China’s carbon emissions could peak this year before falling into a structural decline for the first time from next year after a record surge in clean energy investments, according to research.
Emissions from the world’s most polluting country have rebounded this year after the Chinese government dropped its Covid restrictions in January, according to analysis undertaken for Carbon Brief.
However, this rebound in fossil fuel demand emerged alongside a historic expansion of the country’s low-carbon energy sources, which was far in excess of policymakers’ targets and expectations.
Beijing’s solar and wind installation targets for the year were met by September, according to the report, and the market share of electric vehicles is already well ahead of the government’s 20% target for 2025.
“These record additions are all but guaranteed to push fossil-fuel electricity generation and CO2 emissions into decline in 2024,” Lauri Myllyvirta, a lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air and the author of the report.
The most striking growth has been in solar power, according to Myllyvirta. Solar installations increased by 210 gigawatts (GW) this year alone, which is twice the total solar capacity of the US and four times what China added in 2020.
The analysis, which is based on official figures and commercial data, found that China installed 70GW of wind power this year – more than the entire power generation capacity of the UK. It is also expected to add 7GW of hydro power and 3GW of nuclear power capacity this year, said the report.
Myllyvirta said the boom in clean energy generation could trigger a decline in China’s emissions from next year despite a wave of new coal plants across the country.
“This is because – for the first time – the rate of low-carbon energy expansion is now sufficient to not only meet, but exceed the average annual increase in China’s demand for electricity overall,” he said.
“If this pace is maintained, or accelerated, it would mean that China’s electricity generation from fossil fuels would enter a period of structural decline – which would also be a first. Moreover, this structural decline could come about despite the new wave of coal plant permitting and construction in the country,” Myllyvirta added.
China had 136GW of coal power capacity already under construction at the end of June, with a further 99GW with planning permits. Another 25GW has been permitted since then, according to the research, which would breach a policy pledge made by the country’s president, Xi Jinping, to “strictly control new coal-fired power generation projects”.
China has forecast that its coal power capacity will peak at 1,370GW in 2030, which would require either an immediate end to new coal power permits, or an accelerated shutdown of existing and planned coal plants, said Myllyvirta.
The findings support forecasts from energy experts that emissions from global electricity generation could reach a peak this year before a peak in all energy emissions from next year.
A report by climate thinktank Ember last month found that the growth of renewables was so rapid that it was close to the rate required for the world to triple its capacity by the end of the decade to meet climate targets.
In recent weeks, the International Energy Agency added that emissions from all energy sources – including fossil fuels used for heating and fuels – could peak in 2025 before starting to decline in a historic turning point for the energy industry.