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In the blink of an eye, China has become the world leader in renewable energy

March 23rd, 2018

China hasn’t always been viewed positively for its relationship with energy. Despite the limelight China found itself in in the mid- to late-2000s, the country has recently risen to global leadership in the charge against dirty fuels. Today, China serves as an interesting example of rapid development and, responsively, rapid shift in energy policy.

In 2009, it became the largest total energy consumer in the world. In 2016, the nation consumed 3,123 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE) per year. This new access to energy has allowed for unparalleled economic growth, which has led hundreds of millions of Chinese to be lifted out of poverty.

China’s reliance on “quick and dirty” energy sources comes at price, however. Local air pollution, especially in urban areas, has caused an estimated 350,000 to 500,000 deaths annually. Beijing roads alone are packed with 5.6 million in Beijing alone, with millions of others across the country. China narrowly avoided international embarrassment when athletes expressed doubts about attending the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, citing the city’s dangerous levels of smog.

In response to concerns over air pollution, China’s Communist Party began to use its policy platform, the Five-Year Plan, to lay out a transition to renewable energy. The first mentions appear in its 11th plan (2005); the nation’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2017), however, revealed drastically more rigorous policies to control energy consumption. It laid out targets for 2020 that included everything from installed wind capacity to total consumption. The government committed to a 15% reduction in energy consumption per unit of GDP, 18% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP, and 15% non-fossil fuel sources in the national energy mix.

Given its proactivity, China entered the Paris Talks in 2015 from a position of relative leadership. When the US withdrew from the Paris Accords in 2017, China was offered the opportunity to assume leadership not only among developing nations but among all nations.

Only a week after US withdrawal, Chinese energy ministers convened a high-profile meeting on clean energy that was well-attended by representatives from countries around the world. Although the US was not represented at a federal level, California Governor Jerry Brown was one among a handful of committed US policy makers-- “I didn’t come to Washington, I came to Beijing,” the Governor said, acknowledging China’s success in promoting progressive energy policy.

Counter to what some believed, the Chinese government has put its money where its mouth is. In the time since the Paris Accords were passed, China has succeeded in meeting its commitments—something not all countries have proven capable of. In under a decade, China increased its installed solar generation from less than 10 gigawatts to over 130, with 50 GW added between 2016 and 2017 alone. This level of photovoltaic generation exceeds the nation’s goals for 2020, which has earned it recognition on the global stage. In the same period, wind generation grew from 60 to 160 GW, with plans to achieve 210 – 250 GW by 2020. China need only to continue current trends in this sector to far exceed this level.

Despite its impressive successes, China will have to jump many hurdles to reach true sustainability. The country still is still the world’s largest consumer of coal-fired electricity, using four times as the US. Although it has taken steps to transition to renewables, coal remains its primary source of energy. It also bears noting that China has agreed to slow its growth in energy consumption but admits it will need large amounts of energy for development in the coming decades. Chinese officials often point out that much of what is produced in China does not remain in China—the US in particular has high demand for cheap Chinese products, industries that rely on the use of dirty fuels.

Also unsettling is if China will provide aid to countries looking to develop sustainably. Chinese officials have been enthusiastic about leading by example but, when asked, were not willing to contribute to the UN Green Climate Fund, which is a major funding source for a lot of the world’s green development. When the US withdrew from the Paris Accords, it took with it the majority of the $3 billion it had committed—if China refuses to fill this void, it is unclear which countries will be able to foot the bill.

As questions of climate change continue to move to the forefront of international cooperation, the world will be watching China, whose leadership may be imperfect but certainly cannot be denied. In the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal from Paris, many Americans are already looking to China—much of the action at US local and regional scales draws great inspiration from China’s gusto for sustainability. In time, China should use this recognition to organize climate action not only domestically but globally and invest some of the benefits reaped from sustainable development into others’ efforts.

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