I just returned from six days of meetings in Beijing with top energy and climate experts. It’s now a widely held view in the Beijing climate community that China will peak its carbon dioxide emissions around 2025.
That would be five years ahead of the official 2030 target China announced this week for the upcoming U.N. climate talks in Paris, which was the same target China announced in November. In both cases, however, China said it would do its best to peak earlier — and, as I noted last fall, China would not tell the world they would do their best to beat a target and then not actually beat that target.
China appears to be beating climate and clean energy targets across the board. It is ahead of its renewable energy targets — and some experts believe they will easily overshoot their 2020 targets for wind and solar. Also, as we reported in May, China may well have already peaked in coal consumption back in 2013. It will take some time, however, to know whether that is a true peak or something closer to a plateau in coal use.
China clearly has both the desire and ability to move fast in this area. That was confirmed in numerous conversations with environmentalists, academics, government officials, and policy analysts who advise the government.
This desire is driven more by the terrible air quality in cities like Beijing than it is by their leaders’ desire to take action on climate change — which itself is quite strong. I unfortunately experienced the bad air quality first-hand. If you spend any time in Chinese cities like Beijing, their urgency on this matter is easy to understand.
Some people we talked to thought China could be on track to peak in CO2 well before 2025, but that seems to be a minority view at this point. Since China’s use of oil and gas is all but certain to rise over the next decade, the key question is whether China’s coal consumption has truly begun a steady decline — or whether it will be roughly flat for the next few years. In the former case, CO2 may well effectively plateau in the near future. It will take a few years for the trend to become clear.
Ultimately, the outcome depends on on two things. First, can the government deliver on what has become one of the biggest citizen demands the Party has faced in its history — how to clean up the air while keeping economy on a stable track? It would be hard to fail on this and stay in power. Second, does China want to be a superpower in a thriving world with a livable climate that it is perceived as helping to have preserved — or in a desperate world without one that it is perceived as having helped destroy?