Despite its continuing position as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China's commitment to a green future has never been less in doubt.
Not only does China lead the world in renewable energy investment, its building of electricity supply networks in the many countries connected to its massive Belt & Road Initiative - although, for now, increasing fossil fuel use in these countries - lays the basis for a huge future expansion of renewable energy capacity around the world led by Chinese technology.
Also, with United States leadership on climate change about to end after President Trump unceremoniously hauled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, China will relish the opportunity this provides to put itself forward as global leader of the transformation in global energy being driven by technological advance and tumbling costs for renewables.
Still, China remains the world’s biggest consumer of coal and the second-largest of oil, while its expansion of fossil fuel-derived power networks in other countries and some inefficiencies in its own renewable energy at home have led some to question China’s true commitment to the green cause.
An economy in transition
But China is still in a transition phase from the disastrous command economy of the Mao era to what it hopes to be a prosperous and modern country sitting at the apex of the 21st Century global economy. China is following a similar path to that taken by the Asian tiger economies of the 20th century, from Japan through Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore.
It has undergone rapid industrialisation and infrastructure development while mass-producing cheaply made consumer goods for export and at the same time importing the expertise and technology that will allow it to develop a technologically advanced society and join ranks with the world’s richest and most advanced nations.
Singapore is a particularly salient example. The mastermind behind the Singapore economic miracle, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, advised Chinese leaders on how to build a modern economy, and Singapore’s success has provided a template for China to emulate on a massive scale. China’s use of fossil fuels to power its industries will continue while its economy remains in transition, but renewable energy will be an essential component of the world-leading nation it hopes to become.
The tide has turned
Indeed, the tide may already have turned. Scientists reported in 2016 that China’s carbon emissions may have peaked in 2013 as they fell each year afterwards. If so, this put the country well ahead of its Paris-agreed schedule to peak carbon emissions by 2030. At the start of 2017, China announced that it would scrap plans to build 85 coal-fired power plants, while investing $360 billion in renewable energy by 2020. In March, it was reported that China was already exceeding targets for energy efficiency, carbon intensity, and the share of clean energy sources. In 2017, China spent $132 billion on developing clean energy – almost 40 percent of the world total. It also contributed more than 46 percent of newly installed capacity.
China’s total renewable capacity has been growing on average by more than 15 percent a year for the past decade – nearly twice as fast as the rest of the world – while growth rates for hydroelectric, solar and wind power have each been between two and three times the global average. More than two-thirds of China’s investment in clean energy is in solar. The country is now home to a third of the world’s wind power and a quarter of its solar capacity. By 2030, China plans to increase the amount of energy derived from non-fossil fuels to 20 percent of the total from around 13 percent today.
On top of this, China last December launched the world’s largest carbon-trading scheme, it sells more electric vehicles than the rest of the world put together, it is expected by 2020 to have of the six largest battery factories in the world, and it leads the world in building nuclear power plants. A Chinese delegation is planning to participate in the upcoming edition of the World Green Economy Summit, taking place on October 24 and 25 in Dubai, and provide further comment on the role of the Chinese private sector in these endeavours.
Despite this, it is still subject to criticism on its clean energy policies. One such criticism is that while China may be pushing renewable energy in its own back yard, it is merely exporting the problem by building fossil fuel-powered electricity networks across the countries signed up to its Belt & Road Initiative – China’s hugely ambitious programme to recreate its ancient land and maritime trading routes to Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa.
Despite China’s commitment to cancel hundreds of coal-fired plants at home, Chinese companies were involved in 240 such projects in Belt & Road countries abroad by the end of 2016 and will be responsible for more than half the world’s new coal capacity in the next decade. Yet China must first build the grid infrastructure these countries lack before it can begin exporting its clean energy technology on a cost-efficient basis. And with China now being home to five of the world’s six largest solar module manufacturers, this eventuality is clearly in China’s interest.
Sure, there are many teething problems, such as spats with Europe and America over Chinese dumping of solar panels, energy loss caused by building large-scale renewable projects in remote areas without the right transmission infrastructure to support them, the high cost of obtaining capital for renewable projects, and the dominance of China’s fossil-fuel hungry state-owned energy giants. But so long as China remains intent on one day leading the world in renewable energy and on reducing environmental pollution, all of these issues will be addressed and likely overcome.
The World Green Economy Summit (WGES) brings together world-class experts in critical sectors from around the world to directly focus on advancing the global green economy and sustainability agenda, achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals and implementing the recommendations of COP21 & 22. Organised by the Dubai Electricity & Water Authority and World Green Economy Organisation, the event is strategically supported by Thomson Reuters.
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