20th July 2024

At COP28 in Dubai, Carbon Transient’s Anika Patel spoke with Prof Zou Ji, CEO and president of the Vitality Basis China, to debate China’s method to its vitality transition.

This wide-ranging interview covers China’s stance on fossil fuels, issues-based alliances and vitality effectivity pledges at COP28, pathways to the nation rising its renewable energy technology and what China has realized from Germany’s vitality transition. It’s transcribed in full under, following a abstract of key quotes.

Vitality Basis China is an expert grantmaking organisation devoted to China’s sustainable vitality improvement. Prof Zou has years of expertise in economics, vitality, setting, local weather change, and policymaking, having beforehand served as a deputy director common of China’s Nationwide Heart for Local weather Change Technique and Worldwide Cooperation, below the federal government’s nationwide improvement and reform fee (NDRC). 

He was additionally a key member of the Chinese language local weather negotiation workforce main as much as the Paris Settlement, and has been a lead creator for a number of evaluation reviews of the Intergovernmental Panel on Local weather Change.

  • On why China didn’t be part of the pledge to triple renewables and double effectivity: “[Before COP28] now we have not seen [it laid out] very clearly which yr must be the bottom yr [from which tripling renewables should be calculated]. Ought to it’s 2020? Ought to it’s 2022? This may appear to be technical however, [in] the previous two years, world improvement of renewables, particularly in China, [have been significantly boosted, and so]…the distinction in targets could be very vital.”
  • On signing pledges at COP: “For those who take a look at the entire historical past of the COP…I don’t [remember] China becoming a member of any alliances. I’ve by no means seen that…As a celebration, China [is only concerned with] official procedures, ready for a authorized framework of the UNFCCC or the Paris Settlement.” 
  • On China’s dedication to decarbonisation: “For those who look again at historical past, there have been only a few instances that present China [first making] after which [giving up] a dedication. This isn’t the political tradition in China.”
  • On China’s electrical energy consumption: “For low-income stage teams, though their earnings has not grown very a lot, their consumption preferences and mindsets – particularly for youthful generations of customers – imply they’re extra prepared to make use of electrical energy [than previous generations].”
  • On comparisons of China to the EU and US: “There’s a structural [difference] in comparison with the [energy mix] in Europe and the US. Nearly all of vitality use [in China] has been for industrial manufacturing, moderately than for residential [use]…In China, the common energy consumption per capita is round 6,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh), in comparison with 8,000kWh in Europe and over 12,000kWh within the US.”
  • On vitality effectivity: “Bodily, I feel China has grow to be higher and higher [in terms of] its effectivity, however, economically, this can’t produce as excessive a value-add as Europe and the US in financial phrases.” 
  • On fossil gasoline phaseout: “I wish to see…[China] in a short time enlarging its renewable capability. Provided that [there is] enough capability and technology of renewables can this result in an actual phasing out or phasing down of fossil fuels.”
  • On guaranteeing extra renewables uptake: “We’ve raised the share of renewable energy technology from seven, eight, 9 per cent to at the moment’s 16%. That is progress, however it isn’t fast sufficient or massive sufficient. We need to push the grid firms…to do extra and do it sooner.”
  • On the ability of distributed renewables: “We also needs to take into account…creat[ing] one other, completely new energy system. This may be a kind of nexus of a centralised and decentralised grid system…If [the central grid] is having difficulties [increasing renewable generation], and if these are very difficult to beat, then let’s [shift] to lots of microgrids.”
  • On distributed renewables development: “At this time, the share of distributed [renewables] remains to be decrease than centralised renewables. However the incremental [distributed] renewables development has grow to be greater than development of centralised renewables up to now yr or two, and I might assume it will stay a pattern sooner or later.”
  • On substituting fossil fuels with renewables: “Relying solely on photo voltaic and the wind [means] you needn’t depend on imported oil or gasoline. And so, progressively, you’ll de-link your vitality use from coal [and] from fossil fuels.” 
  • On the necessity for CCUS: “In some sectors, like, for instance, iron and metal, cement, chemical compounds and petrochemicals, we do want carbon seize, utilisation and storage (CCUS), as a result of it is extremely troublesome to part out coal or carbon dioxide [completely].”
  • On CCUS within the energy sector: “I’ve combined emotions about CCUS for the ability sector. I’ve a super imaginative and prescient that we are able to attain actual zero emissions in these sectors by way of a extra developed grid system, with extra connectivity throughout provinces or areas and the usage of AI expertise.”

