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[BEIJING] China could achieve 'safe' levels of carbon emissions by 2050 but only by funding a massive clean technology effort, according to a new assessment.

It estimates that China will need to invest an extra 1–1.5 trillion Chinese yuan (US$220 billion) a year to build a low-carbon economy and keep carbon emissions similar to those in 2005.

'China's Low-Carbon Development Pathways by 2050' was published last week (16 September) by the Energy Research Institute in China, which is affiliated to the country's National Development and Reform Commission.

The report warns that if no strong measures are adopted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions "the total demand for energy and carbon emissions by 2050 will grow and multiply as China fulfils the existing goals set for the development of the economy". 

It sets out three scenarios of low-carbon development: energy-saving, low-carbon and enhanced low-carbon. The study compares the energy demand and carbon emission figures of the three scenarios with baseline figures from 2005.  

Under energy-saving, China would continue with current commitments to cut air and water pollution but would take no further action. Total carbon dioxide emissions would increase from 5.2 billion tonnes to 12.2 billion per year by 2050.

In the low-carbon scenario, China would optimise its energy structure and introduce effective low-carbon technologies. Carbon dioxide emissions would increase to 8.7 billion tonnes per year.

The enhanced low-carbon scenario relies on using technologies such as clean coal and carbon capture and storage to slash emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions would be cut to 5.1 billion tonnes — lower than 2005's 5.2 billion.

Technology development is a top priority. The researchers identify 22 major low-carbon technologies covering construction, transport, industry and energy supply that could help China achieve the low- and enhanced low-carbon scenarios.

They recommend that, by 2050, China should shift its energy structure to a balanced mix of one-third renewable energy, one-third petroleum and natural gas, and one-third conventional coal.

But they admit there are obstacles to overcome.

"There are uncertainties in China's development of a low-carbon economy," Hu Xiulian, a co-author of the report, told SciDev.Net. "For example, carbon capture and storage must be applied if China is to turn to the enhanced low carbon scenario around 2035, but it is both expensive and immature at the moment."

Funding is also uncertain. "We hope that the government will spare no efforts in developing core technologies, as it is usually very hard for them to be transferred from developed countries," adds Xiulian.