China currently casts a bipolar profile as being the world’s ‘climate villain’ and potential ‘clean-energy savior’ at the same time. On the one hand, China maintains its reputation as the world’s top carbon emitter mainly due to coal consumption; on the other, the country makes a genuine effort to reduce its carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. This short brief offers an outlook on China’s achievements and the challenges it faced in the field of renewable energy.
Currently, China is the world’s largest producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles. China also holds the lead in terms of renewable energy technologies, with over 150.000 patents as of 2016, which constitutes 29% of the global total. In this field, the US follows as the next closest with approximately 100.000 licenses, while Japan and the EU having closer to 75.000 for each. Even though not all patents are useful, these figures give a sense of the country’s genuine efforts to reduce carbon emissions, or more importantly, its dependence on energy imports. When we compare the number of renewable energy patents of China and those of energy-rich countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, the sharp contrast between their policy towards renewables can be seen clearly. As an achievement of a global extent, China’s enormous manufacturing capacity enabled to bring down the cost of solar panels by 80% between the years 2008 and 2013, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). Likewise, the production costs of wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries dropped significantly.
So far, rapid and large-scale urbanization and industrialization in China have been realized by the power much of that supplied by coal. In 2006, China’s carbon emissions surpassed that of the US and became the world’s number one. By 2018, coal power constitutes 59% of China’s total energy consumption, and the total cost of air and water pollution is equivalent to 6% of Chinese GDP each year according to the World Bank data. Many experts, policymakers and other observers took hope from a three-year period when China’s carbon emissions decreased between the years 2014 and 2016. In the years between 2014 and 2016, annual levels of particulate matter (PM) - the sum of all solid and liquid particles suspended in air many of which are hazardous- in China dropped from 61.8 to 42 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a research conducted by scientists from Tsinghua University. Moreover, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 2017 statement that “China had taken a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change” was great white hope. However, in the past three years, we observe that China’s carbon emissions have begun to climb again, according to the Global Carbon Budget.
As China’s economic growth has slowed down to around 6%, the lowest level of the past quarter-century, Chinese policymakers have renewed their support for coal-consuming heavy industries which have been constituted the traditional engines of the country’s energy system. As expected, authorities loosen environmental regulations on heavy industries to compensate losses in other -more profitable- sectors of the economy. According to BNEF, China’s investment in renewable energy declined by approximately 40% in the first half of 2019.
Today, as new coal power plants spring up in China, observers across the world follow the developments with disappointment. Satellite images show that new coal power plants are currently under construction with a total capacity of 148 GW, a level equals to the entire coal-power capacity of the EU within the next few years, according to Global Energy Monitor. At the end of the day, these contradicting figures on clean energy blur the line between China’s global roles as a villain on one side and a savior on the other.