China smashes solar energy records, as coal use and CO2 emissions fall once again

With millions of jobs up for grabs, China seizes clean tech leadership from U.S.

Six solar and wind power farms in northwestern China. CREDIT: AP/Ng Han Guan
Six solar and wind power farms in northwestern China. CREDIT: AP/Ng Han Guan

We are witnessing a historic passing of the baton of global leadership on technology and climate from the United States to China.

The new U.S. administration has said it will abandon climate action, gut clean energy funding, and embrace coal and oil — the dirty energy sources of the past that experts say can’t create a large number of sustainable new jobs. At the same time, China is slashing coal use and betting heavily on clean energy, which is clearly going to be the biggest new source of permanent high-wage jobs in the coming years.

Indeed, Beijing plans to invest a stunning $360 billion by 2020 in renewable generation alone, and China’s energy agency says the resulting “employment will be more than 13 million people.”

Renewable energy jobs in select countries (excluding large hydropower). CREDIT: IRENA
Renewable energy jobs in select countries (excluding large hydropower). CREDIT: IRENA

In 2016, Chinese coal consumption fell for the third consecutive year, Beijing reports, while it installed almost twice as many solar panels as it had in 2015, which was also a record-setting year. Beijing projects both trends will continue in 2017.

China’s solar installation target for 2020 is likely to be achieved in 2018, which as Greenpeace’s Energy Desk noted in January, is “a pretty impressive feat given that the target was set only a couple of months ago.”

All of these policies have helped make China a new global leader in climate action, as their own CO2 emissions have plateaued and declined since 2013.

Via Greenpeace’s Energy Desk
Via Greenpeace’s Energy Desk

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has redoubled its commitment to ramping up clean energy and ratcheting down carbon pollution, as required by the Paris climate agreement. That’s a $50 trillion (or more) commitment in the coming decades.

That means tens of millions of new jobs in clean energy are up for grabs, something no other emerging sector can match. China’s strategy is simple, as explained in a recent analysis by Melanie M. Hart. Hart, director of China policy at the Center for American Progress, writes:

“What Beijing really wants is for the next generation of energy technologies to come from China.”

Ironically, it was the United States itself in 2014, under President Barack Obama, that managed to extract the game-changing pledge from China to cap emissions by 2030 while doubling zero carbon energy. China is on track to beat both of those pledges.

Tragically for U.S. workers, while America helped pave the way for a China deal, and then global deal, that ensures the world economic prosperity will belong to the countries that lead the way on clean energy, we elected a president who campaigned on zeroing out clean energy funding and waging a losing battle to stanch the loss of fossil fuel jobs.

Even more tragic for America than ceding a multi-trillion dollar market to China is the fact that the U.S. is planning to aggressively attack all policies aimed at reining in carbon pollution just when the future of the climate for the next thousand years will be decided. That makes resistance to Trump and his policies all the more important.