China a green energy leader? Don't make me laugh
Read the praise heaped on Beijing by two recent reports, and you could believe the mainland is leading the world in environmental best practice
Did you know that China is the greenest country in the world?
I confess, it was news to me. And I am pretty sure it will come as news to the inhabitants of Beijing, where memories of January's two-week toxic coal smog linger like a foul smell.
But if you were to judge by the breathy praise heaped on Beijing by a couple of recent reports, you could easily get the impression that China is leading the rest of the world into the clean, sunlit uplands of environmental best practice.
According to a paper co-authored by the environment movement aristocrat Tim Flannery and published this week by Australia's Climate Commission, "China's efforts demonstrate accelerating global leadership in tackling climate change".
Quoting Premier Li Keqiang's March declaration that "we shouldn't pursue economic growth at the expense of the environment", the report applauds Beijing's emphasis on investing in clean energy.
It says that China has increased its wind power capacity 50 times over since 2005, while solar generating capacity shot up 75 per cent last year alone.
Meanwhile, in another report published two weeks ago, the Pew Charitable Trusts announced that "China is the world's leader" in green technology, having invested US$65 billion in clean energy last year.
Thanks to all this investment, Pew says that China now boasts 152 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity, ahead of the United States with 133 gigawatts and the European Union with 128 gigawatts.
As a result, the Australian Climate Commission proclaims that today "China is reducing its emissions growth".
Right, time for a reality check.
First, you will note that the Climate Commission does not say China is reducing its emissions, only that it is reducing its emissions growth.
In other words, China's greenhouse gas emissions are still rising, just not quite as fast as before.
And as the first chart from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency shows, up until 2011, they were climbing at a truly spectacular rate.
In 2011, China's carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement rose by 820 million tonnes.
To put that into perspective, the mainland's increase was as much as Germany's total greenhouse gas emissions for the year, with Romania's total thrown in for good measure.
Mainland energy demand did grow at a slower rate last year. But that is explained by Beijing's attempts to cool investment, which moderated demand growth for energy intensive materials like aluminium and steel. With investment in property and infrastructure now picking up again, energy demand growth - and emissions growth - could well pick up again this year.
As for all Beijing's investment in installing wind and solar power capacity, while it sounds exciting on paper, it is a lot less impressive in reality.
That is partly because installed capacity does not have much to do with actual power output. For example, according to figures from the China Electricity Council, last year there was only enough of a breeze to turn the country's tens of thousands of wind turbines for 22 per cent of the time.
As a result, while Beijing has poured money into renewable capacity, as the second chart shows, over the first three months of this year, the country still generated more than 80 per cent of its electricity in coal-fired power stations.
Wind energy provided just 2 per cent of power output, while the contribution from solar power was negligible.
So although it may be encouraging that Beijing is investing in wind and solar power, the chance that those investments will contribute to any slowing of the mainland's greenhouse emissions at any point in the foreseeable future is precisely zero.