The role of research and innovation for China’s 30-60 climate goals – What is new and what is key?

“Electrification and access to energy storage play a decisive role in the transformation of industry and society to combat climate change, and in making Sweden one of the world’s first fossil-free welfare nations…” ...

“Electrification and access to energy storage play a decisive role in the transformation of industry and society to combat climate change, and in making Sweden one of the world’s first fossil-free welfare nations…” 

Ibrahim Baylan, Minister for Business, Industry and Innovation

A global green and carbon-neutral race is emerging when more and more countries have set their new national targets and visions, incl. China. As presented in our previous blogs, China’s new climate goals, i.e. peak carbon before 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060 are on the way to change China’s policy frameworks and strategic actions for its economic development and transformation, starting from the 14th Five-Year-Plan (FYP) Period (2021 -2025). With a deeper look at concrete steps forward with a particular focus on the transformative potentials, let us bring some new insights by highlighting the role of research and innovation in China’s climate- and energy transformation.

A stock-taking – Policy processes, science bases and industrial dynamics…

Already in the 13th FYP period (2016 -2020), research and innovation on energy technology had become a priority in China’s “National Innovation-driven Development Strategy”. Specific and long-term Technology and Innovation Roadmaps (2016 -2030) were also put forward (See the attachments at the end of this blog). At the operational level, diversified platforms and ecosystems for energy research and innovation have been developed.[1] For instance:

  • More than 40 key national laboratories and national engineering research centres, focusing onsafe, green and intelligent coal mining, efficient use of renewable energy, energy storage and decentralised energy systems.
  • More than 80 national energy R&D centres and key national energy laboratories in vital and frontier areas for “energy revolution”.

Looking at the science bases, i.e. the scale, quality and impact of China’s energy research, we see that China has advanced significantly and is already world-leading in some areas. For instance, among the 1,000 most influential climate scientists in 2020, ranked by the number of publications and citations as well as the attention received in public media, 87 Chinese researchers were listed across 8 disciplines (See Table 1.1 below).[2] When it comes to the share of the world’s total and the rank of top publications, China’s performance is impressive (See Table 1.2 – 1.3 below).

Table 1.1   Chinese researchers on the list of top -1000 climate scientists 2020
Source: Explore the @Reuters Hot List of 1,000 top climate scientists
Table 1.2 China’s share of scientific publications in the world
(Selected energy fields, 2015 -2019)  
Source: Opportunities and challenges of new energy technology research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)
Table 1.3 Ranking of top-10% scientific publications in the world
(Selected energy fields, 2015 -2019) 
Source: Opportunities and challenges of new energy technology research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS)

Together with policy development and science base enhancement, the Chinese business sector, particularly in the field of battery has become a key driver for innovation, not only for improvement of traditional lithium-ion batteries, but also aiming at the next-generation batteries, for instance:[3]

  • The battery manufacturer CATL has developed a frontier battery chemistry, allowing automakers to reduce EV prices and supply greater range.
  • The EV battery manufacturer SVOLT launched the “jelly battery” to improve quality through innovating in cathode and electrolyte material.
  • The automobile maker GAC Group has introduced three-dimensional graphene battery (3DG) for super-fast charging.
  • The EV maker BYD launched the “blade battery”, a new type of LFP battery for better safety.

What’s new – new energy landscape and new research and innovation initiatives

China’s pathway towards its new climate goals, from the 14th FYP will be entrenched in, at least, 3 fundamentally new elements of its energy transition:

  • Renewable energy will be the main, not the “complementary” energy source.
  • Transformation in the transport sector will not only be driven by air pollution concerns, but also climate mitigation
  • CO2 mitigation will not only be limited to the energy sector, but also include industries.

This may explain why energy storage and hydrogen have, for the first time, been highlighted as strategic and key technologies in the 14th FYP.  Accordingly, already in the beginning of this year, China’s National Key R&D Programme has followed suit and set out new/updated priorities (See Table 2 below).  

Table 2. Newly announced calls for proposals (for consultation) under National Key R&D Programme
(by Ministry of Science and Technology, Jan- April 2021)

In the field of basic research, the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC), with its enhanced focus on multidisciplinary research as well as a forward-looking orientation towards the scientific frontier, launched the first batch of calls for proposals.[4] 28 research topics have been identified as basic research challenges of strategic importance for China’s peak carbon and carbon neutrality, focusing on both mitigation and carbon sink, including both forests and oceans. 

