China's Energy Use & Emissions To Peak Well Before 2050

shanghai planning exhibition photo

Shanghai urban planning exhibition, photo: larryncelia/Creative Commons

Some good news about China's energy use coming out of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, relying on some assumptions that may or may not actually come to pass (or even be good for the environment defined broadly). According to the China's Energy and Carbon Emissions Outlook to 2050, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, China's energy use and carbon emissions will stop growing well before 2050, as market saturation for consumer products and in construction takes hold.Somewhere by 2030-2035, the report says, road and rail construction, car ownership, consumer goods purchases will all peak. Depending on which scenario comes to pass, energy consumption begins to flatten by 2025, 2030, or 2033.

The carbon emissions in the most aggressive scenario peak at 9.7 billion metric tons in 2027 and fall back to 7 billion metric tons by 2050. Under the least aggressive scenario emissions peak at 12 billion tons by 2033 and fall back to 11 billion tons by 2050.

According to the IEA's analysis from July of last year, if China's emissions don't peak by 2020 we collectively won't be able to reduce emissions sufficiently to keep temperatures below a 2°C temperature rise--the critical threshold beyond which the worst effects of climate change become virtually assured.

Here are some of the assumptions made by LBL (via Science Daily):

  • A dramatic reduction in coal's share of energy production, to as low as 30% by 2050, compared to 74% in 2005;
  • An expansion of nuclear power from 8 gigawatts in 2005 to 86 GW by 2020, followed by a rise to as much as 550 GW by 2050;
  • A switch to electric cars. The assumption is that urban private car ownership will reach 356 million vehicles by 2050. Under the "continued improvement scenario," 30% of these be electric; under the "accelerated improvement scenario," 70% will be electric.

It's really those last two assumptions that caused me to parenthetically mention that they might not be so good for the environment more broadly.

Nuclear may be good on emissions and safer than coal in normal operations, but the danger in non-normal operations, the disposal of waste, the costs, all are deep strikes against it in my book.

As for electric cars, study after study shows that, while electric cars are a step above internal combustion vehicles in terms of emissions no doubt about it, building communities where you don't need to own a car, where you deflate the demand for them, is a better option--maintaining real community and developing better places than auto-centric urban planning. Ultimately it doesn't matter what powers the car when it comes to environmental impact if you're talking about the impact that isn't related solely to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

More on China & Energy
China in 2020: Powered by 35% Clean Energy
China's Carbon Emissions Need to Peak by 2020 for World to Meet Global Reduction Goals: IEA

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