China is emerging as a global clean energy leader

China offers latest stage for progress on climate.

CREDIT: Kremlin.ru
CREDIT: Kremlin.ru

When G20 nations met in 2014, many leaders were angry over host country Australia’s reluctance to include strong climate change language in the group’s final communique. And last year, climate campaigners were disappointed when the G20 meeting in Turkey failed to take a strong stand supporting “green finance” and a clear timeline for ending fossil fuel subsidies.

But that was then, and this is now.

The forthcoming G20 summit, which will take place Sept. 4–5 in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, is the first since the historic Paris climate agreement, with climate change expected to be foremost on the agenda. Many group members, in particular the world’s two largest carbon polluters — the United States and host country China — now recognize the dire worldwide consequences of unabated global warming, especially on the international economy.

“As nations turn to the formidable task of achieving the goals set in Paris, the G-20 has an opportunity to play a leading role,” a report authored by Gwynne Taraska and Henry Kellison from the Center for American Progress read. “The G-20 is a forum of dominant economies and greenhouse gas emitters: Its members account for more than 85 percent of global gross domestic product, or GDP, and more than 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The group therefore has the responsibility and influence to successfully lead the transition to a low-carbon global economy.”

CREDIT: Center for American Progress
CREDIT: Center for American Progress

Among other things, the participants likely will discuss ratification of the Paris accord, and ways to accelerate “green finance,” that is, moving investments away from high carbon enterprise to more sustainable activities, and ending the more than $5 trillion annual global fossil fuel subsidies. The United States and China already have taken the first steps to do so, having agreed on a number of measures in a September 2015 landmark joint statement after a meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We expect countries to set higher standards for investment, particularly in infrastructure, that will shift funds away from high carbon projects,” said Han Chen, international climate advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program. “What [China and the United States] can still do better, and which can promote and shift more financing into green investments, is to reform their subsidies for fossil fuels domestically, and to end public financing for fossil fuel projects like coal plants and oil and gas projects around the world.”

CREDIT: Center for American Progress
CREDIT: Center for American Progress

The Chinese and American presidents plan to meet again during the G20 summit, likely their last meeting before Obama leaves office, and “a joint climate change statement will be expected,” said Li Shuo, climate policy adviser to Greenpeace International in China. “There is a fair chance that the two countries will announce some sort of joint ratification.”

Early ratification of the climate accord (the accord still must be ratified by 55 countries representing no less than 55 percent of global emissions) “will not only maintain the momentum created by Paris, but will also ensure that the United States will not be able to pull out from it in case of a Trump presidency,” Li added, noting that ratifying countries cannot withdraw until three years after the agreement goes into force.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has vowed to trash the Paris deal if elected, and has called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese.

China, whose emissions have since stopped growing, has in fact assumed a remarkable leadership role in climate mitigation and in promoting renewable energy, a stance “critical to global progress on these issues,” said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “China is putting its money where its mouth is, committing significant investments to ramping up renewable energy, and driving down costs — which is actually having important spillover benefits for the global marketplace for renewable energy,” she said.

CREDIT: World Resources Institute
CREDIT: World Resources Institute

This year’s G20 meeting “has the potential to be very important from a climate perspective,” Cleetus added. “We know that climate is a big priority for the agenda, and that China is intent on showing leadership on this issue.”

Last year, clean energy made up over 20 percent of China’s power generation.

Like many countries, China has experienced the ravages of climate change, including drought, water scarcity, heat waves, coastal storms and flooding, as well as a large public health burden from coal use, “so it clearly sees the need for a rapid clean energy transition,” she said.

The NRDC’s Chen agreed. “China’s leadership declared a war on pollution because it had reached such extremes throughout the country,” she said. “The war on air pollution meant tighter restrictions on coal mining and combustion, which led to better air quality and reduced carbon emissions.

“China has made a conscious effort to shift from heavy industry towards services and high tech manufacturing,” Chen added. “Clean energy has benefited from that shift, as China has invested in wind and solar for economic and environmental reasons.”

China remained the world’s largest energy consumer, producer and net importer in 2015, according to the 2016 BP Statistical Review. Even so, China’s energy use increased only 1.5 percent in 2015, according to BP, representing the smallest jump since the late 1990s — and government data suggest the increase was even lower, at 0.9 percent. And, at the same time, it also became the world’s leading generator of solar energy, surpassing both Germany and the United States, according to BP.

CREDIT: International Energy Agency
CREDIT: International Energy Agency

Equally important, it is moving away from both coal production and consumption. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) reported earlier this month that China’s coal production dropped 13.1 percent year-on-year in the month of July, 2016 and was down 10.1 percent year-on-year in the seven months to July 2016. That’s triple the rate of decline experienced in 2014 and 2015. The National Energy Administration also announced in February that China plans to close more than 1,000 coal mines this year, and that 5,600 of China’s 10,760 mines will close by 2020.

“The data definitively show that China’s coal consumption has peaked as of 2014, and we have seen year- on- year declines since then,” Cleetus said. “This is happening because of fundamental shifts in the economy, in response to climate and clean energy goals set by the government, and will bring very important public health benefits to the Chinese people. There is also good reason to believe that, based on this progress, the country’s CO2 emissions will peak well before the 2030 planned date.’’

While China’s solar contribution is small in absolute terms, more than 20 gigawatts of solar were installed during the first half of this year alone, according to IEEFA, much higher than the 15 gigawatts installed during all of 2015, which was a world record at the time.

“Already, China hosts the largest installed capacities for most types of renewable energy technology,” said Dolf Gielen, director of the International Renewable Energy Association’s (IRENA) Innovation Technology Centre. “China’s progress in this area is just one example of the ongoing, dramatic shift occurring in the global energy system.”

As part of its transition to clean energy, China expects the country to lose 1.8 million coal and steel related jobs, and has pledged $15.3 billion over the next two years for unemployment benefits, worker training and job placement, according to the UCS’s Cleetus.

CREDIT: Energy Information Administration
CREDIT: Energy Information Administration

“This is a difficult challenge, no doubt, but it makes a big difference that the government is working proactively to help with worker transition,” she said. “We should do the same here in the United States because the reality is that coal is under pressure due to multiple market factors and coal workers and coal-dependent communities need help.”

Gielen agreed. “China has more renewable energy jobs than any other country and shows what is possible, employment wise, within the renewable energy sector,” he said. “Of the 8.1 million people employed worldwide in renewables today, 3.5 million are in China, with 1.65 million in solar PVG sector alone.”

He cited an IRENA analysis that predicted a total of more than 24 million jobs in the renewable energy sector worldwide by 2030 “if we succeed in doubling the global share of renewables, and China will continue to account for a large share of this growth.”

China also could feasibly achieve a 26 percent share of renewables in its energy by 2030, which could save up to $228 billion, when accounting for factors like human health and reduced emissions, according to Gielen. “China has recognized this, and is moving forward ambitiously simply because it’s the smartest choice on so many levels,” he said.

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture.