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China raises renewables targets, but coal remains king

AHEAD OF the Copenhagen climate summit at the end of the year, coal-reliant China has been under pressure, notably from the US, to take greater steps towards cutting carbon emissions. In response, the government has increased its 2020 wind and solar power targets several-fold and is about to unveil an economic stimulus package for the renewables sector.

Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice-chairman of the national development and reform commission, told the UK's Guardian newspaper in June that the country had set new targets to bring 100 gigawatts (GW) of wind power capacity and at least 9 GW of solar power on line by 2020, compared with previous targets of 30 GW and 3 GW respectively. This supported figures cited by other high-ranking Chinese renewable-energy officials over previous weeks, one of whom suggested in May that 100-150 GW of wind capacity might be possible by 2020.

At the end of 2008, the country had just over 7 GW of wind capacity and less than 100 megawatts of solar power, so the new targets represent a huge investment. The Chinese government is acutely aware that it must counterbalance its rapidly increasing use of coal power with the development of green energy sources, if it is to keep carbon emissions – and international opprobrium – under control. China surpassed the US as the world's biggest carbon emitter in 2006, since when the gap has continued to widen.

Zhang said renewables were certain to exceed 15% of total energy consumption by 2020 and that 20% was achievable. That would put China on a par with the aspirations of EU countries – although doubts have been raised recently over whether the UK and some other European countries can meet their clean energy objectives if development continues a present rates (see p24).

China's stance seems to have gone down well in the US, which is seeking to reach a compromise agreement with China at Copenhagen. The US' chief delegate, Jonathan Pershing, said after a round of pre-Copenhagen meetings in Bonn, Germany, in June that the US would not push for China to sign up to the binding emissions cuts expected from developed countries. Instead, China would be expected to meet agreed renewable-energy targets and improve energy efficiency. "The outcome is not binding; the action is binding," Pershing told reporters.

There is no doubt that the Chinese wind sector in particular has great potential – thinly populated and windy Inner Mongolia, where much of the industry has been developed so far, stretches across more than 1m square km. Wind resources in the rest of the country have barely been tapped. But even China's revised targets and an increase in the use of nuclear energy will only do a limited amount to tackle the emissions problem.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the country's total power-production capacity now stands at more than 515 GW, with some 80% of that coming from coal. Even if the proportion of coal-fired power falls in relation to other fuel sources, the absolute amount is set to climb for the foreseeable future. The country has been opening a new coal plant every few days in recent months.

Therefore, much of the future debate will surround how best to stem emissions from coal. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the great hope for the continued use of coal around the world, but Al Gore, the environmental campaigner and former US vice-president, suggested recently that CCS would not be a viable solution for many of China's coal-fired power stations. CCS fitted to old-style plants in China would burn about half the energy they produced, he claimed. "It's hard to see how it's going to work," he told the Cornell Global Forum on Sustainable Enterprise in the US last month.

The Chinese authorities can point out that many of their new coal plants burn fuel more efficiently than recent new-build US coal plants and that CCS technology can be more readily fitted to them. But while China has embarked on limited CCS trials, the technology's viability there, as elsewhere in the world, has yet to be proved and remains some distance away from widespread adoption.

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