China Energy Transition Status Report 2021

An overview on some of the highlights of China’s year in energy transition for an international audience.

The last 12 months have been a momentous period for China’s energy and climate policy. While President Xi’s 2060 carbon neutral announcement represented a watershed moment in the worldwide energy transition, in many ways it builds upon earlier policies, technology trends, and international cooperation on the topic of low-carbon, sustainable development. Most importantly, it represents a concrete vision for realizing the Chinese concept of an Ecological Civilization, including a revolution in energy production and consumption.

Until 2020, China had already taken many steps towards revolutionizing energy production and consumption. However, in some respects the role of markets, clean energy, and demand response have remained constrained within a narrow niche. Many industry observers and official think tanks had continued to consider coal as the sine qua non of China’s energy system. They could not envision a revolution, even one planned and organized at the highest levels, as changing that. Increasingly, that has begun to change, as analysts and industry players have begun to recognize that, through steady progress on clean energy integration, China’s energy revolution can and should ultimately lead to carbon neutrality—though virtually all acknowledge the difficulty of the task.

The purpose of this report is to summarize for an international audience some selected aspects of the energy transition underway in China. The links to various official statistics and policy documents may also serve as a useful reference for international scholars and others with an interest in China’s energy situation. The report is the second in a series published by the Sino-German Energy Transition, a component within the larger Sino- German Energy Partnership, a part of the long-term cooperation between the China National Energy Administration and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy. The project is implemented by
GIZ, the German Energy Agency (dena), and Agora Energiewende on the German side, and by the Electric Power Planning and Engineering Institute (EPPEI), the China Southern Grid Energy Development Research Institute (CSG EDRI), and the China Academy of Sciences Institute of Applied Ecology (CAS IAE) on the Chinese side. The views, data, and other contents of this report have been complied by the Sino-German Energy Transition Project at GIZ, and therefore any views expressed in the report are solely those of the authors, and have not been reviewed or approved by the project’s partners.

Key Findings

1. Chinese Energy Transition Policy Overview

Summary: This year, the most important thing: there are now more and more visions of how the energy transition will come about, and these are no longer minority academic views or curiosities. Companies and provinces must issue their own plans. Carbon neutrality is not just a single announcement, or a series of uncoordinated actions, nor is it a perfectly interlocking single plan that all can agree is perfect. Rather, it will be a process featuring high uncertainty, cumulative advancement, path dependence, and interdependence with developments outside of China. Most of all, it will require greater societal acceptance of the concept of energy transition—and that is the biggest change of 2020. While those outside of China have debated the semantics of whether 1.5 degrees is impossible or virtually impossible, in China many have gone from viewing carbon neutrality as improbable to viewing it as very hard but possible.

2. Key Energy Transition Statistics in 2020

Introduction: pandemic has small impact on China’s energy transition in 2020

Notwithstanding the COVID pandemic slowdown in 1Q 2020, China’s electricity and energy demand grew steadily in 2020, though electricity demand growth slipped from 4.5% to 3.1%. Although coal still accounts for over 50% of primary energy consumption and remains the main source for electricity generation, electricity generated by renewable energy increased substantially. In part reflecting the removal of feed-in-tariff subsidies for onshore wind, wind capacity installation increased at a faster rate than in 2019.

Primary energy supply: Consumption of energy reached 4.98 billion tons of standard coal equivalent, up by 2.2% compared to 2019. Among the total primary energy consumption in 2019, 57.7% came from coal, 18.9% was oil, 8.1% was natural gas, and 14.3% was renewables.

Electricity: Despite the pandemic, the growth rate of electricity consumption remained positive. Electricity consumption grew 3.1% in 2020, down from 4.5% in 2019. Electricity consumption growth in primary industry (mining and other extraction-related activities) surpassed all other sectors at 10%, due to interrupted growth in secondary (mainly manufacturing) and tertiary (mainly services) sectors, which faced various restrictions due to the pandemic, particularly in the first half of 2020.

3. Fossil Fuels


  • Coal consumption grew just 0.6% but remained below its peak.
  • Coal power output grew strongly (1250 TWh), outpacing any other fuel source.


