China says its energy consumption has been growing too quickly in recent years, putting a strain on the country's energy supply as well as on the environment.
“Fossil energy resources have been exploited on a large scale, causing a certain amount of damage to the eco-environment,” reads a statment in the White Paper on China's Energy Policy released Wednesday by the country's Cabinet.
To create an energy industry that is “secure, stable and clean,” the statement says authorities are ending a ban on new nuclear plants, encouraging more private investment in the energy sector, and developing more sustainable-energy technology.
Zhou Xizhou, who heads the China team of the Cambridge Energy Research Associates, says the government's energy policy faces major obstacles. “They have to find enough supply to meet the future demand, because of how fast the demand is growing,” he says. Zhou adds that reducing the country’s heavy dependence on coal and diversifying its energy resources will be a big challenge.
The “white paper” statement was released before November’s once-in-a-decade leadership reshuffle, when a new group of senior officials is expected to announce policy changes.
China, which is the world's biggest consumer and producer of energy, relies mostly on heavily polluting coal, as well as oil imports for energy production.
But as the center of global manufacturing, the country has been trying to improve energy efficiency and improve sustainable, domestic energy sources. That includes more nuclear power, which makes up just 1.8 percent of the country's total energy production.
China's State Council decided Wednesday to resume construction of “a small number” of new nuclear power plants, after a suspension following Fukushima's disaster in March 2011.
This week's decision shows that, although concerned with safety, leaders in Beijing believe China's energy development cannot be sustained without tapping into nuclear energy.
Yang Fuqiang, senior advisor on energy, environment and climate change at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing, says the safety guidelines governing nuclear plant construction have been greatly strengthened since the Fukushima disaster.
He says the new measures are reassuring, but the government could still go further in ensuring the plants’ safety.
“It was definitely correct to highlight nuclear safety,” Yang says. “But we also think that it is very important to establish a professional, effective management system for nuclear power that is managed by the central government. This was not mentioned by the China policy on energy in 2012.”
Wednesday's white paper also pushed for a restructuring of the energy industry now dominated by state-owned enterprises.
“The Chinese government encourages private capital to participate in the exploration and development of energy resources, oil- and natural-gas-pipeline network construction and the electric-power industry,” the document says.
“The energy sector is still backwards, when compared to other sectors in China,” says Yang Fuqiang. “In recent years reform in the energy sector has pretty much come to a halt, the pace of reform has been very slow and price has not substantially changed.”
Wednesday's documents said that “proactive efforts will be made in the pricing mechanism of electricity to gradually let the market decide the price of electricity.”
Yang believes by removing price caps and making it easier for private companies to enter the energy sector, there will be a greater effort toward creating energy efficiency and making technological innovations.
After becoming the world's biggest carbon-dioxide emitter, China has committed to reducing its carbon intensity by 45 percent by 2020.
Although coal is set to remain Beijing's main power source, this week's policy paper projects that energy produced by other renewable sources, like nuclear, solar and wind, will increase to 30 percent in the next three years.