The Energy Collective Group

This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.

9,753 Subscribers


How Politics and Pollution Could Push China Into the Climate Leader Role the U.S. Is Giving Up


Earlier this month China halted more than 100 coal-fired power projects. Scrapping these projects, with combined installed capacity of more than 100 gigawatts, may have more to do with China’s current overcapacity in coal production than its commitment to mitigating climate change. Nevertheless, Chinese leaders are likely happy that the move is framing their nation as a green energy leader, according to experts in Chinese and environmental policy.

That’s because, they say, the Chinese government is now eager to fill the vacuum in climate change leadership that is being left by the U.S. And, they say, China is poised to eat America’s lunch in the renewable energy sector.

Pollution Fuels China’s New Energy Priorities

Saying that China is doing nothing on climate change has long been a right wing talking point used to stop U.S. regulations such as carbon taxes. While that may have been true a decade ago, it certainly isn’t true now.

Already, China is both the world’s leading producer of renewable energy technologies and its biggest consumer.

A recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report showed that China invested $287.5 billion in clean energy in 2016, while the U.S. spent $58.6 billion. And in January it announced plans to invest an additional $120 billion a year in renewable power before 2020.

China’s five-year plan on energy and climate is ambitious, calling for an 18 percent reduction in carbon intensity from 2015 levels. It aims to reduce coal to 55 percent of total power by 2020, down from 69 percent now.

But China’s most urgent need is not reducing greenhouse gases, or even cashing in on the burgeoning green tech market, but eliminating the smog choking its cities, which is caused by burning coal, oil, and biomass. Over the past decade, China’s degraded air quality has caused millions of premature deaths, hurt its economy, and has become a primary cause of social unrest.

John Chung-En Liu, a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, told DeSmog that, despite positive stories about scrapping coal plants, these actions don’t mean an imminent end to China’s use of fossil fuels. And they don’t mean China is doing this for the world’s benefit either.

The media have been talking about closing down 100 coal powered plants, but the real reason is that China has overbuilt from a massive expansion of coal over the past 20 years,” he said. “The Chinese government is committed to green tech but can’t make the move quickly because of the infrastructure.”

Nevertheless, China’s ambitious plans are bound to help reduce emissions that lead to global warming in the long run. And scholars say the country is planning to use its investment in green tech to its advantage, and at the expense of the United States.

Smog in Beijing, China, in 2003
Smog in Beijing
 and elsewhere in China has led to an urgency to move away from coal and other polluting industries. Credit: Kevin DooleyCC BY 2.0

China Poised to Benefit From Investment in Renewables

China’s dominance in wind, solar, and hydro energy is growing as the U.S. is falling behind, experts have said.

A paper released in December by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) made the case that, even before Donald Trump took office, the U.S. was forfeiting its chance to capitalize on the growing clean energy market.

The United States is losing this race because Asian countries are out-investing the United States and dictating the terms of competition, often flooding the market with low-cost, unimaginative products,” the ITIF report concluded.

In 2016, China was by far the leader in producing solar energy. At the end of 2014, China made one out of every three wind turbines in the world and last year a Chinese wind energy company bested American companies in producing wind power. In fact the country is producing more wind power than it can use, at least until the central government finds a way to move energy from where it’s produced to where it’s needed.

Last year China led the world in sales and manufacture of electric vehicles.

America, too, could benefit from similar growth in green tech if the current administration weren’t so committed to fossil fuels, according to Angel Hsu, a professor of environmental studies at the Yale School of Forestry.

The U.S. economy stands to suffer with Trump’s denial of clean energy,” said Hsu. “If Trump wants to create jobs like he says he does, ignoring the potential of green jobs would be a huge oversight.”

China’s Climate Change Asset: A Lack of Kochs

Scholars of Chinese energy policy say the country benefits from having no climate denying lobby or equivalent to the Koch brothers.

