We are familiar with the numbers. With a population of some 1.35 billion, China already boasts seven cities larger in population than London. A further 160 plus are greater in size than the UK’s second city, Birmingham. With urbanisation and industrialisation carrying on apace and rocketing economic growth, it is not surprising that China’s development and growing global influence can appear daunting. Whatever her government chooses to do, it will resonate loudly. She has received criticism for a grave human rights record, for a totalitarian creed, co-mingling paranoia and brutality. The world has looked askance at her balance of payments and policy of investment in the African continent as well as her regional influence. There is fear and politics and also a measure of truth in all of these criticisms. Yet it is as if we still do not quite understand how to engage with China, how to create a dialogue, or understand what we can do other than stand and watch. In terms of energy and the environment our fatalism has its own consequences. It is often used to justify the lack of action by several developed countries but fails to acknowledge the political will and urgency within China to tread a measured path between opportunity and responsibility. Critically the familiar account of wanton environmental damage also overlooks the fact that China may ultimately prove to be a fulcrum in achieving the green energy revolution vital for a sustainable future.
The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Mitigation of Climate Change is the last to be released before the final AR5 Synthesis Report due in October 2014. This will likely shape the debate on climate change adaptation, mitigation and responsibility for the foreseeable future, as this is the last IPCC report to be published this decade (the last report was published in 2007). The report notes that “Evidence from mitigations scenarios indicates that the decarbonisation of energy supply is a key requirement for stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentrations below 580ppm (robust evidence, high agreement).” The report further shows how renewable energy has become economically viable in some places and “accounted for just over half of the new electricity‐generating capacity added globally in 2012” but that “many RE technologies still need direct support.”
It is clear that renewable energy offers an opportunity for investment and despite attributing most (sometimes all) of the responsibility for mitigating climate change to developed countries, China is playing a considerable role in the development of green energy technologies. Already the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy, China is laying the foundations for a future where renewable energy will no doubt be prevalent. By investing and developing now, rather than later, China could potentially become the world leader in renewables, a position that will inevitably reap huge benefits.
That position is somewhat borne out of necessity, as China currently faces environmental disaster. Particulates in the air are leading to higher rates of lung cancer, while recent reports show that up to 20% of arable farmland is heavily polluted. There are also concerns over the safety of drinking water for around 280 million inhabitants. China is also seen as a roadblock (in most Western countries) to global efforts at reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Developing renewable technology is a partial solution to both of these problems.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently restated the country’s intentions to provide cleaner electricity as well as increasing the amount of solar and wind power plants. Last month, at his first National People’s Congress since taking office, Li declared, “Efforts to protect the environment matter to people’s lives and the future of the Chinese nation.” In a world where many democracies are struggling with partisanship and power struggles, it appears that China has the political will and ability to enforce their environmental rhetoric. The most recent Five-Year Plan (running from 2011-2015) laid out a roadmap with a commitment to increase non-fossil energy use to 11.4% of total energy use by 2015 (8.3% in 2010). Additional plans were made to reduce energy and carbon intensity (per unit of GDP) by 16% and 17% respectively.
Aside from political assurances, China’s investment in the renewable sector is backing up their claims of a low carbon development strategy. 2013 saw China install 12GW of solar capacity, equivalent to three times that of the total UK capacity, with plans for a similar amount this year. By way of comparison, the USA installed 4.3 GW of solar capacity last year. One of the reasons for this is that while China is still expanding its electricity capacity to cater for increased urbanisation and a growing population, the demand for electricity in the USA has remained flat for some time. This gives China the ability to easily install large amounts of energy capacity while other countries that want to install renewable capacity will have to replace other energy sources, with potential knock-on effects for business and jobs in that particular sector.
Poor environmental conditions have led to social unrest in China, which the government has always been quietly aware of. Social unrest remains the largest threat to government power and has provided the urgency with which the Chinese government is now acting. Recently, the biggest changes to environmental law in 25 years were passed, as the government made an open declaration of its intent to crack down on heavy polluters. It remains to be seen if these measures will be effective as previous environmental laws have been poorly enforced. There is no doubt however, that China is making concerted progress towards a low-carbon renewable future.
A report earlier this year by the World Wildlife Fund claimed that China could have an electricity system in place by 2050 consisting of 80% renewable sources and that it would be substantially cheaper than using coal. As the renewable sector evolves, production and installation will become substantially cheaper so it would come as no surprise to see China actually achieve this. The people have spoken, the laws have been passed and the technology is being installed. Carbon emissions remain high and coal is still the prevalent energy source, but China is leading the green energy revolution, a revolution that will fundamentally change the world we know.
[IPCC Mitigation and Climate Change: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/]