China is by far the world’s largest coal consumer. In fact, it uses as much coal as the rest of the world combined. But as Jiang Kejun (Senior Researcher at the Energy Research Institute in Beijing) and Alexander van der Made (Shell senior principal researcher) point out, China is also the world’s largest investor in clean and green energy.

So if China is part of the climate-change problem, then might it also be part of the solution? Yes say Kejun and van der Made. And they explain how in their contribution to The colours of energy, a recent e-book that explores the future of the world’s energy system through the minds of various experts.

Yin and yang

Kejun and van der Made begin by pointing out that “China is still in an advantageous position compared to Western countries”. It can get to low per-capita CO2 emissions without having to take a long detour through high per-capita emissions, as Germany and the US are doing, for example.

“The challenge therefore is to stabilise energy usage as early as possible. The level at which growth in energy use stalls will depend on the success of choices that are made today.”

What are those choices? They have to do with moving into higher value-added industries, for example, and the provision of public transport and energy-efficient housing – particularly in cities. But virtually all of these choices will eventually lead the Chinese government to coal.

There’s no denying coal’s overpowering attraction: it is cheap and available domestically. “Yet the persistent ‘Great Smog’ that haunted northern China in early 2013 caused a public outcry and spurred the government in September 2013 to declare ‘clean air’ a key priority”, according to Kejun and van der Made.

“This emphasis on a reduction in pollution is luckily enough not irreconcilable with the reduction in carbon emissions. This gives an increased push to replace coal with natural gas, renewables or nuclear.”

Kejun and van der Made have mapped out, in considerable detail, a possible pathway to a low-carbon Chinese economy by 2050. It includes natural gas, renewables and nuclear power, accompanied by an aggressive drive for energy efficiency. It also factors in a decrease in energy-intensive industries and a growth in service industries.

But “no matter how hard China tries to find alternatives, coal will remain its most important energy source for decades to come.” For that reason carbon capture and storage (CCS) is virtually inescapable for China – at least after 2030.

What is necessary, according to Kejun and van der Made, is further cost-reducing technological developments and making sure that new coal-fired plants are “CCS ready”, so that they can be easily retrofitted once the technology is affordable after 2030.

China has much to gain by taking the lead in developing CCS technology. “Cheap CCS technology will allow China to continue to use its low-cost coal and to protect its current investments”, say Kejun and van der Made.

“In addition, we believe that CCS technology and know-how may become an attractive export opportunity for China – as are other low-carbon technologies.”

More than feasible

Kejun and van der Made state: “Our modelling shows that it is entirely feasible to have a low-carbon energy system by 2050.” They also are confident that reaching that destination is also entirely plausible. They believe that China’s leaders understand the challenges of climate change “probably better than their international peers”.

And the country’s top-down political structure and its government’s willingness to act decisively to force change could speed up transition of China’s energy system.

Kejun and van der Made believe that, by embracing a low-carbon pathway, China could indeed become the world’s greatest energy-greening force.


  • For more insight read The greening and cleaning of China by Jiang Kejun and Alexander van der Made in The colours of energy. Download the book for free to your iPad or e-reader and discover more about possible pathways into the future of energy.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in The colours of energy – Essays on the future of energy in society are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Royal Dutch Shell plc nor any of its subsidiaries (Shell).

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