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Is China genuinely spearheading the revolution in clean energy?


China’s economy is celebrated for its magnificent magnitude, and now this magnificence extends to its energy transition. These monumental figures simultaneously captivate, perplex, and occasionally present paradoxes, at least on the surface. According to reports from Global Energy Monitor, China’s solar capacity has soared to an astounding 228 gigawatts (GW), surpassing the combined capacity of the rest of the world. Not to be outshined, its wind capacity stands at a staggering 310GW, firmly establishing its position as a global frontrunner. With an additional 750GW of upcoming wind and solar projects, China is poised to achieve its ambitious target of 1,200GW by 2030—a number that appeared unimaginable just a few years ago—five years ahead of schedule.

However, beneath these impressive statistics lie two pivotal aspects that warrant a deeper understanding from the international community. Firstly, China’s triumph in the realm of clean technology is primarily attributed to its economic strategy rather than its climate commitments. Secondly, despite its remarkable accomplishments in renewable energy, China remains one of the foremost contributors to global pollution. Unfortunately, neither of these circumstances is expected to change in the foreseeable future.

China’s awe-inspiring growth in wind, solar, and electric vehicles owes much to its ability to manufacture on an immense scale without compromising quality, as well as its competitive allocation of resources. This achievement arises from an industrial policy characterized by unwavering state support, seamlessly integrated supply chains, intense competition, indigenous innovation, entrepreneurial zeal, and the economies of scale that only a nation as vast as China can provide. Chinese electric vehicle manufacturers, for instance, have been supplying millions of cars in a fiercely competitive domestic market for years, bolstered by governmental assistance. In contrast, their Western counterparts are just beginning to witness a comparable market scale within their own countries, while also facing resistance from traditional vehicle producers.

It should be noted that the rest of the world is not lacking hope when faced with a prominent force in clean technology. However, other nations need to strive for greater achievements in translating state-of-the-art technologies into tangible manufacturing capacities. Western nations have traditionally taken pride in their advancements made within laboratories, yet it would be a significant oversight to neglect the importance of implementing these groundbreaking discoveries on the factory floor or acknowledging the numerous innovations that arise during the assembly line process. On a positive note, the favorable economic conditions driving China’s rapid growth in clean technology are expected to persist, ensuring remarkable figures for the foreseeable future. If anything, Chinese manufacturers specializing in solar panels and electric vehicles will further enhance their efficiency, providing increasingly cost-effective solutions to mitigate carbon emissions both domestically and globally.

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These opportunities serve as pivotal leverage points when the international community aims to encourage China to embrace greater climate ambition. Climate diplomats visiting Beijing should assist Chinese leaders in recognizing the synergy between their economic and climate agendas. Global climate discussions held in forums like the G20 and COPs would be better served if they incentivize Chinese action based on the country’s strengths. China’s current and future dominance in clean technology also raises vital questions for other nations. Can they surpass China’s cost-effectiveness? Are they prepared, both economically and politically, to endure the financial setbacks and failures that their Chinese counterparts encountered before emerging as industry leaders? What implications does the deglobalization of the clean energy supply chain have for global endeavors to combat the climate crisis? These questions necessitate profound contemplation from world leaders as they strive to formulate sound policies and ensure a habitable planet. Unfortunately, thus far, they have been overshadowed by geopolitical considerations.

Concurrently, the remarkable progress China has made in expanding its clean energy sector necessitates a careful examination of its simultaneous pursuit of new coal power plants. Over the past decade, China has accounted for over half of the world’s coal consumption, displaying an unyielding appetite for this resource. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, provincial governments in China have granted approval for no fewer than 20.45GW of fresh coal projects. Forecasts indicate that coal combustion will continue to increase at a “reasonable pace” until 2030. China’s pro-growth and pro-infrastructure mindset, while propelling the development of clean energy, paradoxically fuels the expansion of coal. Consequently, Beijing finds itself positioned both as the primary provider of solutions and as the leading contributor to the problem. In the face of the current climate crisis, the convergence of renewable energy and coal is a luxury the world cannot afford. Predictions suggest that the share of electricity generated by wind and solar in China is projected to grow by less than 1% annually between 2023 and 2030. At this rate, the country might achieve its peak CO2 emissions before 2030, but fulfilling President Xi Jinping’s 2020 pledge of carbon neutrality by 2060 becomes increasingly uncertain.

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China faces the challenge of upholding its achievements in clean technology while simultaneously halting the construction of new coal plants. This necessitates implementing decisive reforms in the power sector, where existing regulations still favor coal over cleaner energy sources. Transitional measures like energy storage technologies could facilitate this shift in the interim. However, ultimately, the country must summon the political courage to cease the construction of coal plants and adopt a phased-out approach. Meanwhile, the rest of the world plays a crucial role in exerting global influence to persuade China to alter its trajectory regarding coal. Climate diplomacy may encounter obstacles, but it remains the sole path towards addressing the defining global crisis of our time. Western nations, despite the absence of a straightforward solution, would be wise to glean insights from China’s experiences. Indeed, the existence of a successful blueprint is a valuable asset, and disregarding the opportunity to learn from one another, especially in a world where countries seem more preoccupied with conflict than climate change, would be an exercise in futility.

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