The announcement by President Xi that China will be carbon neutral by 2060 has understandably met with approval from those of us interested in environmental matters. The September 23 announcement to the UN General Assembly delivered via video link makes China the 30th nation to make such a pledge – and as the world’s largest CO2 emitter, arguably the most important. The 2060 objective might seem remote to many, but to achieve the target China’s energy policy is going to have to be thrown into reverse, starting now.
Because the country is so heavily dependent on coal – much of it imported – it puts almost three times as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the entire European Union and close to twice that of the United States. Perhaps an even more important target than the 2060 date is to reduce peak carbon emissions by 2030, after which the amount of pollutant going into the air will track down for the next 30 years until neutrality is achieved. Given that China continues to build new coal fired power plants, this is going to require drastic action almost immediately to re-orient the energy sector.
As welcome as this is from an environmental perspective, it also has medium and long-term consequences for China’s energy security. Put simply, a country does not need to import solar, wind, tidal, biomass, geothermal and – with the exception of those that lack mountains or water – hydro power. Any country interested in strategic self reliance should be embracing alternate energy, unless it has more coal and petroleum than it knows what to do with, for example Russia. For all of those nations heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels – like China – their security will be enhanced by eliminating, or at least reducing, a major vulnerability.
An associated feature of China’s shift is that the power grid will become increasingly resilient and much harder to target. In the event of a prolonged major conflict, China’s electrical production and distribution networks would be high priority targets – and conventional power stations are large, immovable objects that would have to be heavily defended. Protected them from cruise missiles and other long range stand-off weapons would be a major undertaking.
Some of the unintended features of many renewable energy systems is that they are relatively cheap, fairly robust and widely distributed. Knocking out a large wind farm or a solar array comprised of thousands of individual panels is a far harder job for planners than attacking a single, large power plant. There are some exceptions – such as dams for hydroelectric systems – but by and large a country that has a massively decentralised, reconfigurable power grid will be far less vulnerable to attack than one continuing with a conventional approach involving large generating nodes.
Solar panels are continuing to fall in price and so if an array were destroyed or degraded, restoring it would be far simpler than undertaking work on a power station that had also received a direct hit on a steam turbine. At some point economics also comes into play because if an opponent has to keep spending $1 million per missile to take out $100,000 worth of solar arrays or wind turbines then the advantage is clearly with the nation using the lower-cost solution.
Another area of reduced vulnerability becomes the distribution grid. Typically most countries with systems designed around huge power stations then need poles, wires and transformers to move the electricity tens, hundreds or thousands of kilometres to where it is needed – such as cities and factories. On the other hand, wind and especially solar arrays can be collocated with where the energy is needed, eliminating a lot of infrastructure that could be targeted.
This is not to say that green solutions will completely replace fossil fuels, even in the longer term. However, the energy mix is shifting irreversibly in the direction of renewables – and in parallel there is hope that there might be a breakthrough in completely clean nuclear fusion within a decade, though this is far from certain.
When it comes to alternative energy, China has more installed capacity than any other nation – but because of the current dependence on coal this remains a small percentage of overall supply. However, there is no doubt that China has long come to grips from an engineering perspective with solar, wind and biomass – so now it is the practical and economic issues about transitioning not only the way electricity is produced but also how it is consumed. This goes beyond household and commercial use, potentially reshaping the transport sector as well, with electric cars, buses and trucks becoming increasingly prevalent.
Another nearby country that is taking dramatic similar steps is South Korea, which has released its ‘New Deal’ in July – an important element of which is to invest heavily in alternate energy as a key to restructuring the economy. Prompted in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a plan to create 1.9 million new jobs with the investment of US $133 billion before 2025 in a combination of green and digital projects and activities.
Many militaries around the world have been interested in alternative energy sources for decades because typically combat operations take place where the power grid has been knocked out or is too far away to use. The ubiquitous towed diesel generators are being supplemented by solar and wind systems. Vehicles with hybrid drives and lithium-ion batteries are becoming more prevalent. Submarines are also showing the way with fuel cells, external combustion engines and advanced battery technology.
At the moment, China could be held to ransom with threats to disrupt shipping through the South China Sea, particularly targeting oil and gas tankers from the Middle East and coal from various parts of the southern hemisphere. As China becomes more self reliant with its renewable energy plans, it also becomes less vulnerable to external pressure.