Why I’m optimistic China can avert an environmental catastrophe
Beijing’s efforts to curb carbon emissions are slowly chipping away at the nation’s ‘awesome’ air problem
Talk about the global climate crisis and culprits to blame, and fingers will always quickly point to China. We see photos to prove it in newspapers, and on TV news every day of the week: massive and unchecked industrial pollution from the “factory to the world”; thick and lethal fog shrouding city after city; dirty coal mining at the heart of dirty power generation.
Surprise, then, to discover that there is probably no country in the world doing so much to ameliorate carbon emissions, or build renewables. If we succeed in slowing global warming to non-lethal levels, it will probably because of efforts being made inside the Chinese mainland.
The reality struck me a week or so ago when I read that China’s Hong Kong-listed Goldwind has become the world’s biggest wind turbine maker, overtaking Denmark’s Vestas and General Electric in the US. China is today home to five of the world’s top 10 wind turbine makers, accounting for half of the 63 gigawatts installed worldwide in 2015. That was nearly four times as much new wind power as was installed in the US last year, and means that China is today home to more than one third of wind power capacity installed worldwide.
And wind is not a stand-alone exception. Of the 177 GW of solar power installed worldwide, nearly 16 per cent is in China, and it is installing about half of the world’s new capacity every year. I also discovered that China in 2014 installed 44.5 GW of those solar heating collectors that sit on peoples’ roofs, lifting its installed total to 262 GW – about 70 per cent of the world’s capacity.
In short, China today accounts for about 17 per cent of the renewable power capacity installed worldwide – compared to less than 8 per cent in 2010. That compares with 20 per cent in the US, and 39 per cent in the EU, but the trend sees China’s share growing rapidly. It has boosted its share of the world’s hydroelectric power from 21 per cent to more than 27 per cent over the same period, and nuclear capacity now accounts for 5 per cent of the world total, compared with 2.7 per cent in 2010. China aims to be home to more than 30 per cent of the world’s nuclear power by 2035. Of course, many don’t count hydro or nuclear as renewable energy, but from my point of view these pump no CO2 up into the atmosphere, so have to be a force for good in the battle against global warming.
Set against this good news is of course the bad news. More than 60 per cent of China’s energy today still comes from coal – and dirty coal at that. The country consumes an awesome 4 billion tonnes of coal a year for power generation and direct burning by industrial users – compared with 900m tonnes in the US, the world’s second biggest polluter. Energy demand has been growing so strongly in recent years that coal use has been growing by an average 12 per cent a year, in spite of all the progress on renewables. Lots of wind power is wasted – about 15 per cent at last count, because it can’t be stored, and because of arguments over access to China’s power grid.
But even on coal there is a glimmer of good news. A crackdown on small and dirty coal mines meant that coal use grew by just 0.2 per cent in 2015. Coal producers can expect the heat to be turned up on them in years to come, as pressure rises to use clean coal, and to develop scrubber and carbon capture technologies that will reduce the harm being done by coal.
Of course, China has become a whipping boy for those concerned about progress in addressing global warming not just because of the fast growth of internal energy demand to meet the needs of its more prosperous population, but because of “offshored pollution” – the reality that many of the world’s more sanctimonious prosperous economies have “reduced” their carbon footprint not by reducing their emissions, but by moving them overseas - banning dirty factories at home while happily buying goods made in dirty factories in poorer economies abroad.
A recent study on China’s resource efficiency funded by the UN Environment Programme, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences is frank about China’s responsibility for rising demand for, and pressure on, a wide range of natural resources over the past decade and a half, and summarises China’s challenge well: “It is unrealistic to expect China to achieve the extremely high apparent resource efficiency levels of those countries which have transferred most of the materials and energy intensive production processes to external jurisdictions.
“An unprecedented level of innovation in the major production and infrastructure systems underpinning China’s modernization will be required, if high levels of economic growth are to be maintained while simultaneously averting further and massive degradation of China’s natural environment.”
But the report is clear about the efforts being made: “Relative both to its region and to the world, China’s performance in improving resource efficiency has been exceptionally good. Unfortunately these improvements have not been sufficient to offset the additional resource demands created by increasing per capita income… The magnitude of the effect of China’s industrial transition on global demand for resources is, in absolute terms, unprecedented.”
If Beijing is working so hard and making such good progress, why then do we still see so many awful stories about pollution across the country? I suppose there are two overall answers. First, China’s pollution problems remain awesome, in spite of good progress. And second – perhaps more positively – there is evidence that the government is using smog alerts and other bad publicity to put extra pressure on polluters, and drive home its message about the urgency of need to clean the air, and reduce carbon emissions. As an astute Financial Times columnist wrote a couple of months ago: “Sudden outbreaks of smog are newsworthy. Slow, steady progress reducing CO2 emissions is not.”
David Dodwell is Executive Director of the Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Group