The new of the “old” – Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS)

While the urgency of scaling-up CCUS efforts has long been seen as critical for climate actions, far too little research and demonstration have taken place globally and in China. Having China’s new 30-60 climate targets as departing point, different estimates show that CCUS and Bioenergy with CCS (BECCS) will need to play a significant role and could theoretically off-set between 15% – 30% of the CO2 emissions by 2050 and 2060. However, the key challenges and obstacles need to be efficiently and timely addressed, such as costs and financing model, CCUS value chain development as well as safety and sustainability. For instance, apart from leakage risks related to CCS-technology, another issue is the usage of sustainable material for capturing carbon. Breakthroughs have been made in finding more sustainable materials, such as the bio-based hybrid foam containing zeolites by Chalmers University of Technology and Stockholm University.

An overview of current development and an updated CCUS roadmap with specific details of technology development and innovation needs towards 2050 was put forward in 2019 by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) and the Administrative Center for China’s Agenda 21.[5] A program with specific focus on material and technology for carbon capture was initiated in 2017, as part of a National Key R&D Program on clean and efficient use of coal and new energy-saving technologies, initiated by MoST. The program has supported projects and research within technologies for carbon capture and absorption material.  

The role of international cooperation in climate- and energy related research and innovation

Looking at the latest multilateral and bilateral cooperation that have been lunched between MoST and EU and EU Member States (MS), there is some interesting overlapping between the National Key Special Projects and Collaboration Key Special Projects when it comes to thematic fields. This represents both common interests from both sides as well as the fact that these EU MS probably see an increasing potential for both knowledge development and market development in those fields.  

Inter-governmental STI Collaboration Key Special Projects: Energy and climate related
Examples of Joint Calls of EU and EU MS with Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST)
(1st and 2nd baches 2021)
 Source: 国家科技管理信息系统公共服务平台 (most.gov.cn)

What to watch now and beyond?  

Looking ahead, the newly established MoST Leading Group of Science and Technology for Peak Carbon and Carbon Neutrality has launched its strategy development work:[6]

  • Science, Technology and Innovation Action Plan for Carbon Neutrality.
  • Carbon Neutrality Technology Roadmap.  
  • National Key Special Projects for research, innovation and demonstration of key technologies for achieving carbon neutrality.

Along-side with deep science and innovative solutions, the transformative strengths in China’s climate actions, in our view, lies in the system effects generated by a digitalisation-decarbonisation-nexus and the scaling-up effects empowered by technology-financing synergies[7]. These are new challenges, but also enormous new potentials for a climate transformation – with both depth and speed.         

From the perspective of Sweden-China cooperation, we all still have the warm memoires from the Sweden-China Top Scientist Dialogue at the Nobel Day Event at our embassy in Beijing last year. The leading Swedish scientist and the coordinator of BATTERY 2030+  Prof. Kristina Edström from Uppsala University together with Dr. Wang Fang, the Chief Scientist of China Automotive Technology and Research Centre had an engaging and inspiring discussion on the role of international cooperation for a faster and sustainable transformation towards sustainability, supported by battery research and innovation.

Given the interest in “Fossil-Free Sweden” as well as in the ongoing policy processes in Sweden, such as the electrification strategy and climate transformation, the future policy dialogues and concrete collaboration between Sweden and China will not only be desirable, but could also be instrumental for contributing to truly transformational changes at a global scale.

Nannan Lundin, Matilde Eng, Linnea Yang and Jessica Zhang

PS: We would sincerely thank our colleagues at Academic Relations of Elsevier Beijing Office, for providing the mapping of key themes of energy and climate research by Chinese researchers. The mapping is the theme picture of this blog.

Also, pls find our Science, Innovation and Sustainably News Update for May, 2021.


[1]  Whitebook on China’s Energy Development in a new era.

[2] 9 Swedish climate scientists were listed, which can be considered as a remarkable achievement, given the population size. 

[3] See e.g. “China Holds the Lead in Advanced Batteries” and “China’s three eye-catching battery technologies of 2020”.

[4] 2021年度国家自然科学基金专项项目指南<br>——面向国家碳中和的重大基础科学问题与对策 (nsfc.gov.cn)

[5] China CCUS report 2019. 

[6] 王志刚部长主持召开科技部碳达峰与碳中和科技工作领导小组第一次会议 (most.gov.cn)

[7] The two transformational potentials will be elaborated in our forthcoming blogs after the summer break.