Different Roads, Same Lower-Carbon Destination

A new study by Chinese researchers finds that China’s provinces could take very different paths to achieving China’s 2020 goal of reducing carbon intensity by 40% to 45% below 2005 levels. One energy-poor province included in the study, for instance, could rely on boosting nuclear power – while another coal-rich province could emphasize energy efficiency and strong economic growth.

Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon released per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Since China announced its intensity commitment last year, scholars and energy experts have been pondering how each of the nation’s 34 provinces – which have different energy production and use profiles – will meet their specific targets.

To explore some of the options, a team led by Run Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Xiamen took a close look at two provinces: Fujian and Anhui. Fujian, a province of more than 38 million people, sits on the southeast coast and imports much of its energy. Anhui, an inland province with more than 61 million people, is rich in coal. Both have fast-growing economies, although Fujian ranks higher on the Human Development Index, which social scientists use to measure development and well-being.

In the journal Energy Policy, the researchers use scenarios that incorporate energy, economic and emissions data to examine how the two provinces could reach the 2020 target. Their analysis shows that, in theory at least, both provinces “can easily achieve the national reduction goal,” the authors write. “However, the two studies describe different paths to a low-carbon economy.”

In Fujian, plans to build new nuclear power plants that will provide a projected 15% of its energy by 2020 are key to curbing carbon emissions while fueling economic growth. (In contrast, just 7% of China’s total power supply is projected to come from nuclear.)

Anhui, however, could manage “to lower its energy intensity simply by maintaining a high GDP development rate and continuing existing energy saving measures,” the team notes.

Both provinces have one thing in common, however: “Renewable energy such as wind, solar and biomass is envisaged to play a very small part in their proposed 2020 energy structures.”

Both provinces, however, could face challenges in turning these scenarios into reality, the authors suggest. China’s nuclear power program, for instance, “poses serious financial, resource and security-related and environmental challenges.” And sustaining high economic growth rates – while still improving energy efficiency – could be difficult. The overall lesson, they conclude, is that “due to different energy structures, Chinese provinces should evaluate their own unique situations” as they chart a path to a low-carbon economy.

Source: Wang, R., et al. “Path towards achieving of China’s 2020 carbon emission reduction target—A discussion of low-carbon energy policies at province level.” Energy Policy (2011), doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.02.043.

Photo by Jake Ji.