China leads way 'by far' in net zero research

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China is leading the way in research to achieve net zero 'by far', according to a survey by Elsevier.

The company has unveiled a comprehensive study on the state of global clean energy research ahead of next week’s opening of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).

The study reveals that China's funding agencies supported the single largest share of clean energy publications between 2016 and 2020. In addition, researchers in China are publishing almost 50 per cent more research as those of any other country, with 400,000 publications from China since 2001 compared to 280,000 from the United States. The country also leads in the creation of patents between 2011 and 2020, Chinese output of patents focused on clean energy technologies grew by 35 per cent annually – while in the USA, output grew by only 4 per cent annually.

One area of concern highlighted in the report is the dominance of the Global North and the lower output and impact of research from the Global South. Global South countries contributed to just 15 per cent of clean energy research, less than the USA or European Union. This is in part due to low levels of collaboration between the Global North and South. While overall international collaboration has increased from 30 per cent in 2011 to 45 per cent in 2020; published research including at least one research collaborator based in the Global South was just 9 per cent in 2020.

Lesley Thompson, VP of academic and government strategic alliances at Elsevier, commented: 'The global research community has made huge strides in the fight against climate change in the past two decades and our increasing ability to put basic research into practice is a testament to that work. However, there’s more to do, and that begins with building greater cooperation and inclusion of the countries that will be most affected by climate change. Doing so will bring new ways of thinking, new approaches and will accelerate progress to net zero across the planet. I hope that will be front of mind for the delegates, as they meet and plan for our futures in Glasgow.'

The study focuses on research, from across various fields, that is advancing our understanding and providing pathways to achieving a clean energy transition to net zero emissions. It analyses more than 1.6 million research papers indexed in Elsevier’s Scopus database, the largest database of peer-reviewed literature, scientific journals, books and conference proceedings in the world. In addition, the study examines 800,000 patents, all published between 2001 and 2020. Elsevier hopes the study will support evidence-led policy decisions and action at COP26 by creating a clear picture of clean energy research.

The global picture created by the study is broadly positive. Clean energy research is growing rapidly, from making up just 1 per cent of all research in 2001 to 5 per cent in 2020 – a move from 16,000 to 170,000 research papers annually over this period. At the same time, research published on applied technologies has grown by 20 percentage points over the past two decades, and over 100,000 patents focused on clean technology have been registered over the last three years.

Not only has focus shifted to applied technologies, but there has been a shift in the areas that research is concentrated on. Today, the largest body of clean energy research is focused on electric propulsion technologies, with the number of papers published on this topic doubling in the past decade, from contributing 5 per cent of clean energy research to 11 per cent, while research into solar energy, wind energy and wireless data technologies for smart grids and internet of things (IoT) devices have seen similarly dramatic growth. At the same time, once-promising areas have fallen back. At the start of the millennium, fusion energy, which hopes to provide unlimited clean energy, was the single largest clean energy topic researched, making up more than 8 per cent of all clean energy research, but today it accounts for just over 1 per cent.