Key Chinese researchers say GHGs will peak sooner than promised

Source: Jean Chemnick, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, July 15, 2016

The experts the Chinese government relies upon to advise on energy planning say the world’s largest emitter is on track to stop growing its greenhouse gas output as much as a decade earlier than promised.

Jiang Kejun, a lead researcher at the Beijing-based Energy Research Institute, said on the sidelines of the 2016 U.S. Energy Information Administration conference this week in Washington, D.C., that current economic and policy trends meant China would “for sure” outperform its Paris pledge to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Emissions would stop growing by 2022, he said. “I think around 2020.”

The Chinese government has a history of committing to less than it ultimately delivers, Jiang said, because ministers worry that overpromising might squash economic development.

“If you think about the last 15 years, this always happens,” he said. “Every time we did a study, the government said no, they disagree with us, but finally after two or three or four years, they accept almost everything we did.”

Jiang had a lot of examples to pick from. His research institute developed the proposal for cap-and-trade programs to cover major Chinese cities, and in 2011 the nation announced the creation of seven regional pilot programs that are now set to expand to a national program in 2017.

ERI also produced a study before the 2009 U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, that showed the country’s greenhouse gases peaking by 2030, but the government didn’t adopt that recommendation — which instead became a talking point for developed-world negotiators. And it put out a report in 2011 that a 2025 peak date would be feasible and cost-effective, but ministers again dismissed it, opting for more to avoid negative impacts on economic development.

Three years later, China finally committed to “by 2030” as part of a 2014 agreement with the United States that later made up the core of its pledge to the Paris climate deal.

But Jiang said ERI and China’s National Center for Climate Change and International Cooperation — both research institutes that exist to support the government — are releasing their latest findings now to give ministers plenty of time to become comfortable with them.

The two Chinese think tanks worked with the U.S.-based firm Energy Innovation for more than two years on the quantitative analysis released last week. It considered more than 10,000 scenarios to determine how China could most cost-effectively place itself on a pathway to help the world keep emissions to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the long-term goal of last year’s climate deal.

“We assume that the government will accept the 2-degree target,” said Jiang.

Pricing carbon key

The analysis landed on two combinations of 35 policies that were deemed most effective at limiting emissions while addressing a variety of other problems like carbon leakage and the creation of adverse incentives.

The two Chinese groups provided one of the two scenarios, while Energy Innovation authored the other. Both show most reductions coming from a price on carbon emissions, with a combination of other policies delivering proportionally smaller returns.

The report also includes a third scenario that incorporates the strongest possible action its authors say China could take based on policies borrowed from other countries around the world.

The scenario by the Chinese groups shows emissions peaking in 2029 — only one year before the Paris pledge would come due, and much later than Jiang said was likely. It assumes a carbon price of $9.50 per ton joined to other policies like a transportation fuels tax and accelerated development of carbon capture and storage technology.

Energy Innovation’s scenario, which shows peaking in 2022, owes most of its reductions to a $37-per-ton carbon price, though it includes 16 policies in all. The very high-stringency international scenario, meanwhile, would keep China’s emissions from growing beyond where they were in 2013.

The policy packages represent what the Chinese government could do in its 13th five-year plan to improve efficiency and limit emissions, not what it will do. The report is expected out later this year.

And many of the emissions reductions China can count on will come not from energy policies but from a larger shift it is making toward a more service-based economy that is less reliant on heavy manufacturing. Emissions cuts will be a byproduct of that shift.

Answering the ‘dream question’

Sonia Aggarwal of Energy Innovation began working on the quantitative analysis in 2013, when Chinese government officials asked the California-based think tank to help find ways China could decarbonize.

“That’s kind of one of those questions that you wait forever to get asked in the sort of line of work that we’re in,” said Aggarwal, who is director of strategy for the group. “That’s sort of the dream question from our perspective, especially from the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.”

While the Chinese government has taken aggressive action on climate change in recent years, Aggarwal noted it is balancing other priorities, including economic growth and social policy. It is unclear how many energy policies will be included in the next five-year plan.

But she said her engagement with the government did show that reducing emissions was a concern.

“They definitely have real, genuine engagement and interest in this sort of information,” she said. “I would say more so than certainly their U.S. counterparts.”

The quantitative analysis by the Chinese research institutions and Energy Innovation is only the latest of several reports that show China’s emissions peaking early. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tsinghua University released a joint report and the London School of Economics released a report all showing that China would be able to bend the curve on its emissions well before 2030.