California-China Climate Institute Reviews Deep Decarbonization Pathways in the U.S. and China

July 19, 2021

BERKELEY – As the U.S. and China chart a path to achieve their ambitious mid-century carbon neutrality targets, the California-China Climate Institute today released two new reports – one focused on the U.S. and the other on China – identifying institutional, policy and technology gaps and opportunities based on a comprehensive review and analysis of recent deep decarbonization studies in both countries.

Together, the U.S. and China are responsible for approximately 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and the reports released today find that an unprecedented transformation – unlike anything seen in recent history – will be required from each country to limit warming and achieve carbon neutrality. 

These reports, part of the Institute’s “Getting to Net Zero” research series, complement the first report, released in May, which laid out a framework and milestones for the U.S. and China to coordinate and accelerate near- and mid-term climate action and expand collaboration at the national and subnational levels. 

Today’s U.S. report examines five major national studies and two state-level analyses published in recent years and finds consensus around a number of near-term priority actions across five “pillars of deep decarbonization,” including: 

  1. Electrification and Efficiency: Rapid adoption of electric and hybrid-electric heat pumps in buildings, electric vehicles and other electrified end-use technologies; increased investments in energy efficiency in buildings, industry and transportation.
  2. Clean Electricity: Rapid deployment of wind, solar and battery storage, along with investments in grid reliability and zero-carbon firm capacity.
  3. Low-Carbon Fuels: Market development and continued research, development, and deployment (RD&D) for advanced, sustainable biofuels, hydrogen and other advanced low-carbon fuels.
  4. Non-Carbon Dioxide, Non-Combustion Reductions: Reduction in methane leakage from oil and natural gas systems, shift to climate-friendly refrigerants and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) replacements.
  5. Carbon Capture, Usage and Sequestration and Enhanced Natural Land Sinks: Increased investment in deployment of carbon-sequestering agriculture and forestry practices and RD&D in carbon capture utilization and storage.

While there’s agreement across studies on what needs to be done to decarbonize, the report notes a number of significant institutional, policy and technology barriers and challenges that will impact if, how and when the U.S. meets its goals. For example, while there’s agreement that the rapid expansion of solar and wind energy is critical to a carbon-neutral future, questions remain around permitting, grid reliability and resilience and potential stranded assets and costs. There’s also significant uncertainty in the technology pathways for decarbonizing industry and some segments of the transportation sector, and the  “last mile” of decarbonization in the electricity sector. 

Though the report concludes that levels of policy ambition do not yet match what’s needed to move the U.S. onto a trajectory to meet a 2050 carbon-neutrality goal, it does offer several near-term recommendations to accelerate the transition, including:   

  • Aligning the economics for consumers and businesses to adopt clean energy technologies at scale.
  • Changing institutional structures and governance to encourage clean energy development and to ensure rigorous greenhouse gas monitoring and accounting.
  • Enhancing public education and engagement to encourage higher levels of clean energy technology adoption, make climate policies more inclusive and avoid regressive policy impacts.
  • Providing economic development assistance and workforce training and support to enable a transition away from fossil fuels.

The China report, also released today, reviews, compares and analyzes ten different carbon neutrality pathways and while there’s significant variation in the underlying assumptions in these studies, several overarching trends emerge. Energy consumption in China, for example, is projected to peak by 2025 in most 1.5°C compatible scenarios and by 2030 in most 2°C compatible scenarios, with consumption flat to 30 percent below today’s level by 2050. Meanwhile, across all studies carbon dioxide emissions are expected to peak between 2020 and 2030 (by 2020 in nearly all 1.5°C scenarios and by 2030 for 2°C scenarios). Remaining carbon dioxide emissions in 2050 depend, in part, on assumptions about emission targets and deployment of negative emission technologies. 

The report also outlines a number of key decarbonization strategies in China – many of which overlap with the actions identified in the U.S. report – including: improving energy efficiency and demand reduction; accelerating electrification and power sector decarbonization; scaling up deployment of alternative clean fuels and pursuing terrestrial and geological sequestration. 

While the targets and actions needed to decarbonize are relatively clear, China, like the U.S., faces myriad challenges to make this shift a reality. For example, China’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions grew 4-fold in the 30 years between 1990 and 2020. Yet, all future scenarios envision a rapid peaking in the next 10-20 years while China’s economy continues to grow – with GDP expected to increase 3.5-4-fold by 2050. There is also significant uncertainty around the pace, scale, and cost of new technology and alternative fuel RD&D to help address hard-to-decarbonize sectors and processes, particularly in transport and industry; the role of lifestyle and behavior changes in contributing to demand reduction and future trends in non-energy carbon dioxide emissions, non-carbon dioxide emissions, and sequestration. Given these issues, the report concludes that both the U.S. and China will benefit from further coordination and collaboration on carbon neutrality. 

These reports were produced with support from the Hewlett Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund and in partnership with the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (China Report) and Energy and Environmental Economics (U.S. Report).

The University of California-wide California-China Climate Institute was launched in September 2019 and is housed jointly at UC Berkeley’s School of Law – through its Center for Law, Energy & the Environment – and the Rausser College of Natural Resources. The Institute works in partnership with the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua – one of China’s preeminent research institutions – as well with other University of California campuses, departments and leaders. Through joint research, training and dialogue, this Institute aims to inform policymakers, foster cooperation and partnership and drive climate solutions at all levels.

To learn more, and read the full reports, visit: