China’s fast and remarkable economic growth over the past decades turned the country in a world leader in many industries. However, this fast development caused an increase in the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), making China accountable for one-third of the its global production. As a significant producer and consumer of energy, the country must play a pivotal role in the transition to a sustainable energy future.
In the latest years China has shown to be genuinely interested in being a world leader in the sector of renewable energy. Based on a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the country is already the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy with a total of 288 gigawatts of wind energy capacity and 253 gigawatts of solar energy. Moreover, according to a 2019 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, China is the biggest domestic and outbound investor in renewable energy with an expenditure of nearly $760 billion between 2010 and 2019 amounting to the double of that of the U.S, corresponding to $356 billion. In addition, China has also shown to have a massive potential for the implementation of a diverse range of renewable sources and technologies employed for power generation and for end-use sector. As a matter of fact, research shows that by 2030, one-fifth of the country’s electricity consumption is forecasted to come from non-fossil fuel sources.
This strategy to promote a green transition does not only come from the willingness of the country to promote its international visibility, but also from the need to tackle problems of air and water pollution, and mitigate risks of socioeconomic instability. In the effort of promoting a greener society and planet, China aims to reach the peak of its CO2 emissions before 2030 and proceed in the effort of reaching carbon neutrality before 2060. On this issue, a new IEA report released at the end of September this year – An Energy Sector Roadmap to Carbon Neutrality in China – highlights how China has the full potential to reach its objectives while granting energy security and affordability for its citizens. It was shown by a report of 2012 that the economic and health consequences of air pollution cost China $535 billion, or 6.5 percent of its gross domestic product, due to losses in labor productivity. In 2013, Air pollution became so bad in some parts of China that the media dubbed it an ‘airpocalypse’, since citizens had to endure levels up pollution that were 30 times higher those deemed safe by the World Health Organization. Data also show that 48 Chinese cities still feature among the top 100 most-polluted cities in the world. For this reason, air pollution is ranked as a top concern for residents in China and these concerns can possibly lead to public unrest and mass protests. For this reason, prime minister Li Keqiang highlighted the need to cut air pollution through the development of cleaner sources of energy to maintain domestic stability in the Chinese Communist Party. To promote this green shift the government introduced a development plan for renewable energy to be delivered together with its overarching 13th five-year plan for social and economic development for the period 2016-2020. This plan also included the important commitment to raise the proportion of its renewable and non-fossil-fuel energy consumption to 20% by 2030.
In addition to its heavy investment in clean energy infrastructure, China is also opting for an entrepreneurial approach towards climate innovation with specific climate finance programs. Experimenting with climate friendly transactions, in 2017, China launched five green finance pilot zones in the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou and Xinjiang. These efforts represent a new idea of China Dream envisioning clean air and water, livable communities and an environmentally friendly lifestyle.
However, even if China has made notable progresses in its green energy transition process, it still faces considerable challenges. For example, coal still accounts for more than 60% of electricity generation, and the country continues to build new coal power plants at the domestic level. In addition, China is still the second largest oil consumer in the world. Therefore, the country cannot solely rely on its primacy in renewable energies but it must also find concrete solutions to drastically lower the emission coming from its still huge existing fleet of fossil fuel-based power plants, steel mills, cement kilns and other industrial facilities. This was also recently worsened by the country’s shortage of coal that constituted a possible threat to energy supplies for the winter. In this occasion China decided to loosen the restrictions on coal mining operators in its coal belt region instead of relying on renewable energies, pushing back once again the country’s green efforts.
Nevertheless, it is fundamental to highlight that China will probably be consistent with its efforts in promoting the expansion of renewable energy sources since they offer a long-term energy support system, decreasing costs for impoverished households and communities. Therefore, by investing in the improvement of the current system and expanding renewable energy in the country, China will be able to create cheaper energy and grant lower living costs to its citizens, also contributing to a significant decrease of poverty in rural regions.
Image – Hanny Naibaho