Xi’s speech, however, dozens of carbon neutrality institutes across the country have already sprung up. In December 2020 the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing unveiled its carbon neutrality research centre – the first of its kind in China – that aims to strengthen monitoring technologies for carbon emissions. Prominent universities including Tsinghua, Fudan and Shanghai Jiao Tong followed suit, creating their own institutes aimed at fostering carbon-neutrality policies.
In March the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), meanwhile, proposed an action plan to put China at the forefront of climate change endeavours. This would be achieved, CAS noted, by developing technologies to boost the cleaner use of fossil fuels and safer nuclear energy, as well as the integration of renewable energy into existing power grids. But implementing such initiatives represents a tough challenge. “Meeting China’s carbon goals requires a profound, systematic socio-economic revolution, in which [scientists] have a major role to play by joining force across disciplines and making technological breakthroughs,” said CAS vice president Tao Zhang when announcing the plan.
Part of that net-zero struggle is China’s current reliance on coal. It makes up around 60% of the country’s electricity generation and cutting back on this heavily polluting type of power generation will be key to a net-zero carbon society. That may well require the rapid implementation of carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS). This involves installing decarbonization facilities in the chimneys of coal-power plants where carbon is collected and transformed before being buried underground or at sea.
Scientists in China have been studying CCUS technologies since 2004 and have so far built 35 demonstration projects that have a total average injection capacity of 1.7 million tonnes of carbon per year. By 2060 that injection capacity is projected to be around 1–3 billion tonnes. Yet CCUS technologies have potential risks including during storage and transportation. Ning Wei from the CAS Institute of Rock and Soil Mechanics in Wuhan, who has been working in this field for some two decades, says that China is lagging behind in some key CCUS technologies such as the monitoring and risk assessment of leaks to prevent the outflow of carbon dioxide, which his team are now working to address.
The wide implementation of such technology is likely to make energy more expensive – at least in the short term. Wei says that the cost for coal-fired power production is expected to rise by 20–30 cents per kilowatt-hour if CCUS is widely implemented. However, once these technologies have matured, it is hoped that such costs will drop by 50%.
It may come as a surprise to some that China is the world’s leading producer of renewable energy, with around a quarter of demand met by hydro, wind and solar energy. Yet China is not resting on its laurels, with plans to expand its renewable sector by building so-called “green energy bases” in its north-western desert regions. The country aims to have one third of its electricity from renewables by 2025, with a combined wind and solar capacity of 1200 GW by the end of the decade. “The view from west is one of amazement – and some envy,” says technology policy expert David Elliott from Open University in the UK.
As renewable energy can be intermittent and unstable, a major challenge is integrating it into the power grid. This has prompted researchers to examine different energy-storage techniques. “Energy storage is key to the wide application of renewable energy because it gives a certain degree of flexibility to the power system that requires rigid real-time balance,” notes Xianfeng Li from the CAS Institute of Chemical Physics in Dalian. Li has been studying “flow batteries”, one of the most promising solutions for stationary energy storage thanks to its high energy density and low costs. His team is looking to use advanced materials and design to improve their efficiency and reliability while lowering the costs of commercialization and industrialization. “We would like to see stronger funding for the development of energy-storage technologies, a better-defined market mechanism for such technologies and products, and a top-level innovation centre to lead the country’s efforts in energy storage research,” adds Li.
Some researchers believe that nuclear power could be a low-carbon option to fill that intermittency gap. China currently produces 55 GW of nuclear capacity across 53 nuclear power plants – about 5% of the country’s electricity generation – but helping to achieve net zero could require installing 560 GW of nuclear power by 2050. That would be a huge challenge, however, with officials urging the government to approve at least six projects a year to bring total capacity up to 180 GW by 2035.
To do so, China is pushing ahead with fourth-generation nuclear reactors. In September 2021 an experimental reactor opened on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert. It uses thorium as fuel and molten salts as the primary coolant to achieve relatively safe and cheap energy generation. Two months later a demonstrative high-temperature gas-cooled nuclear reactor was connected to the power grid in Shidao Bay, in the eastern coastal province of Shandong, which marked the world’s first use of pebble-bed reactor technology in nuclear reactors. Not everyone, however, thinks nuclear power is the answer to net zero. “I feel it’s an expensive, dangerous diversion,” notes Elliott. China’s energy plans
China’s energy plans
While China’s emissions reduction tends to focus on the energy supply side, the demand side deserves equal attention. This includes how to persuade more people to use electric vehicles and how to integrate solar panels into residence buildings. Above all, for a country that emits more greenhouse gases than any other nation, curbing emissions calls for a paradigm shift not only in government, industry and academia, but also from every citizen.
China has already made carbon reduction a quantitative goal for national development – a move that will require the country to turn its back on fossil fuels and focus on renewable energy and possibly nuclear – and in the coming decades carbon neutrality will become a national strategy. And while scientists are seeking to develop better technologies to meet that goal, Daizong Liu from the World Resources Institute’s Beijing Office believes that China could manage it without needing to do so. “According to our calculation, China will be able to reduce 89% of its emissions simply by the massive application of existing technologies,” adds Liu. “An entire generation will work together to achieve it.”