Carbon Transient: Might you give an summary of what your expectations are for COP28?

Zou Ji: It could be a bit of early to make a judgement [on] what outcomes this COP can attain, however we do know what the important thing points listed below are…[The] world stocktake (GST) is the core situation for this COP as it’s the first time it has taken place because the Paris Settlement …However for the GST there are totally different ranges [at which we need] to know [the process and]…its consequence. Primary, [in terms of] the scope of GST, what ought to we take inventory [of]? Many colleagues, particularly colleagues from Europe and possibly additionally from the US – I imply industrialised international locations – wish to focus extra on mitigation…We nonetheless have a major hole…[to fill] to attain the 1.5C goal. The hole [is] there, and we have to improve our ambition to shut the hole. So it is a main concern…within the GST. 

However in the meantime, we see another events, [such as] the so-called [like-minded] growing nation [LMDC] group… the Alliance of Small Island States and Least Developed Nations group, [which are] primarily positioned in Africa. [These groups] are very eager to [address] the hole in monetary help for capability constructing and expertise switch, briefly, technique of implementation.

And there was, since [COP26 in] Glasgow, I feel, a really particular monetary situation: the loss and injury fund. Along with some common monetary points like developed international locations mobilis[ing] $100bn annually by 2023, it will proceed to be a priority. However…we additionally produce other points, extra particular points just like the tripling of renewables and doubling effectivity and… [procedure-related] points like transparency. [There are] lots of points!

Earlier than COP now we have seen…official statements from Europe, from the US and in addition from China – particularly the joint Sunnylands assertion – [which is] related to China-US cooperation in COP28 and…can [give us] some very preliminary expectations on the end result. 

[Taking the GST as an example], I might assume there will likely be a political determination by all of the events [to say] they recognise the numerous hole for reaching well-below 2C, [following] the Paris Settlement language. However [there is an] even bigger hole for 1.5C. This must be one [thing] we may count on [to see appear in the final text], however definitely I feel there should be some robust negotiations on the scope of the GST: particularly [on if we] ought to embody…points [such as] adaptation, monetary help to growing international locations, expertise switch, capability constructing, and many others…The negotiations will likely be very robust, however it’s a lengthy debate.  

[Another issue to watch is the] tripling renewables and doubling effectivity [pledge]. I might say [that the issue has received]…endorsement from the G20 and the Sunnylands assertion. However in these two statements…now we have not seen [it laid out] very clearly which yr must be the bottom yr. Ought to it’s 2020? Ought to it’s 2022? This may appear to be technical however, [in] the previous two years, world improvement of renewables, particularly in China, [have been significantly boosted]… So [depending on which year is picked as the base year,] the distinction in targets could be very vital. 

After which it’s packaged along with [a more defined] goal…[to] not solely [focus on the] tripling [of renewables] but additionally [to focus on] the overall quantity of the capability of renewables…11,000GW [gigawatts] has been proposed. If so, [meaning that] the bottom yr is 2020…then, [from some negotiators’ perspectives] this could be a special understanding of the definition of the goal from the one [proposed] earlier than the COP. After which, this may occasionally result in some events hesitat[ing] to make an official dedication on that. I do know you could be very fascinated by China’s place on that situation.

CB: You learn my thoughts.

ZJ: I might attempt to perceive it on this means. For those who take a look at the entire historical past of the COP…I don’t [remember] China becoming a member of any alliances [Prof Zou here means issue-based alliances or pledges]. I’ve by no means seen that. That implies that[,]…as a celebration, China solely focuses on official procedures, ready for a authorized framework of the UNFCCC or the Paris Settlement. And in case you take a look at totally different initiatives, [such as the] local weather ambition alliance, [global] renewables alliance, and many others –  for the second, they haven’t readied a authorized framework. So now…[the pledges are] casual, with out official or authorized commitments. So, I can’t discover proof [of China joining informal alliances in this way]. 

