Worldwatch Report 175: Summary
Powering China’s Development: The Role of Renewable Energy
Increasingly, people around the world are becoming aware of China’s rapidly growing energy needs and of the unprecedented levels of coal combustion needed to satiate this appetite. The results of this coal dependence are clear: China’s citizens are suffering from some of the worst pollution in history, while the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions are adding to the significant climate burden already imposed by the emissions of industrial countries.
When I visited Beijing in April 2007, I was struck as before by the dense layer of smog that obscures the impressive mountain ranges north of the city. But during my week of meetings in the Chinese capital, I was even more impressed by another story that is beginning to unfold: the near-explosive growth of the wind and solar energy industries. China’s production of wind turbines and solar cells both more than doubled in 2006. The country is on track to rival the world’s leaders in wind power and solar photovoltaics—in Europe, Japan, and North America—and it already dominates the markets for solar hot water and small hydropower.
As our two Beijing-based authors explain, China’s meteoric rise in the most dynamic of today’s energy sectors can be traced to a combination of policy leadership and entrepreneurial acumen. The country’s new Renewable Energy Law, adopted by the National Peoples’ Congress in February 2005, is the product of an extensive process of international research and consultation, as planners within the powerful National Development and Reform Commission sought to learn from the successes and failures of other nations.
We at Worldwatch are pleased to have played a small role in advising the Chinese government on that policy and are impressed by the strength and potential of the law that emerged. No less impressive in our view is the rapid growth of China’s renewables industry. This is particularly true in solar energy, where a dozen start-up companies have entered the business in the past few years, many of them fueled with venture capital from international investors.
Renewable energy will not by itself solve China’s energy problems. But together with energy efficiency and the cleaner and moreefficient use of coal, it can make a big difference. The question now is whether China can ramp up its renewable energy development to the point where it puts a serious dent in the nation’s dependence on coal and builds the foundation for a cleaner energy economy.
How this story ends up may have as large an impact on the world’s future as it does on China’s. If China is able to scale up its renewable energy technologies to the levels needed to have an impact domestically, and if it is able to achieve the low prices needed to succeed in the local market (known in manufacturing circles as the “China price”), it may be virtually inevitable that these same technologies will soon be adopted on a massive scale around the globe.
The future of the global climate may rest in large measure on China’s ability to lead the world into the age of renewable energy,much as the United States led the world into the age of oil roughly a century ago.