By Julian Wong May.4.2009
In: climate change, government

Tyndall Centre Climate Report: High Hopes for Low Carbon

A review of a study on low carbon development pathways for China by the Tyndall Centre.  One of its co-authors, Dr. Wang Tao, speaks at the Beijing Energy & Environment Roundtable (BEER) tomorrow (May 5, Tuesday).  Click here for more details.

A report by the Sussex Energy Group and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research entitled China’s Energy Transition: Pathways for Low Carbon Development set out four different scenarios for low-carbon development in China in an attempt to demonstrate how China’s economic development can be decoupled from carbon emissions growth–allowing its economy to expand by some 8 to 13 times while presumably stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.   The four scenarios are summarized in the table below:

Based on their scenario analysis, the authors draw the following key observations:

1.       Decoupling carbon emissions growth from economic development is challenging but achievable, and there is more than one way to achieve it.

2.       [I]t is vital to start slowing emission growth and to reach a carbon emissions peak as early as possible.  The later the peak occurs, the more difficult it will be for China to comply with the emissions budget. [GLF note:  the scenarios here envision an emissions peak of 2020 or 2030, a much more reasonable timeline than 2012, which outspoken climate advocate Hu Angang proposes]

3.       The success and speed of economic and industrial structural change towards a more balanced service economy and high tech industries is likely to be key to China’s low carbon development.

4.       Energy efficiency is another vital factor for all four scenarios…the largest potential for energy efficiency improvement lies in China’s industries.  But the fast growing energy use in the household and transport sectors requires early action on efficiency if the overall energy efficiency targets in the scenarios are to be met.

5.       Renewable energy has huge potential to substitute fossil fuels in China, and to meet energy demand growth in the future…renewable energy could contribute more than 40% of China’s total energy demand in 2050, and more than 60% of power generation.

6.       In three out of the four scenarios, carbon capture an storage (CCS) plays a crucial role in helping China develop within a carbon budget…By 2050, CCS will have to be installed to 80-90% of fossil fuelled power plants in scenarios S3 and S4.

7.       Nuclear power can play a role in China’s low carbon future.  It does not have the crucial role that renewable energy technologies have within our scenarios.

8.       Achievement of a transition to a low carbon development pathway does not only depend on technology choices.  As in other countries, social choices and the potential carbon lock-in in life styles and behavior patterns will have significant impacts on future emissions.

#5 (especially considering the report gives little consideration to the role of large-scale concentrated solar power) and #7 are encouraging.  But overall,  I’m not sure if I came out of reading this 80 page report any the wiser.  The authors point out that the scenario analysis is meant to be illustrative, not prescriptive.  But the realism of such models are only as good their assumptions and inputs, some of which is worth scrutiny.

First, the carbon budgets used in the scenarios, ranging from 70 to 111 gigatons, are calculated based on the goal of stabilizing greenhouse gases at 550 ppm CO2 equivalent. 550 ppm?!  The authors acknowledge that 550 ppm is on the high side of the recommended range per the Stern Report (450 to 550 ppm) but above Sir Nicholas Stern’s latest figure of 500 ppm that he recommended last year.  Furthermore, as Joe Romm spells explains in Climate Progress, it might be technically impossible to limit GHG concentration at 550 ppm because at that point, all sorts of positive feedback mechanisms get triggered that set use on an inevitable course for a catastrophic 800 to 1000 ppm:

The idea of stabilizing at, say, 550 or 650 ppm, widely held a decade ago, is becoming increasingly implausible given the likelihood that major carbon cycle feedbacks would go into overdrive, swiftly taking the planet to 800 ppm or more. In particular, the top 11 feet of the tundra would probably not survive 550 ppm…and two other key carbon sinks – land-based vegetation and the oceans – already appear to be saturating.

