“The Chinese leadership has stated clearly that its climate commitments are in China’s national interests and that it does not intend to change course, whatever the United States may do,” said David Sandalow, director of the U.S.-China Energy & Climate program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “That has already raised China’s stature and weakened the United States in international fora.”
Will China take the green mantle from the U.S.?
“Before 2012, the top item on China’s agenda was economic development, and nothing else,” said Guo Dong, director of the Earth Institute China Initiative at Columbia University, who is working with the Chinese government on sustainability management. “Since that period, there has been talk about all the detrimental effects of economic development—not just air pollution, but water contamination, soil erosion and desertification. We’ve started to realize that there are serious environmental issues, and it’s a development model that we cannot sustain for the future. Now environmental protection is a top priority…the public demands the government do something about it, and they realize you have to deal with it.”
China’s 13th Five-Year plan for 2016 to 2020 includes a goal to reduce its carbon intensity—a ratio of carbon emissions to GDP—by 18 percent from 2015 levels and to get over 15 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels. Reaching these targets would put China well on its way to achieving its Paris accord pledge to peak its emissions, lower carbon intensity 60 to 65 percent from the 2005 level and obtain 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, and may indeed enable it to reach its pledge goals earlier.
Guo explained that a Chinese environmental protection law established in 2005 was revised in 2015 to provide the legal foundation and tools to enforce environmental standards across the nation and punish violators. In addition, a change in management structure has enabled local agencies to report directly to their next level environmental protection bureaus instead of to provincial governments, whose priority was often economic development. In any case, both local and provincial governments have realized that environmental protection is important, since air pollution is a major problem around the nation.
While coal is still the predominant source of most of China’s energy (64 percent of the country’s energy mix in 2015), coal consumption has fallen for the third year in a row (to 62 percent). The country has set a goal to get coal use down to 58 percent by 2020, and recently canceled 104 coal plants that were in development.
In 2015, China installed half of the world’s wind power and a third of its solar photovoltaic capacity. Last year, solar capacity jumped 81.6 per cent and wind capacity grew 13.2 per cent. Greenpeace has said that China’s renewable energy growth rate is equivalent to installing one wind turbine and covering one soccer field with solar panels every hour. Five of the world’s top six solar manufacturing companies and five of the 10 biggest wind turbine companies are in China. By 2020, half of the country’s new electric generation will come from solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power.
Tim Buckley, director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told The Guardian, “The U.S. is already slipping well behind China in the race to secure a larger share of the booming clean energy market. With the incoming administration talking up coal and gas, prospective domestic policy changes don’t bode well.”