China is aiming to reshape its energy system over the next five years, featuring a framework heavily supported by renewables as fossil fuel consumption tapers off.

Wang Zhongying, director of the Energy Research Institute of the National Development & Reform Commission economic planning body, told a recent energy forum in Beijing that renewable energy would see a “great leap forward” in development during the 14th five-year economic development period (2021-2025).

“The current high-carbon energy structure represents a main contradiction in building a modern energy system over the next five years," he said.

Inverting the energy pyramid

To build up a modern energy system, China would need to invert the current energy pyramid supported by a strong fossil fuels base, which could collapse anytime, he said.

“Our goal is to invert the pyramid, with a strong renewable energy base and shrinking fossil fuel structure,” said Wang.

He described that energy development strategy over the next five years as “cutting coal, controlling oil, increasing gas and developing renewables in a great leap-forward fashion".

Wang envisaged two scenarios of energy demand growth by 2050. In the first scenario demand grows by 1.5% annually from now to 2050, and China’s energy needs would balloon to 6.5 billion tonnes of coal equivalent (TCE), from last year’s 4.71 billion TCE, with carbon dioxide emissions estimated at 10 billion tonnes.

In the second scenario, demand grows by 2% per year from now to 2050, meaning energy demand would hit 7.5 billion TCE, which means that CO2 emissions will reach 12.6 billion tonnes.

Speeding up

He said that China has sped up the schedule for its peak CO2 emissions compared to what Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged last month via video during the general debate of the United Nations General Assembly, when Xi said his country aims to have CO2 emissions peak “before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060".

The latest rhetoric sounds similar to a promise Chinese authorities made in 2015 during the China-US climate summit when Beijing committed that the nation's CO2 emissions would peak “about 2030".

China has since emerged as the world leader in renewable energy project development.

Recent years have seen China expanding renewable energy sources including hydropower, wind, solar and bioenergy, in part to cope with the dangerous level of air pollution.

The move also helps China to deliver on its commitment as part of the Paris climate accord that it will increase its share of renewable sources to 20% by 2030.

Renewables growth

According to Li Ye, supervisor of the National Energy Administration (NEA), China’s power-generation capacity using renewable energy sources hit 790 gigawatts by the end of last year, which is 1.7 times that of 2015's volume, and is the world’s largest.

Of the total, 356GW are generated from hydropower, 210GW from wind, 204GW from solar and 22.54GW from biofuels.

The country has also launched a carbon trading system, under which power plants will be given allowances to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide, while those managing to undershoot their targets will be able to sell their excess permits to other generators.

The NEA is now wrapping up planning of the renewable energy development for the 14th five-year period.

It is ready to release the plan for review and comments by the government ministries, before finalising it in March next year and submitting it to central government for approval.