  • Domestic oil production grew 1.6%. NEA’s 2021 annual work plan calls for maintaining investment in exploration and production to ensure energy security.
  • Domestic consumption grew 3%, a ten-year low, in part due to lower driving during the pandemic in 1H 2020. Gasoline consumption fell by 7% and diesel by over 3%.
  • EV sales rebounded from a slight dip in 2019, and the EV share of sales should rise through 2025.

Methane gas:

  • Gas demand continues to rise, and domestic production has increased.
  • China has undertaken gradual efforts to switch heating from coal to gas, shifting an earlier fuel-switching program to focus more on ensuring gas is economically sustainable.
  • Gas imports flattened, and rising China-U.S. tensions left promises of big LNG imports high and dry.
  • The new Power of Siberia pipeline opened a new path for gas imports from Russia.
  • Policymakers focused on efforts to develop a comprehensive national pipeline network as an element of energy security.

4. Renewable Energy

Renewable additions accelerated, and output continues to grow rapidly

  • Both solar output and solar additions grew rapidly in percentage terms, and cumulative residential solar capacity doubled.
  • Wind and hydro output also posted strong growth, and curtailment of renewable energy continued to decline.
  • China is gradually shifting its policy focus from large, central plants to distributed energy, agricultural energy, building-integrated energy, offshore wind, and floating PV.

5. Electricity Market Reform

China continues to make steady progress on market reform, benefiting renewables

  • Wind and solar curtailment fell dramatically, resulting from greater incentives to integrate renewable energy as well as increased power trading.
  • Provinces are developing spot markets, using several models.
  • Quotas for renewable consumption are replacing subsidies for renewables. 

6. New Energy Vehicles

EV sales rose in 2020

  • New-energy vehicles (NEV) sales rose by 13% in 2020; sales increased significantly in the second half of the year.
  • The government reduced the 2025 NEV sales target to 20%, under the new dual credit policy, which regulates vehicle efficiency and new-energy vehicles. 

7. Hydrogen

China puts heavy focus on hydrogen, but most hydrogens still comes from coal

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of hydrogen. In 2018, China accounted for about 21 million tons of hydrogen production, and China consumed
22 million tons. Energy Iceberg forecasts these figures to rise to 35 million tons in 2030 and 60 million in 2050. However, China’s low-carbon hydrogen market is still at an early stage of development, and coal accounts for 62% of China’s hydrogen production.

Most hydrogen in China is consumed as a feedstock by the petrochemical industry, especially in the fields of synthetic ammonia, oil hydrogenation, and electronics processing. The China Hydrogen Alliance projects strong growth for hydrogen in transportation, particularly in heavy-duty vehicles. The alliance forecasts transport consumption could reach 24.6 million tons by 2050, or 19% of total transport energy consumption. Among the transport consumption, freight would account for 70% of hydrogen utilisation. Among industrial sectors, the steel industry will see the biggest increase in hydrogen consumption, followed by the chemical industry which will see an increase of hydrogen consumption until 2030 and a decline after 2030.

8. Carbon and Carbon Markets

On 22 September 2020, at a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Xi Jinping announced that China will enhance its nationally determined contribution (NDC) on climate change, peak CO2 emissions before 2030, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Additional policy highlights include:

  • Provincial governments, state-owned enterprises, and industries will formulate their own carbon-peaking plans.
  • 2021 will be the first compliance year for China’s carbon emissions trading scheme (ETS), and trading will begin by June 2021.
  • New announcements are expected to add sectors to the ETS, potentially aluminium and ferrous metals.
  • It appears possible that the shift from free allowances to auctions, and an absolute cap on carbon for the ETS, could be introduced this year.

9. Air Quality

China continues to post major improvements to air quality, resulting from multi-pronged approach

  • Air quality improvements were strongest in PM2.5 and SO2.
  • Ozone remains a growing challenge.
  • Weather has a major impact on day-to-day and even annual air quality changes, leading to occasional haze events even though air quality has continued to improve steadily since 2013.
  • So far in 2021, air quality has worsened in Beijing, though it is too early to identify a trend change.
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China Energy Transition Status Report 2021

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Key Figures