Will China take the green mantle from the U.S.?

March 10, 2017 by Renee Cho, Columbia University
Solar installations in China from space. Credit: NASA

In the face of Donald Trump's campaign promise to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, China's President Xi Jinping told the U.N. in January, "The Paris agreement is a milestone in the history of climate governance…China will continue to take steps to tackle climate change and fully honor its obligations." Will China usurp the United States as the global leader in combating climate change?

President Donald Trump has famously called a "hoax" and tweeted that "the concept of global warming was invented by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." He has pledged to "cancel" the Paris climate accord, reopen coal mines and lift restrictions on fossil fuel development. And although Trump has said he would remain open-minded about climate change, he has filled his administration with fossil fuel advocates and climate contrarians.

Trump's energy plan stresses shale oil and gas, and clean coal, but does not mention clean energy. Many of the actions he has taken or planned so far are indications that he is indeed rolling back the progress made against climate change under Obama.

Trump has signed executive actions to speed approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and reversed a recent law that prevented mining operations from dumping coal waste into nearby streams.

He is preparing an executive action to order the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to rescind Obama's Clean Power Plan and another to lift the Department of Interior's moratorium on new leases for coal mines on federal lands. He is proposing to slash the EPA's budget by one-fourth, lay off 20 percent of its staff and will likely cut research funding for . He is set to rollback stricter vehicle pollution standards. The House of Representatives has approved a measure that would undo the Bureau of Land Management's rule curbing methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands, which will go into effect when approved by the Senate and the president.

Even if Trump does not pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord, these policies make it likely that the U.S. will be unable to keep the pledge it made there to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping has called on the other Paris accord countries to "stick to it instead of walking away from it." China, with its goal to become a "clean energy super power," invested more than $103 billion in renewable energy in 2015, almost $88 billion in 2016 (one-third more than the U.S.) and plans to invest $361 billion in clean energy by 2020.

"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.?
Wind farm in Gansu, China. Credit: Columbia University

"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 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.

In addition, China's investments in other countries are helping bolster its global dominance in renewable technology. In 2016, China invested $32 billion in two renewable energy projects each in Australia, Germany and Brazil, and others in Chile, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam.

China is embracing nuclear energy, whose development has slowed in the U.S. because of cheap natural gas and the concerns raised by the 2011 Fukushima disaster. In the U.S., five nuclear plants have closed in recent years, but Trump will likely be more supportive of nuclear energy than was Obama. Two years ago, nuclear power represented only 1.7 percent of China's energy generation, but currently there are 20 nuclear plants under construction, with 176 more being planned.

"The place that's building almost half of all new nuclear plants in the world today is China," Bill Gates told Quartz Media. "You see a lot of vision and innovation…Today there's more experimentation with the new designs in China than elsewhere." Gates is involved with TerraPower, a company developing a safe, clean reactor whose prototype will be built in China. As it almost triples its nuclear power capacity to 100 GW by 2026 and becomes the country with the largest nuclear power capacity, China will soon be able to export its technologies and expertise around the world.

Will China take the green mantle from the U.S.?
A Chinese coal power plant. Credit: Columbia University

It is already the world's largest market for electric vehicles (46 percent of the all electric vehicles sold in 2016 were registered in China), and the largest maker of them (43 percent of all electric vehicles produced globally were made in China).

China also boasts the leading global supplier of lithium, a material needed for the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles.

To support its clean energy goals, China has built 12,500 miles of high-speed electric rail lines, more than the rest of the world combined. It has plans for more than 9,000 more miles of high-speed rails by 2025, with an ultimate goal of 28,000 miles.

The world's biggest carbon cap and trade market will be launched in China this year. Since 2013, seven regional pilot carbon trading projects were established whose trading volume reached 160 million tons of carbon. The new market is expected to involve 3 to 5.5 billion tons of carbon allowances each year (The EU emissions trading system, currently the world's largest, handles a little over two billion tons.). The market will initially cover eight sectors: petrochemicals, chemicals, building materials, steel ferrous metals, paper production, power generation and aviation. Companies will be able to offset their carbon emissions with credits for renewable energy projects and emissions mitigation strategies.

China's planned $360 billion investment into renewable energy will create over 13 million jobs by 2020, according to its National Energy Administration. Currently, there are 8.1 million renewable energy jobs globally; 3.5 million are in China; less than one million are in the U.S. A new U.S. Department of Energy report found that solar technology now employs 374,000 workers and wind employs 102,000 in the electric power generation sector, while electric generation from coal, oil and natural gas employs 187,000 workers. And according to an Environmental Defense Fund report, renewable energy jobs had an average growth rate of 6 percent between 2012 and 2015, compared to jobs in the fossil fuel industry, which slowed at a rate of -4.5 percent. In fact, the average growth rate of solar and wind jobs is 12 times faster than that of the rest of the economy.

The International Energy Agency says that renewable energy is and will continue to be the fastest growing source of global electricity generation through 2021, with generation exceeding 7600 TWh by then—that is the total amount of electricity currently generated by the U.S. and Europe combined.

Subsidies and tax credits, as well as falling prices, have spurred the renewable industry's robust grow in the U.S. From 2010 to 2015, solar photovoltaic panel production costs fell 72 percent, making solar competitive with fossil fuels in some areas. But the future of renewable energy's growth will depend on what Trump does about the Clean Power Plan, which would require existing power plants to cut carbon emissions, and the federal production and investment tax credits for wind and solar energy, which were extended for five years in December. Trump is on record as being against all energy subsidies.

Despite the president's promises to revive jobs in the fossil-fuel sector, the low price and glut of oil and natural gas may make this difficult. His measures are aimed at spurring more energy production, but the more energy that is available, the cheaper it becomes, which will depress demand and ultimately slow job creation. One analysis projected that allowing oil and gas production on federal lands would create 2.7 million jobs, however, only 25 percent of those would be directly involved with energy production. Some experts say these projections are inflated considering that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, oil and gas production last year comprised 400,000 workers, down from 538,000 in 2014, while coal mining employed 54,000.

Will China take the green mantle from the U.S.?
Electric taxi in Anyang. Credit: V.T. Polywoda

Coal company executives themselves are realizing that reviving coal production will not be easy without a way to deal with the industry's carbon emissions. Three of the biggest companies are lobbying for government subsidies to promote carbon capture and sequestration. Only two commercial scale coal plants using carbon capture are in operation in the world (one just opened in Texas); other efforts have faced many problems.

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."

Trump's policies are based on the idea that regulations that protect the environment hamper business. "I will cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy—including shale energy and clean coal—creating many millions of high-paying jobs," he has said. But a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project disproves the idea that regulations stifle economic growth.

China, too, once assumed that environmental protection and economic growth were mutually exclusive.

"Up until around 2013, China or the leadership were still thinking you cannot really decouple the environment from economic development—they still viewed environmental protection as a hindrance on economic development," said Guo. "Now President Xi is talking about green development, which is a more coherent strategy in balancing economic development with environmental protection. There's a general consensus with the public and with the government at all levels that the two can actually come together. Now they're thinking that renewable is a place where we can create a lot of jobs and drive economic growth. There's been a big philosophical shift."

"The Trump Administration's approach to climate change creates an enormous opportunity for China," said Sandalow. "It can gain diplomatic advantage over the United States with simple measures such as respecting the global scientific consensus on climate.

Explore further: China announces plan to curb carbon emissions

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