Definitely I don’t have any assessments whether or not China ought to…or shouldn’t [join the pledge to triple renewable energy and double energy efficiency]. However that is the historical past…of China’s engagement in UNFCCC, the Paris Settlement [and] the Kyoto Protocol…If China makes [such] a dedication, this is able to be considerably shocking [from a historical perspective].  

[Secondly,] possibly this displays the distinction of political methods and…policymaking in numerous political regimes or cities, particularly between China and Europe and the US. As you realize, in Europe and the US you could have election[-based] regimes or methods – each 4 or 5 years you’ll elect a special parliament, a special cupboard, a special president or a special prime minister, and many others. Their time period could be quick or it could be lengthy, relying on the outcomes of the election. That implies that there is no such thing as a assure for one get together or for one policymaker to remain in energy for a very long time. It could be two phrases, it could be three phrases. However in China, the political assumption is [that] the communist get together will likely be in energy perpetually. [No-one would assume that] subsequent yr, or subsequent time period, we may have one other get together main the nation. 

My statement is [that] Chinese language policymakers are very cautious [about] making commitments, not solely due to considerations across the challenges and issue of reaching this dedication. They might say: “If I make the dedication, this must be one thing I have to [achieve].” [This is] as a result of they make the choice or dedication for a single get together. Regardless of [which] technology of chief [made the commitment], the dedication comes from the identical get together…In order that partially [explains] why China appears to be very cautious to make even a long-term dedication. 

Simply to take a really rapid instance, the US made a dedication on the Kyoto Protocol throughout the Clinton administration, however solely [on behalf of] the White Home. When [power] turned to the Bush administration within the early 2000s, the Bush administration mentioned [they] won’t submit that proposal to congress, as a result of [they] knew it could not be accepted…After which [eventually] the US gave up [trying] to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. 

That is the primary case, and sadly, we see one other case within the Trump administration. The Obama administration…signed the Paris Settlement. However…[then] Trump turned president and Trump mentioned the US will withdraw from the Paris Settlement. And this [type of turbulence] is one thing, in truth, I take with no consideration, given [my] understanding of the US political system. However this isn’t the case in China. 

Thirdly, it could be a matter of political tradition. For the Chinese language, usually, [as I said]…in the event that they make a dedication, the dedication…is one thing they need to [achieve]. Usually they won’t…simply make the dedication to ‘speak [big]’ after which, after a number of years, hand over or ‘neglect’ [about it]. Usually, China will keep in mind [its] commitments and can obtain [them], [on the] foundation of belief. So, China places very excessive [importance] on reaching these commitments, [which] results in some difficulties for the Chinese language authorities to make commitments. For those who look again at historical past, there have been only a few instances that present China [first making] after which [giving up] a dedication. This isn’t the political tradition in China. However that is my understanding, not a standardised or official interpretation!

CB: I used to be having a dialog with one other educational earlier at the moment, and so they supplied a further clarification – that current financial troubles could be an added issue growing warning in the direction of committing to targets in China. Would you agree with that?

ZJ: It’s not straightforward to easily reply sure or no, agree or disagree. However I might say sure. The uncertainty of development up to now years, particularly because the pandemic, appears to [have made] issues a bit of bit…sophisticated, particularly when it comes to carbon depth. 

In previous years, the [economic] development fee has grow to be decrease and decrease – even decrease than expectations. However carbon emissions proceed to extend. A number of years in the past, the frequent understanding was that if the expansion fee stays at a really excessive stage, the economic system will develop over time, after which emissions will develop over time. However this time, we noticed that development was very gradual, however emissions continued to develop. However I wish to strive to have a look at this in additional element, to establish the driving pressure behind [this]. Why have we had a decrease development fee up to now yr, however carbon emissions, coal use and in addition vitality use have continued to develop? 

[In this case], we had higher take a look at vitality use per capita, and particularly electrical energy use per capita. Though the expansion fee may be very low, the bottom quantity of energy use per capita was additionally very low up to now. For low-income stage teams, though their earnings has not grown very a lot, their consumption preferences and mindsets, particularly for youthful generations of customers, imply they’re extra prepared to make use of electrical energy…Simply take a look at the vitality use efficiency of low-income teams in rural areas. 

