[The Voice]Li Junfeng: There is no energy transition without energy revolution

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1 [The Voice]Li Junfeng: There is no energy transition without energy revolution Author: Li Junfeng, Director of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation (NCSC) The 18 th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was held in November of During the event, the party elected new members for the Central Committee and Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, as well as for the Standing Committee of the National People s Congress. People found the inaugural speech of the General Secretary, Mr. Xi Jinping, to be inspirational. Our people love their lives, and are looking forward to better education, more stable jobs, more satisfying income, more reliable social security, more advanced medical services, more comfortable living conditions, a more beautiful environment; as well as hoping for their children to grow healthier, work better and live better. These wishes have become our goals. Mr. Xi s words greatly resonated with the people, who now expect the new generation of national leadership to guide them all towards realizing the dream of A Beautiful China, and towards living the lives they long for. Still, the people may not have realized that there are still many challenges to overcome before the dream of A Beautiful China may be reached. In January 2013, an unexpected wave of severe air pollution swept over most of China s Mid-Eastern cities. Approximately 2.5 million square kilometers of land was covered by smog, and anywhere from 600 to 700 million people suffered from it. The discovery that the republic s capital city of Beijing had become the region most affected by smog prompted several concerns among the populace: how had the smog arrived, and where it had come from? These proved to be difficult questions for both citizens and national leaders. Scientists from all fields began testing, observing, and writing papers, as well as holding meetings and discussions on the sources of smog. Although views varied, the general consensus is that the core of smog consists of fine particulate matter, abbreviated to PM 2.5 by environmental scientists. These fine particles are composed of many sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, ammonia and dust pollution, and their secondary products after photochemical reaction in the atmosphere, all of which are harmful to human health. 1 / 5

2 During the working meeting of two committees of the Ministry of Environmental Protection in February 2013, a simple comparison pointed people towards examining fossil fuels as the source of smog. China and the United States have almost the same land area, and both consume 3 billion tons of coal-equivalent fossil fuels. However, when we compare PM 2.5, an air quality index used by WHO, China and the US are significantly different. The US standard for PM 2.5 in cities requires that levels be kept below 15 ppm, and 90% of US cities have a PM 2.5 level below 10 ppm. The US national average level of PM 2.5 is single-digit. In contrast, China s annual average level of PM 2.5 is 74 ppm, which is nearly 5 times more than the US standard. Based on records, none of China s cities meet the US standard maximum, even including Sanya, China s least polluted city, whose PM 2.5 level of 18.7 ppm is still 25% higher than the US national standard. What then makes the two countries so different in terms of air quality despite their similar sizes and fossil fuel consumption levels? The answer is coal consumption. The annual coal consumption of China is 4 billion tons, which is nearly 5 times more than the US. This means that even if we were to reach the US PM 2.5 standard, our total emissions would still be 5 times greater than the US! This is confirmed by NASA s Global PM2.5 Concentration Map, which shows that there is a strong correlation between coal consumption and PM 2.5 concentration. Among the approximately 40 million tons of coal equivalent energy consumed by China in 2013, coal accounted for about 67%. Similarly, 75% (4 trillion KWH) of 5.4 trillion KWh electricity generated nation-wide came from coal-fired power plants. These numbers were 40% and 55% higher than the world average level, respectively. In 2013, China consumed more than 450 tons of coal per square kilometer, which was in sharp contrast to the world average level of 30 tons and the under 80 tons consumed in the US. In the five most affected regions (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong and Henan), the average levels of coal consumption per square kilometer reached more than 2000 tons, which was 70 times more than world average level and 25 times more than the US level. In order to regulate the air pollution, in 2013 the State Council promulgated the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, which included regulations directing energy transformations. In April of 2014, Premier Li Keqiang convened the first meeting of the National Energy Commission, and proposed new national energy requirements. Two months later, in the sixth meeting of the Central Leading Group of Financial and Economic Affairs in June 2014, Secretary General Xi outlined five major necessities for China's energy revolution: revolutions in consumption, production, technology, and systems, as well as increased emphasis on international cooperation. He further 2 / 5