A critical difference is that there is no private oil and gas lobby in China,” Liu said, adding that climate skeptics are a fringe group within the Communist Party and largely ignored.

Energy interests are state-owned in China, and while they are not puppets of the state, they have much less relative power on the state’s official policies. Right now, the official state policy is to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases as quickly as possible.

When the central government says, ‘Set up the policy,’ the companies must follow,” Liu said. “Yes, they will try to exert their influence within the government but not to the extent as oil and gas companies do in the U.S. In the U.S., industry will try to block any carbon regulation that hurts their opportunities, so they fight vehemently to slow down any regulation.”

Will U.S. Cede Climate Leadership to China?

Unlike President Obama, who urged the U.S. to show leadership in curbing climate change, the Trump administration has made clear that it plans to double down on dirty energy. While China has promised to expand its climate commitments, the new U.S. president has threatened to pull out of the Paris Agreement. That could allow Bejing to fill the leadership void left by Washington.

State-run newspapers are already boasting of China’s potential to exploit its leadership on global warming.

In a speech at the most recent World Economic Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a vigorous defense of multilateral cooperation, the kind of speech that U.S. presidents used to give, observers noted.

Countries should view their own interest in the broader context and refrain from pursuing their own interests at the expense of others,” Xi declared.

China still has issues of huge inequality and provincial needs that are often at odds with the edicts of the central government. And for all its ambitious goals, the central government still doesn’t have a plan to address how it will meet them without economic pain for some coal-dependent provinces in the short term.

Liu points out that China is stuck with dirty industries, in addition to dirty means of powering them, and any tightening of regulations could come at the expense of much-needed jobs that may support an entire region.

Hsu told DeSmog that Chinese colleagues she spoke with at the Marrakech climate conference in November 2016 were optimistic about their country’s prospects in seizing not only economic opportunities in green tech, but the nation’s ability to claim the moral high ground on climate change.

They said worldwide pressure would be put on the U.S. because they’re the second largest emitter of carbon and they’re not doing anything,” Hsu said. “So it deflects attention away from China and allows them to consider how to decarbonize to 2050 and put a long-term strategy in place. They don’t necessarily seek this role on climate change but they’re willing to take it in the absence of U.S. leadership.”

It’s been little more than a week under the new Trump administration, but all signs so far point to the U.S. government trumpeting discredited views on climate science and getting left behind in the burgeoning clean energy sector.

Main image: Wind farm in Xinjiang, China Credit: 林 慕尧 / Chris LimCC BYSA 2.0

By Larry Buhl

Original Post

Content Discussion

b cole's picture
b cole on February 2, 2017

Algae is one solution to sequester CO2. Algae producers are currently co-located at coal-fired power plants sequestering CO2 with good results.
CO2 can be scrubbed of particulates and metals and used to make co-products.
A potential win-win!

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on February 3, 2017

When did the U.S. ever have a “leadership role”? Being one of the last to get on board is hardly leadership.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on February 4, 2017

By absolute generation, the United States leads the world in nuclear generation, geothermal generation, biomass genration, and as of last February still led in wind generation due to China’s problems with grid connection.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on February 5, 2017

While USA is by far the biggest polluter pp (roughly 70% more than EU), it didn’t reduce its emissions since 1990 (Kyoto reference level).

Even now it doesn’t have an Emission Trading System as the EU has, or another comparable system to lower emission. Worse, it seems that its leadership consider emission reduction to be not relevant.

So it lags far behind the EU and it’s more advanced countries such as Germany who reduced emission 25% compared to the Kyoto reference level (1990).

Countries who take action regarding the climate, such as the EU, should install climate import taxes for products and services from main polluters who don’t take serious action, such as USA.
To compensate for the climate damage the EU and other countries suffer, due to the high emissions with which US economy continue to operate.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on February 5, 2017

German Greens will not fool their neighbors with rhetoric about the reunification year ‘Kyoto reference’, about ‘plans’, about ‘goals’, while German CO2 emissions are actually on the rise 2015-2014, while Germany has the same coal fleet capacity it had 15 years ago and a larger natural gas fleet.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on February 5, 2017

German emissions also rose in 2016. Despite the addition of 30 TWh of solar and wind generation in 2015-2016.

