China’s fourteenth five-year plan (14FYP) shows the country could build enough wind and solar capacity to reach its emissions peak ahead of schedule, but continuing coal investments raise doubts.
“To the extent that the new 14FYP for renewables can meet or overperform on its goals, it would also contribute to China’s effort to peak carbon emissions early and help bridge the global emission reduction gap towards a 1.5°C pathway,” writes Hu Min, principal and co-founder of the Innovative Green Development Program (iGDP), a public policy consultancy that specializes in sub-national climate action.
Released earlier this year, the 14FYP maintains China’s pledge to produce 25% of its energy from non-fossil sources by 2030. Although the new plan deviates from its predecessor in some significant ways—including doing away with mandatory generation capacity increase targets—the new plan raises the ambition of China’s renewable energy transition, Min writes.
She points out that the 14FYP requires “newly increased renewable generation make up more than 50% of the incremental electricity consumption,” meaning that “at least half of the increase in demand be covered by renewables.”
The Green Development Program projects that the new plan will require China to scale up renewable power by 150 terawatt hours per year. (A terawatt hour or TWh equals a billion kilowatt hours, and is used to measure the energy consumption of whole countries.) In comparison, China raised capacity by 100 TWh per year during the previous FYP and recorded a 255-TWh increase in 2021. In each of its three most recent FYPs, China exceeded the targets it had set for renewable energy capacity.
The new FYP also raises the bar for China’s wind and solar capacity, which it will now need to ramp up by at least 100 gigawatts a year. That’s more than the 75 gigawatts per year needed for the NDC, “meaning that the renewable plan is likely to overperform,” Min says.
China’s renewable energy sector is already seeing rapid growth. Hundreds of local authorities across the country have partnered with solar developers to fulfill a national plan to cover 50% of all new public buildings and factories with solar panels by 2025, which complements another plan to install solar on existing buildings, reports Climate Home News.
The plans drove a year-on-year solar capacity increase of 140% in the first five months of 2022, prompting Lauri Myllyvirta of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air to hail the “blistering growth of China’s solar power installations” and describe the policy as “ambitious and smart.”
But China’s continued use of coal raises doubts about the country’s emissions reductions measures. Recent disruptions to the world’s energy markets—caused by events like the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—have caused the country to backslide on its coal phaseout efforts as its focus shifts to immediate energy security. Although China says it aims to start cutting coal consumption in 2026, it also started building 33 gigawatts of new coal-fired power generation capacity last year, more than in any other year since 2016, reports the Globe and Mail.
China is taking some measures to ensure that its climate progress leads to results, such as restrictions on issuing permits for new coal power plants unless the projects are supplementary to renewables. But “there is still a risk that China’s growing coal capacity could run counter to the country’s efforts to decarbonize its energy mix,” Min says.