In city areas, blue collar [workers] have higher residing circumstances – they’ve air conditioners, higher heating [and can access better options for] journey. Though their earnings stage continues to be very low, their consumption behaviour has modified over time…Everyone [now] has a cell phone and connection to the web…They noticed [examples of how to live a better life] from individuals within the center earnings [band]. They noticed this from commercials, from films, from TV programmes, and many others…In comparison with their fathers’ technology, [who had a] comparable earnings stage, their pursuit of a better high quality of life [could be a reason why] at the moment [they] have a better stage of vitality consumption. That is one interpretation [of the data], however it may be confirmed by many items of proof. 

One other [interpretation] is in case you take a look at China’s mixture of vitality use, when it comes to complete quantity and when it comes to per capita, there’s a structural [difference] in comparison with the [energy mix] in Europe and the US. Nearly all of vitality use [in China] has been for industrial manufacturing, moderately than for residential [use]. And given what I simply talked about, [in terms of] the change of consumption behaviour…[The effects are] marginal [if] they enhance their consumption of vitality. In China, the common energy consumption per capita is round 6,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh), in comparison with 8,000kWh in Europe and over 12,000kWh within the US.

CB: Does which have an implication for why China talks about vitality depth, whereas Europe and the US discuss vitality effectivity?

ZJ: Sure. In China, the overall indicator is vitality depth per unit of GDP. However once you discuss vitality effectivity, what’s the indicator? You’ve bodily indicators, for instance, vitality use per tonne of iron, metal, ammonia or cement. That is one strategy to measure effectivity. One other means is simply to [calculate it] per unit of GDP, which exhibits the foremost sources of cash in your economic system. Bodily, I feel China has grow to be higher and higher [in terms of] its effectivity, however economically this can’t produce as excessive a value-add as Europe and the US in financial phrases. In order that modifications issues, particularly given two [factors]. One is the decrease and decrease GDP development fee, which makes carbon depth greater. One other is the chang[ing] overseas change scenario in recent times. The elevating of rates of interest by the US Federal Reserve makes US {dollars} costlier, growing overseas change charges which then enlarges the financial GDP hole, making Chinese language GDP [in dollar terms] fall and carbon depth rise. 

So, there are a number of variables [affecting this decision], however we also needs to not ignore the actual enhancements to effectivity [in China], measured by bodily indicators. I noticed barely  slower progress in effectivity enhancements, however possibly these are the matter of measurement.

CB: That’s at all times the enjoyable nice print. Going again to the scope of the GST at COP28, how would you interpret China’s place on the perfect language round fossil fuels?

ZJ: I retired from the delegation eight years in the past, so [I can’t say for sure] in regards to the best language! However, possibly we are able to revisit the language from the Sunnylands assertion. There’s a particular paragraph speaking about recognising the worldwide tripling of renewables and the doubling of effectivity…[which is] then adopted by a number of phrases mentioning that China and the US ought to speed up the deployment of renewables…to substitute fossil fuels, together with coal, oil and gasoline. So, if I have been within the delegation, I ought to take a look at fossil fuels as a complete. Definitely, we must always speed up the method to part down or part out fossil fuels. 

I imply, in China, it’s primarily the matter of coal. However in Europe and the US, it’s primarily the matter of oil and gasoline. In keeping with an Worldwide Vitality Company (IEA) report, up to now decade, the entire world moved very slowly to part out coal, oil and gasoline. In China, the bulk situation is coal, however in Europe we noticed some optimistic however very small modifications once you take a look at the share of fossil fuels – [particularly] oil and gasoline. Identical within the US. 

So, what in regards to the tempo of phasing out or phasing down coal, oil or gasoline? Completely different international locations have totally different agendas right here. So possibly fossil fuels must be lined for each nation. [But] I wish to see…[China] in a short time enlarging its renewable capability. Provided that [there is] enough capability and technology of renewables can this result in an actual phasing out or phasing down of fossil fuels. On this sense, I feel these are the identical story for all of the international locations, for Europe, for the US and in addition for China.

