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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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China Doubles Down On Nuclear Energy To Cut Carbon Emissions

Around the world, there is a sweeping movement toward a global green energy transition. While world leaders have been urged by experts for years to start lowering greenhouse gas emissions and start battling climate change with a sense of urgency, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in its severe and continued destruction of the global economy, catalyzed the decarbonization of our economies. The pandemic has given the global community an unanticipated interruption to the status quo and a vital, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for what the World Economic Forum advocates as a “new energy order” and a “great reset.” The movement is widespread; Chile and the European Union are instating or planning to instate renewable “energy communities,” in Europe Big Oil is transitioning to Big Energy, Australia is investing heavily in hydrogen to meet its target of carbon neutrality by 2050, and now even China, one of the key nations for curbing global carbon emissions, has announced its own extremely ambitious plan to bring its carbon footprint to zero by the year 2060. In fact, the United States is one of few holdouts in the global energy transition as many of the world’s most powerful economies embrace decarbonization as an inevitability and rush to corner the green energy market. 

For China, however, their ambitious decarbonization plan may be easier said than done. While Beijing releases ambitious plans, cynics have a strong argument to make that it may just be a heap of greenwashed propaganda. At the same time that China is making grand plans about a net-zero carbon footprint, the country is constructing new coal-fired plants at a healthy clip, and coal has easily maintained its dominance of the country’s energy mix. 

So how will China go about replacing the coal that they rely so heavily upon? “To replace all that coal capacity,” Quartz reported this week, “China will rely primarily on wind power. The biggest relative gain would be in solar - no surprise, since China has spent the last several years building itself into the world’s leading solar superpower. But the plan also imagines a pivotal role for nuclear.”

Related: U.S., UAE And Israel Agree On Joint Energy Strategy

China has been on the rise as one of the world’s foremost nuclear powerhouses for years now. Despite years of decline, the U.S. is still the foremost nuclear power producer in the world, accounting for about one-third of global nuclear energy production. But China is hot on its heels and plans to add huge amounts of nuclear capacity over the coming years, quadrupling its current production levels. “GlobalData Plc predicts that China will pass France as the world’s No. 2 nuclear generator in 2022 and claim the top spot from the U.S. four years after that,” Bloomberg Green reported in June.

This strategy is a significant contrast from other decarbonization roadmaps in places like Europe and Australia, where nuclear remains divisive among politicians and constituents alike. While the global nuclear energy industry has stagnated, China is charging full steam ahead. “Right now, the center of gravity has decisively shifted toward China,” Jacopo Buongiorno, a nuclear scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was quoted by Quartz. “They’re growing fast and [the US and EU] are shrinking. They’re trying everything, which is quite exciting to watch.”

China’s approach to nuclear is strikingly innovative. Another unique attribute of China’s decarbonization plan and overall approach to nuclear energy is that the country is working on developing compact nuclear plants that can be located in residential areas on top of the more standard large-scale nuclear plants that connect to the grid. It is also “rolling out small plants that float on ocean barges, which can be used to power offshore oil and gas operations. And it’s building cutting-edge plants that operate at exceptionally high temperatures and are used for industrial facilities,” reports Quartz. 

While nuclear energy has considerable drawbacks - very rare but extremely hazardous meltdowns and other nuclear disasters, hazardous waste with a radioactive half-life that will outlive us all, and high levels of water consumption, to name a few - it holds enormous promise for lowering global greenhouse gas emissions. And China is one of the countries that most needs to downsize its carbon footprint. While China’s zero-emissions target is an ambitious one, their assertive nuclear plan could get them there. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on October 04 2020 said:
    Having a command economy, China approaches any project it undertakes with speed, efficiency, determination, innovation and billions of dollars. That is why it has become the world’s largest economy based on purchasing power parity (PPP) in a record-breaking speed. Cutting its carbon emissions is no exception.

    China recently unveiled an extremely ambitious plan to become carbon neutral by 2060. Its strategy to achieve this goal is multifaceted and it encompasses an extensive use of renewables particularly solar and wind power and also nuclear energy for electricity generation and racing to dominate the global electric vehicle (EV) market.

    To reduce dependence on coal, China is charging full steam ahead with plans to add huge amounts of nuclear capacity over the coming years, quadrupling its current production levels. “GlobalData Plc predicts that China will pass France as the world’s No. 2 nuclear generator in 2022 and claim the top spot from the U.S. four years after according to Bloomberg Green.

    Furthermore, China’s approach to nuclear is as strikingly innovative as generating electricity from solar highways. The country is working on developing compact nuclear plants that could be located anywhere in addition to the more standard large-scale nuclear plants that connect to the grid.

    However, I doubt China will discontinue soon the use of coal for power generation. The nation’s addiction to coal is motivated by energy security and economic considerations. Ultimately, the economy remains the top priority. Beijing is reluctant to do anything that might slow economic growth. And with escalating geopolitical tensions with both the United States and India, power projects fuelled by domestic coal could also become more attractive because the government is keen to improve self-sufficiency and ease its dependence on foreign energy supplies. Furthermore, new coal plants are a way for the provinces to support other industries like coal mining and heavy industry.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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