Also, German population increase in 1990-2017 has been 2-3 million. US population has grown 30 %.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on February 5, 2017

…While USA is by far the biggest polluter pp…To compensate for the climate damage…

Citing per capital carbon emissions by themselves does not indicate a concern for “climate damage”, but the contrary. Energy consumption has several components, industrial, transportation, residential (as does carbon to the extent it couples to energy consumption). Thus countries like, say, Madagascar, without a strong industrial capacity, lead the world in low per capita carbon emissions, though a policy of be-Madagascar would not be helpful.

Similarly, temperate climates afford low residential space heat/cooling energy consumption, so that in the US, Hawaii has far four times lower residential pp energy consumption than N. Dakota; Hawaii uses 38% of the US pp average. Refinery and chemical factory laden Louisiana has 32 times the industrial pp energy consumption of Maryland. Population density impacts transportation intensity, so that Alaska unsurprisingly has almost four times the transportation pp energy consumption of Rhode Island and New York. Several US states thus have lower pp energy consumption than Germany, thanks to the nature of their climate or industrial makeup.

A change of population density, latitude, and factory location is either not feasible or not helpful. As you know, a change in the nature of energy production *is*.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on February 5, 2017

The issue is that USA made no progress, worse made no serious attempt, to decrease its CO2 emissions.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on February 5, 2017

It concerns emissions per capita.
While Germany decreased those with 25%, USA is still at same level as in 1990. No serious effort.
Worse, with the new govt no serious effort to expect.

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on February 6, 2017

”After increasing in 2013 and in 2014, energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions fell in 2015. In 2015, U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions were 12% below the 2005 levels, mostly because of changes in the electric power sector.”

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on February 6, 2017

US per capita emissions 1990-2016 have decreased about 20%. Total US emissions are 3-4% higher than in 1990 but US population has grown about 30%.

Interestingly, per capita coal consumption in Germany is today higher than in the US. Statistics are hard to find but in 2013 Germany mined 182 million tonnes of brown coal and consumed 77 million tonnes of hard coal in 2015.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on February 6, 2017

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on February 6, 2017

Sorry, I should have been more accurate:
It’s of course:
– concerning all emissions (not that of one sector); and
– compared to the Kyoto reference level 1990.

Those of the energy sector of past 8 yrs are effortless as gas became cheaper than coal in USA (in Germany / EU opposite). So power production switched from old coal to new gas plants.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on February 6, 2017

You may be near right. According to:
– the Worldbank USA increased from 16 in 1990 to 16.4ton/capita in 2013 = 2%.

But according to:
– the UN MDG indicators USA decreased from 18.9 in 1990 to 16.8ton/capita in 2011 = -11%.

– the UN MDG indicators, Germany decreased from 11.5 in 1991 to 8.8ton/capita in 2011 = -23%.

It seems that those figures are partly dependent on the measurement method and/or the party who measures.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on February 6, 2017


Good. Have Germany do it then, instead of driving emissions *up*.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on February 7, 2017

In USA gas became much cheaper than coal, so utilities changed to gas because it’s cheaper =>less emission.

In Germany coal became much cheaper than gas….
Despite that, coal didn’t increase thanks to the Energiewende:
In 2000; coal 291TWh, 51%; renewable 7% of prod.
In 2010; coal 263TWh, 42%; renewable 17% of prod.
In 2015; coal 260TWh, 40%; renewable 30% of prod.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on February 7, 2017

In Germany coal became much cheaper than gas….

and so Germany shut down half its nuclear plants and began torching its timber harvest, the non-sequitur of the age. Also, German policy forced gas to remain expensive and sourced in Russia. The US has no special Harry Potter gas magic that only works in N. America.