CB: We printed evaluation just lately saying that fossil fuels in China may enter a structural decline subsequent yr due to China’s renewable construct out. Nonetheless, as everyone knows, there are challenges dealing with the grid, I feel not solely with intermittency but additionally with growing market mechanisms. How optimistic are you that China will be capable to overcome these constraints within the energy grid and make renewable vitality extra broadly consumed?

ZJ: This can be a superb query. There are a number of methods to determine the transmission situation to help broader and deeper use of renewables. Primary, as you realize, now we have a really unbalanced geographical distribution of renewables. Northern and north-western China has very wealthy renewable assets, particularly photo voltaic and wind energy. However probably the most dense centres of vitality use are positioned within the jap and southern a part of China. This requires that we generate renewable energy after which transmit [it] from northern and western China to jap, southern and south-eastern China. This may require a really long-distance transmission grid, [covering] two-, three- and even 4 thousand kilometres. [That comes at] a really excessive expense, [creating a] excessive price for transmission. 

Usually, now we have a really tough estimate that [transmission will cost] round 0.1 yuan per kilowatt-hour for each thousand kilometres. So how will we overcome [these higher costs]? A technique is to optimise the distribution and allocation of distant renewable assets. For instance, [we could] transmit [power] from the closest locations, [such as transmitting power from] Interior Mongolia province…to the jap half [of China]. That is a method. China now has [developed] an ultra-high voltage [UHV] transmission system, which allows long-distance transmission, and we depend on that expertise. We’ve had some engineering pilots [for UHV transmission in place] already, from Qinghai province to Henan province…[and] from Baihetan in Sichuan province to Jiangsu province. There are a number of [other] transmission grids below building. 

One other bottleneck is the capability of the grid to soak up renewables. To my information, up to now few years, now we have made some progress, however this has been very restricted. We’ve raised the share of renewable energy technology from seven, eight, 9 p.c to at the moment’s 16%. That is progress, however it isn’t fast sufficient or massive sufficient. We need to push the grid firms – State Grid and Southern Grid – to do extra and do it sooner. 

What we need to push [can be] in comparison with a benchmark [set by the] German grid. As you might know, Germany’s grid is among the most superior grids on this planet, when it comes to that includes a better share of renewable technology – it may well have as much as 40% and even 50% of generated energy come from photo voltaic and wind energy. However what I’m interested by now’s if China can catch up and fill the hole between its grid and the German grid.

I’ve heard lots of totally different opinions from energy consultants, [which] I cannot go into element right here – it’s too technical! However one long-term consideration to beat…is the upper and better marginal price of elevating the share of renewables within the German grid. This implies [progress] to additional enlarge the share of renewables of their grid has grow to be slower. If so for Germany at the moment, this may also be the case for China tomorrow. That implies that there could be some bodily limitations [to having a higher share of renewables] within the present energy system and the grid system. 

However definitely step one for China must be to shut the hole between its present efficiency and Germany’s efficiency. Past that, a 40-50% [renewables] share is just not sufficient for carbon neutrality or for [meeting the target of] 1.5C. We need to have extra. What’s the means out? We also needs to take into account… creat[ing] one other, completely new energy system. This may be a kind of nexus of centralised and decentralised grid methods…If [the central grid] is having difficulties [increasing renewable generation], and if these are very difficult to beat, then let’s [shift] to lots of microgrids, along with a distribution grid, which might act as a decrease stage of the grid. 

[To do this] you have to work out lots of technological points, together with [the use of] transformers and altering the [grid] system. To permit [for] increasingly distributed renewables, it shouldn’t be vital [for them] to be linked to the centralised grid system. [Instead, microgrids] ought to simply have to attach with one another, with [households] having their very own rooftop photo voltaic [panels] that are linked with one another utilizing AI expertise, and many others. And in the event that they do this, then most of [China’s] electrical energy [will be] generated by distributed renewables. That means, we [can] depend on the centralised grid much less and fewer. 