3 issued a general mobilization order for a nationwide energy cleanup and established low-carbonization development as the chief objective of energy transformations. Whose lives do these energy revolutions aim to change? From an environmental perspective, these revolutions firstly aim to change the life of coal. After all, there can be no energy transition without reforming coal consumption. Another important initiative in China s energy revolution is carbon dioxide emission reduction. The Paris Agreement, finalized on December 12, 2015, urges all countries to peak their greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and further implores that they make efforts to reach equilibrium between human carbon dioxide emission and natural system absorption. China started its energy transition journey in The year prior, China s carbon dioxide emission by fossil fuels was nearly 9.7 billion tons. It was more than the emissions of the US, EU, and Japan combined, and almost the same as that of all 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was the first year that China experienced negative growth of electricity generation and coal consumption was a very successful and crucial year for China s energy transition. During the year, electricity generation was 5.5 trillion KWh, 0.2% lower than 2014, a reduction of roughly 11 billion KWh. However, despite a reduction in coal dependency and overall electricity generation, renewable energy outputs saw a marked increase. In the same year, wind power increased nearly 40 billion kwh, solar power generation increased 20 billion kwh, hydropower increased 70 billion kwh, and nuclear power increased 30 billion kwh. All in all, renewable energy production recorded a net increase of 160 billion kwh in In 2015, net thermal power electricity generation decreased by 170 billion kwh, most of the decrease (160 billion kwh) being in coal-fired power generation. In all, there was a 5% reduction in coal-fired power generation between 2013 and 2015, a shift down from 74% in 2013 to 69% in China already has the prerequisites for a large-scale energy transition: the people have demonstrated their desire for a clean environment; the central government has already defined specific requirements for a large-scale energy transition; there are global precedents of large countries successfully navigating energy transitions, huge breakthroughs have been made in renewable technology, and finally, China has successfully implemented commercial development. 3 / 5

4 Most importantly, China s practices in the past few years have proved that non-fossil fuels can not only satisfy increased energy demands but can even largely substitute for fossil fuels, especially coal. Just in terms of reducing coal power generation, non-fossil fuel energy generation replaced about 70 million tons of coal. Of course whether fossil fuels are replaced by renewable energy or by non-fossil fuels, the process cannot happen overnight. Instead it will require persistent efforts to decrease the percentage one degree at a time, and it may take as long as 30 years for China s energy structure to synchronize fully with the world. To achieve China s energy transition, it needs to change a fundamental ideology--- an ideology that puts coal and the domestic front first. Government officials and experts who are familiar with China s energy situation usually say China is rich in coal but poor in gas and oil. If China can t use coal, what will it use? However, we should first acknowledge that while most countries in the world are similar to China in that they lack gas and oil but are rich in coal, fewer than 10 of the 200 countries in the United Nations have a coal proportion greater than 50%. Reducing the dependence of coal progressively is the global trend, and China should follow it. In addition, China s energy structure cannot be domestically based and independent unless China constructs a renewable energy based structure. Including the entire ocean, the earth s surface is 510 million square kilometers. China only has 12 million square kilometers, or 2% of the earth. Even dividing all Chinese energy resources equally, our resource per capita is still 20% of the world average level. Therefore, it is understandable that China needs to import more than 70% of its oil, gas, and uranium demands. That being said, the only way forward for China is for it to integrate and marketize into the global energy system, and no longer insist on self-sufficiency. To that end, China must change its cost concept. For a long time, China s energy strategy revolved around the notion of an economized energy system in which the goal was to build the national energy system using the lowest cost options. Energy, however, is a part of society and the economy, irrespective of its importance. We must consider this problem from many angles, including in terms of systematic cost-effectiveness. If we only consider it from the perspective of energy, the cost of coal is higher than timber, the cost of oil and gas are higher than coal, and non-fossil fuels cost is higher than fossil fuels. But, in the early stage of industrialization, mankind achieved the transition from timber to coal, and then in the middle stage of industrialization, from coal to oil and gas, finally enabling the realization of industrialized civilization. 4 / 5

5 Now mankind is marching towards a future where renewable energy and non-fossil fuels will replace fossil fuels to construct eco-friendly civilizations. The prior two energy transitions have already demonstrated the technological progress of energy systems, and such a transition is the best choice for a cost-effective global economy and society. When it comes to the entire nation s social and economic system, China s choice to prioritize coal is not the most cost-effective option. Its burning of coal has already become a fundamental cause of China s highly concentrated smog and greenhouse gases. The entire industrial system s low efficiency is highly related to the coalbased choice. And more than 50% of China s railway freight system is devoted to coal-transportation alone. Therefore, we must consider the entire country s social and economic benefits in our analyses of the problem, and walk a green low-carbon safe highly efficient road. In a word, China s energy transition is on its way, but it requires determination, confidence, and patience to succeed. Given that, China will join the rest of the world in walking the path of energy development. If the developed countries relied fully on fossil fuels to become the world s example and guide the direction of the world, China can start by putting the same weight on fossil fuels and non-fossil fuels, and from that contribute to the ultimate replacement of fossil fuels by non-fossil fuels in this century. 5 / 5

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