The New York Times and the Conduit Club in London invited me to participate in a panel discussion of China’s vision for climate action. I joined Jeremy Leggett, a social entrepreneur on clean energy, and moderator Max Strasser, international opinion editor for the Times International, on March 7, 2019, for a discussion ranging from the Belt and Road Initiative to China’s rapid environmental change. This blog shares and summarizes the thoughts that I shared in this conversation, in response to the moderator’s prompts:
China is a climate leader, doing more good than harm in implementing global climate solutions.
As I explored in my 2018 TED talk, China’s environmental record is mixed. A nation of superlatives, including world’s largest population and carbon emitter, China is a global leader in nearly every renewable energy category including installed hydro, solar, and wind capacity. It’s also leading in electric vehicles, producing 99 percent of the world’s electric buses, 99 percent of the world’s electric two-wheel vehicles, and in 2018 China had more electric car sales than the rest of the world combined.
But on the other side of this clean energy surge lies a fossil-fuel expansion funded through China’s mega-investment projects, many of which fall under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). First announced in 2013, BRI is an international development plan that promises to invest $1 trillion (US) in energy and infrastructure projects across more than 100 countries. There’s no doubt that BRI will have a decisive role in determining the global energy and climate future. China’s direct foreign investments could lock recipient countries into carbon-intensive pathways (i.e., “carbon lock-in”). A recent analysis by World Resources Institute (WRI) and Boston University researchers found that of the $143 billion that China’s public banks invested in BRI countries from 2014 – 2017, three-quarters went to finance oil, gas, and petrochemical projects. Fossil fuel plants accounted for more than half of the financing that went to the power sector, with highly polluting coal-fired plants receiving the most support — about $10 billion — of any energy source. As this dichotomy demonstrates, China’s domestic environmental outlook and its international investment initiatives often seem to be at odds.
What’s the most surprising thing about China’s climate innovations and investments in solutions – something that you as a panellist wish people knew but is an untold story?
The untold story is how much – and how quickly – China has been able to achieve in clean energy deployment and climate change policy, given its short history of modern economic development, which started in the late 1970s. That’s less than four decades ago. The result of this lightning-speed economic growth has been chart-topping energy consumption, coal consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions, staggering levels of “crazy bad” air pollution, and pollution and exactration that has left 60 percent of water unfit for human contact and 20 percent of national soil contaminated.
But China has also made great progress towards decarbonizing its economy. Its transformation gives me hope that we may have some chance of curtailing global warming, if other emerging economies apply the same top-level political will and determination.The breakneck speed and monumental scale of China’s clean energy transformation is unprecedented. Its annual investments in renewable power and fuels totaled more than $126 billion USD in 2017— roughly three times the U.S.’s investment of $40.5 billion USD and more than the U.S. and EU’s investments combined. China also accounts for almost 30 percent of the world’s renewable energy patents, with 150,000 in all, more than any other country by a wide margin. The government continues to promote renewable power, with new benchmarks for utilization announced this year. In 2018, renewable power capacity jumped 12 percent from the previous year and now accounts for 38 percent of China’s total installed capacity and 27 percent of the country’s total power produced.
This progress is even more impactful given China’s starting point: two decades ago, its clean energy sector was virtually non-existent. The central government began a concerted effort to invest in and develop a national innovation system with clean energy at the center in the early 2000s. Today, China leads the world in these technologies; five of the 10 largest wind turbine manufacturers and nine of the world’s top 10 solar panel manufacturers are Chinese-owned or operated. China is also responsible for around 37 percent of passenger electric vehicles and 99 percent of the e-buses sold globally since 2011.
If we come back 10 years from now and have a similar conversation – what are the changes likely to be? And how can people in this room exercise influence with what will be the largest economy in the world?
We need to peak our global emissions by 2020, and halve them by 2030, according to the latest IPCC special 1.5 report, scientists’ synthesis of over 6000 recent scientific papers. In other words, we have less than 12 years to act if we have any hope of achieving our climate goals of containing the most costly and damaging impacts of global temperature rise. So in 10 years, I hope we aren’t having similar conversations to the ones we are having today. I hope that countries have learned from China’s example to invest in and adopt clean energy alternatives. Within China, I hope that the country has solved its challenges in implementing and enforcing its environment and climate policies. At a broader level, I hope that acting on climate change will no longer be a political debate but simply a societal imperative.