This could be a method to determine at the moment’s bottleneck, and Vitality Basis China is exploring a pilot [to trial this]. The answer is principally relevant to rural areas…households… and in addition SMEs exterior the central mega-cities…This may function the ability supply [that will cover] the rise in our energy demand sooner or later. We will cease [the go-to solution being to rely on] coal or different fossil fuels, and as an alternative from the very starting [demand would be met through] renewables. So that’s one thing I’m interested by.

CB: That’s a very attention-grabbing risk. I’m a little bit of a pessimist, so a right away query that involves thoughts is that now we have seen how essential vitality safety and stability is to the overall political system in China. If now we have this decentralised system, would that trigger nervousness amongst some authorities stakeholders? 

ZJ: I might say {that a} distributed energy system would assist to lift the diploma of vitality safety.

CB: Is that as a result of it could be complementary to a central system, not changing a central system?

ZJ: On the very earliest phases of the event, it could be complementary, however past 2030, the share of distributed renewables within the total renewables system will grow to be greater and better. At this time, the share of distributed [renewables] are nonetheless decrease than centralised renewables. However the incremental renewables development has grow to be greater than development of centralised renewables up to now yr or two, and I might assume it will stay a pattern sooner or later. Among the obstacles to growing centralised renewables, when it comes to expertise, when it comes to establishments, and many others, implies that distributed renewables have some comparative benefits [which are currently] being fashioned. [Renewables are] decrease price and [grant] greater vitality safety, relying solely on photo voltaic and the wind [means] you needn’t depend on imported oil or gasoline. And so progressively, you’ll de-link your vitality use from coal [and] fossil fuels. 

… However definitely, we’re within the very early phases [of] growing [such a system]. I imagine, in China, all stakeholders – together with authorities, enterprise, academia, and NGOs like us —  want to make a collective effort to make that occur.

CB: Completely. I’m conscious that it is extremely late, so I’ll go away with one final query. In two situations – to start with, the place there’s extra distributed vitality and a type of constellation of those microgrids that you just described, after which, secondly, in a future the place maybe, there’s a extra centralised system however ever-increasing renewable capability, do you see a task in each of those situations for CCUS?

ZJ: Carbon seize, utilisation and storage (CCUS) remains to be very controversial, amongst researchers and stakeholders. Particularly within the energy sector. However it’s my understanding that in some sectors, like, for instance, iron and metal, cement, chemical compounds and petrochemicals, we do want CCUS, as a result of it is extremely troublesome to part out coal or carbon dioxide [completely]. I imply, even with the expertise [coming down the pipeline], there [will still have to] be some [CO2] emissions. 

Though you may be capable to minimise the emission of CO2 in these fields, you can not part them out, solely down. In [order to] obtain carbon neutrality, it’s a must to seize these carbon emissions from these sectors. So we’d like CCUS for these particular sectors and applied sciences. 

However for the ability sector, I’ve combined emotions about this. I’ve a super imaginative and prescient that, possibly, we are able to attain actual zero emissions in these sectors by way of a extra developed grid system, with extra connectivity throughout provinces or areas and the usage of AI expertise to attach microgrids, for instance, and allow them to commerce with one another to enhance one another’s peak and valley hundreds. That is a method out for the ability sector, along with a extra developed vitality storage system, within the upstream, midstream and downstream ends of the ability system. 

My intuition is we must always go in that route [for the power sector]. We should always not depend on coal for stabilising the grid system or for stabilising the entire energy system. I do know the mainstream considering is we must always depend on coal because the baseload for stabilising the ability system. However I’ve a barely totally different concept, that by way of extra developed connectivity of the grid, extra sensible grids, along with very robust grid vitality storage…If that is profitable, then we’d not want a lot CCUS within the energy sector. 

I can share that the present mainstream educational understanding [is that], though China will attain its [2060] carbon neutrality goal, it would proceed to have to keep up 600 gigawatts of coal-fired energy vegetation capability. These are the kind of estimations [we’re working with now], for the capability [needed] to function the baseload to stabilise the ability sector. 

Perhaps I’m too [optimistic] – I imagine we might have some [coal] capability there, as a backup in case of catastrophe, like Germany did proper after the Ukraine struggle, after they opened a number of coal-fired energy vegetation. However this doesn’t essentially imply [that the government] will rebound the usage of coal. Its operate will simply be because the backup.

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