China is the world’s largest energy consumer, and its energy use is dirty and inefficient. But it is working hard to change that. Currently, coal accounts for nearly 70 percent of China’s total energy consumption, and this, coupled with an aging manufacturing infrastructure, a growing fleet of cars on the roads, and inefficiently insulated buildings, is the main reason why China alone produces almost 30 percent of world CO2 emissions. (The U.S., by contrast, produces around 16 percent.) Coal burning also causes much of the country’s PM2.5 air pollution—the tiny lethal particles that penetrate human lungs and can enter the bloodstream, that were the subject of the recent wildly popular online documentary “Under the Dome,” which was viewed by some 200 million internet viewers before the government shut it down.
China’s leaders are well aware of this dirty truth and are striving to shift toward renewable energy and away from an over-reliance on coal. Eyes will be on China as energy-related components of the 13th Five-Year-Plan are expected to be released later this year, and in December, in Paris, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will bring together the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter nations in an attempt to negotiate a legally binding agreement to reduce emissions. In Paris, China has the potential to be a global leader because of the steps it has taken to reduce emissions and shift its energy mix toward renewables.
On November 11, 2014, the momentous U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation was released. In it, President Xi Jinping set a national goal for peak CO2 emissions around 2030, and for 20 percent (up from its current 10 percent) of the country’s energy to come from renewables by the same year. The press release notes the amount of new “nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity” China will add by 2030 is massive, comprising “more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States,” amounting to an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts zero emission generation capacity.
Can China meet its energy goals? Many experts are optimistic it will not only meet them but meet them faster than promised in the Joint Agreement. In “Carbon Emissions in China: How Far Can New Efforts Bend the Curve?” scientists from Tsinghua University and MIT show that China’s CO2 emissions could level off as early as 2025 (five years ahead of the goals laid out in the Joint Agreement) with no adverse effect on economic growth. And preliminary data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) show that global energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide did not grow in 2014. The IEA credited China’s switch to consuming more electricity from renewables and less from coal as one of the major drivers of this leveling off of CO2 worldwide. China’s renewables strategy has received significant thought and attention from world experts, including the influential American energy innovator Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). Drawing on the insights from his book Reinventing Fire, which shows how the U.S. could profitably transition off of fossil fuels by 2050, Lovins co-founded the Reinventing Fire: China project, a pan-pacific partnership between Energy Research Institute (ERI, the energy think tank of China’s National Development and Reform Commission); China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL); Energy Foundation’s China Sustainable Energy Group; and Rocky Mountain Institute. The principal goals of the project are to chart a cost-effective clean energy roadmap for China, and to contribute transformative policy recommendations to the upcoming 13th Five-Year Plan. RMI has put out a white paper on its work on China; the full report will be released in the summer of 2015.
Another point in China’s favor is the little-publicized fact that the country is already a leader in renewables. China has more hydropower and wind electrical generating capacity than any other country and will soon replace Germany as a world leader in solar. In 2014, worldwide investment in clean energy rose 16 percent to $310 billion by Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s tally; of that, China’s share was $89.5 billion, almost 30 percent of the world’s total.
Zheng Jiayu—Xinhua/Zuma Press
China is home to many of the world’s great rivers, and hydropower is by far China’s largest source of renewable energy. Nearly 20 percent of its electricity is from the country’s 300 gigawatts of hydropower capacity. The recent additions of the Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba hydropower projects complete a cascade of dams in the Jinsha River valley. Those dams are now among the largest in the world after the Three Gorges Dam (which cost $50 billion dollars and generates enough electricity to power Pakistan or Switzerland).