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Euronews Debates: How should China and Europe transition to clean energy?

By Jeremy Wilks
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CGTN
CGTN   -   Copyright  euronews

Net zero pledges from countries around the world have been made, but how do we actually manage the transition and what are the key technologies we need to implement to achieve that clean-energy transition? In this Euronews Debates programme experts from Europe and China came together in a unique panel discussion, co-hosted by Euronews science correspondent Jeremy Wilks and Chinese news channel CGTN's anchor Tian Wei.

The discussion begins with the question of why China has set a 2060 goal for carbon neutrality when so many developed nations are fixing their sights on 2050?

Jianyu Zhang, Executive Director of China's BRI Green Development Institute defended Beijing's vision as already ambitious enough, stressing the government's objective of reaching 'carbon peaking' before 2030, and its recent introduction of a carbon market.

"I think China is taking a very practical and also methodical approach to this, because China is the largest developing country in the world. Actually, if you run the math, you will find that that 2060 commitment itself is bold already," he told the panel.

The question of driving down energy intensity is also top of mind in Beijing, according to Changhua Wu, the China/Asia Director at The Office of Jeremy Rifkin, with the effort to boost efficiency a critical element in the path towards lowering emissions significantly.

China relies on coal-fired power for about 60% of its electricity generation, and the issue of how to move away from what's considered to be the dirtiest of fossil fuels is one of the hottest questions of COP26. Burning coal is the world's biggest single cause of anthropogenic climate change.

Jianyu Zhang told the panel: "The carbon market will naturally put a further burden on the coal-fired power plants." But, he continued: "Focus should not just be on the coal. It should be our entire trend of fossil fuel, right? So it's not just the use of coal. We need to look at the issue in its entirety because it is the global climate crisis that we're trying to resolve."

Changhua Wu also pointed to a wider vision of the issue: "So coal, of course, unfortunately, we have to address as soon as possible, and that's already in the plan. But more importantly, actually, China is literally redesigning its national energy system."

The transition to a green and clean energy system will pass via renewable energies like solar photovoltaic, onshore and offshore wind. The cost of such electricity generation systems has dropped rapidly in the past decade, and now the focus is shifting towards implementing smart grids and energy storage systems to smooth the passage of this transformative technology.

Ajay Gambhir, Senior Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute For Climate Change And The Environment at Imperial College London explained to the panel that "you can have already high proportions of renewables supplying electricity in a very reliable way. "

"We're at the beginning actually of the journey of looking at the vast array of solutions that can help provide greater flexibility in electricity generation systems, electricity demand systems and so on," he said.

His vision of the future is an integreted network of smart solutions. "We'll be plugging our cars into the charge in a few years time, and the batteries in those cars will be feeding electricity back to the grid. There are already a number of electricity companies that are piloting those vehicles-to-grid technologies. So our cars will be contributing as mini-power stations to the grid and providing storage in that way. That's just one of a small number of examples of how we really understand how to do this and get to high penetrations of renewables."

The boost that energy efficiency can offer on the road towards net zero is often overlooked in the noisy debate about how to move on from fossil fuels, yet reductions in consumption could well be the key to making the 2050 goals a reality.

Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, Professor Of Environmental Sciences at the Central European University in Vienna stressed to the panel that "the vast majority of this task of the energy transition and fighting climate change is about how not to have to produce the next kilowatt-hour".

"Today we know, for example, how to build and retrofit buildings in a way that they are basically power plants so they produce more energy than what they and their inhabitants all consume. So we can cut the present office buildings or even residential buildings energy consumption by nine-tenths by 90 percent, simply by innovation and not by expensive high technologies," she said.

The road to net zero is going to be bumpy, and the energy crunch seen in China and Europe in recent weeks illustrates how challenging it will be to maintain supply at acceptable prices as the world economy picks-up after the pandemic. However, the consensus is that now is the time for investment, and change, according to Ghambir: "I think politicians whose time horizon is only one or two years will lose their credibility."

"We've seen so many younger people bring court cases against governments that aren't doing enough, and against major fossil fuel companies that aren't doing enough. So the tide is turning," he concludes.

Journalist • Jeremy Wilks

Video editor • Jean-Christophe Marcaud