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.”
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.