Second, all four scenarios rely heavily on carbon storage and sequestration (CCS) technology, which has not been proven on a commercial scale.  Although point #6 above claims that three out of four rely heavily on CCS, even the scenario in which CCS does not “play a crucial role” will have one third of its coal and gas fired plants, that account for 36% of electricity generation in 2050, will be equipped with CCS.  What is my beef with CCS?  Simply put, it is completely unproven, imposes an energy penalty, and is very expensive.  I’m not ruling out CCS as part of our future energy solutions, but I am deeply concerned when every low-carbon scenario puts most of its eggs in the CCS basket.  CCS simply not a “gimme” that we can assume will be there when we need it.  I direct readers to this excellent overview piece by Joe Romm, which discusses the serious limitations of CCS.  Romm says in another post:

…I am against anybody thinking that CCS is going to be practical or affordable anytime soon, against people relying on the “false sense of security,” as the Economist put it, that CCS is likely to be a major contributor to national or global CO2 emissions reductions before, say, 2030 (if then).

I don’t think that outside date of 2030 really matters.  With the best information available at hand, I wouldn’t wager that CCS wil be ready by 2040, 2050 or 2070 either.

Third, one has to wonder what the global implications of point #3 above are.  How practical is it to move away from a manufacturing-based economy to a high tech/service-oriented economy?  Can the high tech and service sectors, which account for 60 to 80% of the economy in the various scenarios, provide the necessary jobs to maintain social order?  And if manufacturing is leaving China’s shores, where is it headed?  The report makes clear that “[a] Key assumption is that other countries pursue equivalent actions that are also commensurate with the same stabilization target” (p. 9).  I think this is more than a key assumption.  If one is shifting heavy industry and low-cost manufacturing to other countries, it would not be enough for these “other countries” to be engaging in actions that are merely “equivalent” or “commensurate”–they would have to be qualitatively more drastic than those presented by the scenarios, which by themselves seem very ambitious already.

Relatedly, agriculture accounts for only 3 to 5% of the economy, down from about 15% today.  It is unthinkable that such a historically and socially important sector is relegated to such fringe status, and perhaps fails to consider the role that sustainable agriculture can play in carbon mitigation, as a McKinsey report discusses in detail (see pp. 119-127 of McKinsey’s China’s Green Revolution).

On the other hand, there are some things that the report does well:

  • its discussion (see Chapter 4) on how it derived a carbon budget for the world and subsequently, the two key ways (per capita or GDP intensity) ways of apportioning part of it to China.
  • The consideration of aviation and shipping, which are often neglected, into its analysis of the transportation sector
  • The recognition in point #8 above that social innovation is as important as technological innovation, although the report could have benefited from a more details discussion of this point.

Scenario analysis is important and can be helpful, but they are only as good as their assumptions.  The bottom line is that this Tyndall report, rather than provide a glimpse of how a low-carbon economy would be possible, makes seeming errors of omission (agro-forestry solutions) and commision (CCS, shift to predominantly service/hitech economy) that leaves readers wondering if it seriously ever attainable.  Maybe Dr. Wang can set the record straight on some of my concerns above when he speaks at the Beijing Energy & Environment Rountable tomorrow.

Comments (4)

  1. John Romankiewicz May.5.2009@9:48 am Reply

    According to New Energy Finance, current injection rates of CCS are around 20MtCO2e/yr, and from projects currently in the pipeline, injection would only be about 110MtCO2e/yr by 2020 (this will grow slowly over time), at a very high cost (much higher than almost all other forms of abatement).

    China’s carbon dioxide emissions are what…8GtCO2e/yr??

Trackbacks for this post

  1. The Green Leap Forward 绿跃进 » The “how much” and “how to” of China’s goal to reduce carbon intensity Nov.20.2009@4:37 pm Reply

    [...] on CCS is consistent with the scenarios study conducted by the Tyndall Center (see previous post “Tyndall Centre Climate Report:  High Hopes for Low Carbon”), and we’ll  have more on CCS in a later [...]

  2. The Green Leap Forward 绿跃进 » China to adopt “binding” goal to reduce CO2 emissions per unit GDP by 40 to 45% of 2005 levels by 2020 Nov.26.2009@9:48 pm Reply

    [...] Another scholar noted in the same article: “My view is that a Chinese target of a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions intensity between 2005 and 2020 would be a continuation of historical trends,” said Jim Watson, from the Tyndall Centre for climate change research in Britain [and whose report on China's carbon scenarios we've discussed on this blog; see previous post "Tyndall Centre Climate Report: High Hopes for Low Carbon"]. [...]

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