Mar 29, 2019 - Energy & Environment

China's emissions future

Data: International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2018; Chart: Chris Canipe
Data: International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2018; Chart: Chris Canipe

A new paper in the journal Nature Communications has good news if you're in a "glass half full" kind of mood, concluding that China's carbon emissions are likely to peak well before 2030 if several things break right.

Why it matters: China has a lot to say about the planet's future. It's by far the world's largest CO2 emitter and over a fourth of the world's total.

  • The country has pledged under the Paris climate deal to peak by 2030, seek to make it happen sooner, and boost the share of non-fossil energy to 20% by then.

But, but, but: The analysis shows why none of this can be taken for granted.

  • Hitting these CO2 and energy targets will require "full and effective implementation of all current policies," as well as power-sector reforms, implementing and expanding its emissions-trading system (ETS), toughening efficiency rules, and addressing other gaps.

Quick take: The paper's conclusion is a sign that an important pledge made under the Paris deal is achievable.

  • But it also shows the challenge of overcoming the gap between nations' current plans, and what's needed to put rising global emissions on the necessary downward slope.

Check out the charts above, which Axios data journalist Chris Canipe constructed from International Energy Agency analyses.

  • The one on the left models what happens if China delivers on existing and announced policies.
  • The one on the right? That's the scenario for an emissions pathway consistent with nations jointly achieving the Paris agreement's big goal: Holding temperature rise to 2°C above preindustrial levels, and ideally to 1.5°C.

What they're saying: I asked Kelly Sims Gallagher, lead study author from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, whether the paper's finding is something of a Pyrrhic victory, given the need for much deeper global cuts.

  • "Every country has to start somewhere and for a rapidly industrializing economy, it is not easy to halt growth in emissions," Gallagher says.
  • "Our study finds that China will peak its emissions early, which will allow it to begin the reduction process sooner, which is very good news. It is also great to see that they are abiding by the international treaty, unlike the United States."

Details: The authors surveyed experts on China about existing policies and new ones needed to meet China's pledge. They note that the most frequent responses in the latter category include a carbon tax for sectors that aren't covered by the ETS and "entrepreneurship incentives for low-carbon firms."

The intrigue: "Few experts identified innovation policies, economic reform policies, or industrial policies as influential in emissions reductions, but the authors of this paper believe that these policies are, in fact, key to the ability of China to limit future emissions," they write.

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