Tech Insights

The Path to Decarbonization for China’s Manufacturing Industry

July 28, 2023 by Shannon Flynn

China’s manufacturing industry is a concern in combatting climate change, and researchers are studying the country's emissions and power requirements to develop an effective decarbonization strategy.

China is the world's manufacturing capital and is critical in addressing climate change. Transitioning manufacturers away from fossil fuels is challenging but possible. China’s manufacturing leaders can implement innovative decarbonization strategies by utilizing renewable energy, refitting coal plants, and reducing waste.


China’s manufacturing industry is a concern

China’s manufacturing industry is a concern. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


Carbon Emissions in China’s Industrial Parks

China’s manufacturing industry is a top concern in combatting climate change. Researchers worldwide study its emissions and power requirements to develop an effective decarbonization strategy. The country alone controls at least 27% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to the BBC.

One significant source of pollution in China is its thousands of industrial parks — areas of concentrated industrial operations. Most of these facilities still run primarily on coal power, so decarbonizing China’s manufacturing industry is no small feat.

A single factory can employ tens of thousands of people and contain hundreds of pieces of machinery. The typical commercial building requires between 20 and 25 kilowatt-hours of electricity per square foot. However, this number could be much higher in high-density manufacturing facilities, so the power needs of a single operation could be well into the millions of kilowatt hours per year. That translates into thousands of tons of carbon emissions due to high reliance on fossil fuels.

These factories also create water and air pollution, which transitioning to renewable energy could reduce. In fact, a 2023 study found transitioning China’s industrial parks to clean energy could reduce emissions by 41% while lowering air and water pollution. Even running China’s manufacturing industry on fossil fuels and renewables would help with decarbonization.


Opportunities for Decarbonization

Sustainability is a top priority for many businesses in the Asia-Pacific region today, including China. Surveys show 72% of APAC CEOs report an increased focus on environmental, social, and governance initiatives. So, APAC business leaders are clearly interested in decarbonization opportunities.

What are the most viable options for decarbonizing China’s manufacturing industry? One of the biggest challenges in any transition to renewables is availability. Some areas are simply not ideal for certain kinds of renewable energy. For instance, wind power works best near open land or water. This makes switching China’s industrial parks to renewables challenging but certainly not impossible.


Transforming Coal Plants

There are numerous options on the table. For example, converting retired coal plants into hydrogen or geothermal plants is one possibility gaining international traction. Both are forms of renewable energy that could reuse much of the same infrastructure coal plants already have. This reduces construction costs and emissions while putting renewables right where they’re necessary.


Working with coal.

Working with coal. Image used courtesy of Pexels


Clean energy leaders are already testing out this new strategy. For example, one coal plant in Utah is refitting to co-fire clean hydrogen power. The process of creating power from hydrogen functions similarly to fossil fuels, but the key difference is a lack of harmful emissions. Plus, hydrogen doesn’t rely on local weather patterns like wind or solar.

Converting coal plants to hydrogen power could be a promising option for decarbonizing China’s industrial parks. Some structures could also become geothermal plants, although this depends on nearby subterranean sources of geothermal energy.


Solar, Wind, and Biofuels

In addition to refitting coal plants, China’s manufacturing industry could utilize tried-and-true strategies like rooftop solar. Biofuels also have potential, with the added benefit of removing waste from streets and landfills.

Plastic waste itself can be a surprisingly valuable resource for generating energy. By reclaiming plastic waste, China could potentially reduce emissions by using landfills to create fuel. One Japanese inventor – Akinori Ito – even developed a plastic fuel converter that can function as a low-power household appliance.

The converter heats and pressurizes plastic waste to convert it into a liquid, then a gas. When the gas cools and returns to liquid form, it becomes crude oil that can be used for various applications, such as heating or power.

The fuel created by recycling plastic waste does contain carbon emissions. However, the reduction in emissions from diminishing the size of landfills could outweigh the emissions generated by plastic-based fuels.


Strategies to Support Decarbonization

Transitioning to alternative energy sources is crucial for decarbonizing China’s manufacturing industry. Other initiatives can support the reduction of emissions, as well. Carbon capture and storage is a great example.

Carbon capture involves using air filtration systems to remove carbon from the atmosphere for storage or commercial use. The process helps fight climate change while providing a valuable resource in many industries. For example, the soft drink industry uses large amounts of carbon each year, which could be sourced from carbon capture facilities.

Installing carbon capture programs around China — particularly near its industrial parks — could strengthen the impact of a shift to renewables. After all, even if the entire manufacturing industry runs on clean energy, countless other industries and businesses around China will still use fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

Carbon capture can help minimize emissions from traditional energy. Studies have shown carbon capture can remove up to 90% of the emissions an average coal plant generates.

Chinese manufacturers can also take steps to reduce their electricity needs. Many pay for more power than they require, largely due to the inefficient use of electricity. Manufacturers can cut their emissions and save money by optimizing operations and machinery to consume less energy.


A Clean Energy Future for Chinese Manufacturing

China’s manufacturing industry is critical to the global economy. Decarbonizing it may be a challenge, but it’s a necessary step to create net-zero supply chains worldwide. Reducing emissions from China’s industrial parks will also improve air and water quality for residents.

Chinese manufacturers can significantly reduce their emissions by implementing innovative clean energy technologies. Decarbonizing could have a high return on investment, saving energy and money while reducing waste and pollution.