China, nuclear power, and climate change

December 17, 2015

Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed at the global climate change conference in Paris that China pledged to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions by around 2030, and to get around 20 percent of its primary energy from non-fossil sources by 2030. In 2014, China’s non-fossil energy consumption accounted for 11.2 percent of total energy use—hydro power was 8 percent, nuclear power was about 1 percent, and non-hydro renewable energy was around 2 percent—which is very close to the target of 11.4 percent set for 2015. Still, coal supplied the majority (66 percent) of China's total energy consumption in 2014, and oil accounted for about 18 percent of the energy mix. Natural gas, at 5 percent, still accounted for a relatively small share. To double the share of non-fossil sources by 2030, what role can nuclear power play?

China’s heavy reliance on coal in its energy consumption mix in past decadeshas resulted in heavy air pollution and increasing carbon emissions. To address those concerns, China has attempted to diversify its energy supplies with a strategy that would replace some coal power with expanded nuclear energy, renewable sources, and natural gas.

Many Chinese officials and nuclear experts advocate that developing significant nuclear power is an imperative if the country is to increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy in its energy mix. And recently, Chinese leaders have shown a strong desire to promote nuclear power development both domestically and for export. As of November 2015, China had 31 power reactors (that can produce 29.3 gigawatts of electric power) in operation with 21 units under construction (23.4 GWe). China will issue its 13thfive-year plan next year. Chinese reports suggest that the country will maintain the target of 58 GWe in operation and 30 GWe under construction by 2020, as planned in 2012, and include a new target for a total of 110 power reactors by 2030.

Reducing carbon emissions has been one major motivation for China’s ambitious nuclear power program. As a result of high coal consumption,China overtook the United States in 2006 to become the world's leading energy-related carbon dioxideemitter. In 2009, China announced internationally that, by 2020, it would lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 percent to 45 percent from the 2005 level and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the country's primary energy consumption to about 15 percent.

In November 2014, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping stood together in Beijing to make a joint announcement, in which China pledged to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to about 20 percent by 2030. This June, China submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the United Nations, detailing its pledges to climate change mitigation and adaptation for 2020 to 2030, including peaking its carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier; lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60 percent to 65 percent from the 2005 level;and increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in the primary energy mix to about 20 percent. During his visit to Washington, DC in September 2015, President Xi announced that China will start a national cap and trade program in 2017 as a tool to limit its carbon emissions. To reach these goals, Chinese leaders see a massive increase in nuclear power as a necessity.

Air pollution is also a major driver for China’s nuclear expansion. China’s heavy reliance on coal has had a serious impact on the environment. In 2012, two thirds of China’s cities could not meet the country’s own air-quality standards. The air pollution problem has produced serious health impacts. One major study estimated that outdoor air pollution in China contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2012. The economic costs of environmental pollution are also very high.

Moreover, China hopes nuclear expansion will increase national energy security through diversifying the energy supply and reducing concerns about energy resource limitations. In addition, the central and local governments hope to stimulate economic growth through reactor construction programs. 

Government documents and some officials and advocates of nuclear power often address the three major drivers for China’s nuclear energy development—combatting air pollution, reducing carbon emissions, and promoting energy security—without distinguishing priority. But the most important driver is the air pollution concern. Addressing air pollution, particularly by reducing heavy reliance on coal use, will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions and show that China supports a global effort to deal with climate change, promoting China internationally as a responsible power.

Can China increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 15 percent by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030? If China arrives at a cap on total energy consumption of 4.8 billion tons of coal equivalent by 2020 (an increase from 4.26 billion in 2014) as the government plans, then the projected hydro power, non-hydro renewable resources (wind, solar and other renewable energy), and nuclear power would account for about 7 percent, 5 percent, and 3 percent of total energy use, respectively, which would make achieving the target feasible.

While a fleet of nuclear reactors with 130 GWe by 2030 would represent a substantial expansion (over four times the current China’s capacity of 30 GWe and more than the current US capacity of about 100 GWe), it would account for only 5 percent of total energy use in the country and would constitute just one quarter of the non-fossil energy needed. In practice, the total energy use will likely be higher than the planned cap, so the share of nuclear power in the overall energy mix would be even less. Eventually, nuclear power is important if China is to address concerns about air pollution and climate change, but it is only one piece of a huge puzzle.