China’s role in the green revolution

 By Robin Wylie

The need to cut humanity’s carbon emissions, while simultaneously providing enough energy for sustainable development, is perhaps the biggest challenge of our time. Nowhere is this truer than in China…

To meet the rising energy demands of China’s huge, and increasingly urban, population, the ruling Communist Party has long relied on coal power. This approach provided the country with plentiful power to drive its expansion, but also made it the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and left it with hazardous levels of smog. But to fuel China’s future growth, its leaders are looking to change its dirty reputation, by embracing renewable energy. The results have already been astonishing.

A surging industry

As recently as 2010, the only renewable energy in China was hydroelectricity, with around 200 GW installed capacity (equal to around 22 percent of the capacity at that time). China achieved this through massive hydro power projects around the country, including the monumental Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric plant. There was a modest 30 GW of installed wind power capacity, and practically nothing else renewable.
Since 2010, though, following world-leading levels of government investment in clean energy, China’s renewable energy sector has flourished. Hydro has grown modestly, but the most remarkable change has been in wind and solar power. China’s installed wind power capacity now sits at around 169 GW, a more than five-fold increase from eight years ago, while its solar industry has shot up from virtually nothing in 2010 to around 130 GW today. China now has the highest installed capacity of wind, solar and hydroelectricity of any country, and accounts for over 40 percent of the growth of global renewable energy capacity.
As part of its massive renewable energy push, China has constructed some monumental new facilities. One of these is a “solar road” in Shandong province, a kilometer-long stretch of highway which is underlain by ultra-resistant solar panels. There’s also the world’s largest floating solar energy farm, in Anhui province, which covers approximately 100 square miles (and is located, appropriately enough, above a flooded coal mine). And just as impressive is the Gansu wind farm project, a series of wind farms located in northwestern Gansu province. Although still under construction, it already has a capacity of 6 GW, making it the largest wind power installation on earth.

Three Gorges Dam (Christoph Filnkößl, Wikimedia)

China’s shift towards clean energy also extends to its manufacturing industry. Over the past decade, with the aid of billions of dollars of government subsidies, the country has risen to become the global leader in the construction of renewable energy components. China now produces 60 percent of the world’s solar cells and almost half of all wind turbines. The surge in Chinese production of these components has played a major role in the recent global price drop in wind and solar power.
As well as pursuing renewable energy development at home, China is also investing heavily in renewable energy projects abroad. In 2017, Chinese companies invested approximately $44 billion in clean energy projects overseas, breaking the record of $32 billion which it set the year before. Much of this money went to wind and solar projects in Western Europe, and to hydroelectric projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“Such is China’s significance in energy markets on the world’s stage that its shift toward clean generation technology is driving the trend at the global level,” the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) said in a recent report.

A greener future

Despite the impressive growth of its clean energy sector, China, like most countries, remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels for its energy. Sixty percent of China’s electricity still comes from coal, while non-fossil energy currently accounts for around 13 percent of energy consumption.
But it seems that what we’ve seen so far is just a warm-up. Chinese president Xi Jinping has called for his country to become an “ecological civilization” that ensures “harmony between human and nature.” The precise meaning of his words has led to some debate; however, it is beyond doubt that renewable energy development will continue to be a strong priority for China in the future.
China has pledged to invest $361 billion into renewable power and plans to triple the number of jobs in its renewable energy sector. This should put China well on the way to meeting its pledge, as part of the Paris Agreement, to source 20 percent of its energy from low-carbon sources by the year 2020. By 2050, the Chinese National Renewable Energy Centre estimates that 60 percent of China’s total energy needs could be met by renewable sources.
These targets are certainly challenging, yet encouraging, China has already shown a propensity to exceed expectations when it comes to renewable energy development: it broke its 2020 target for solar capacity of 105 GW in 2017, after installing 35 GW of solar capacity in just seven months.
Almost all of the future growth in China’s renewable sector is set to come from solar and wind power development. The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2030, China’s installed wind power capacity will grow by 187 percent, to around 430 GW, and that solar capacity will grow by 260 percent, to around 470 GW. During the same time, China’s hydroelectric capacity is only projected to grow by 33 percent, to around 440 GW, while its coal power capacity should remain virtually constant.

Wind farm in Xinjiang, China (Chris Lim, Wikimedia)

Power shift?

China’s enthusiastic uptake of renewable energy is motivated by a number of factors. One is the country’s commitment to improving its air quality, and to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, and its own self-imposed targets. But there are also political reasons for the Chinese to become a clean energy superpower. China’s dominance in the manufacturing of renewable energy components clearly has the potential to be immensely profitable, as the demand for low-carbon power continues to increase worldwide. China’s green revolution could also help to reduce its significant dependence on foreign fossil fuel imports.
Whatever China’s intentions may be, it’s clear that its shift towards renewable energy will affect much more than just emissions. With the United States opting out of the Paris Agreement, China looks set to expand upon its already strong position in one of the biggest growth industries worldwide. In this light, China’s new role as the world leader in green energy development could have implications for the balance of world power itself.
“Although China isn’t necessarily intending to fill the climate leadership void left by the U.S. withdrawal from Paris, it will certainly be very comfortable providing technology leadership and financial capacity so as to dominate fast-growing [clean energy] sectors”, said Tim Buckley, the IEEFA’s director of energy finance studies, in a recent report.
The image of China as the world’s dirtiest superpower is changing. It may still burn more coal than any other country, but it’s also leading the way in the move towards a cleaner future.

READ MORE: China leads the world in renewables by Peter Ward

about the author
Robin Wylie
Freelance earth/space science journalist. Currently finishing off a PhD in volcanology at University College London.