The emergency triggered by the hazardous smog in China’s north has brought to fore the country’s drive to build its renewable energy credentials.
In response to the situation, officials have implemented a suite of anti-pollution measures, including the temporary shutdown of factories and power plants.
At the same time, with an eye to the medium and longer term, President Xi Jinping has also ordered further efforts to promote the development and use of clean energy, particularly for heating in the northern regions.
As we contemplate these developments, we should remember that these efforts are significant and augur well for a cleaner future.
China is already a renewable energy superpower, a point acknowledged by US President Barack Obama when he observed that “it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy-efficient”.
President Obama made this comment seven years ago. In the years since 2009, I have observed that China’s lead in renewable energy has only increased.
In fact, a recent Climate Group report found that in 2014, China invested nearly US$90 billion in renewables, a third more than the previous year and nearly 73 percent more than the US.
China’s lead is not by chance. It is no doubt the result of strong leadership from the Chinese government and a wide range of supportive policy initiatives on clean, green technology.
As frustrating as the current smog events are, China’s investments will benefit the environment in the longer term.
And it is not not just the environment. The focus on technologies underpinning new ways to produce and use energy is assisting the expansion of China’s advanced manufacturing sector and opening up new export markets.
China leads the world in reducing the carbon intensity of its economy. In 2014/15, its carbon emissions per unit of GDP fell 6.4 percent, compared with a decline of 4.7 percent in the US and a 2 percent decrease in India.
China is proving that countries can have economic growth without increasing their carbon emissions.
The world is also benefiting from China’s significant investment in renewable technology.
In view of its scale and capability, China is not only contributing significantly to the improvement of renewable technology, it is also driving down costs, making renewable electricity generation more competitive than fossil fuel-based power generation and the technology more accessible to a wider range of people in a wider range of countries.
I am a member of the Energy Transition Leadership Forum in Australia, along with a former governor-general of Australia and the chairman of our flagship science body, the CSIRO.
We have provided advice to the government on a blueprint for Australia’s transition to renewable energy.
For me, China’s approach to encouraging the development and deployment of renewable technology is striking.
It provides an example to the world of the success that can be achieved through clear-eyed policy development and implementation.
Australia has chosen a different path, a more ad hoc approach underpinned by caution which new data shows is struggling to meet 2030 targets.
The extent of this policy conservatism was revealed in the aftermath of a catastrophic storm event in South Australia in September which took down transmission towers and triggered a blackout across the entire state.
Around 40 percent of South Australia’s electricity is generated by wind and solar, the highest percentage in the country. This heavy reliance on renewables was quickly blamed for the unprecedented blackout.
The announcement of the closure of a 45-year-old coal-fired power station in Victoria, the dirtiest in the country, also drew warnings about the dangers of moving away from coal too quickly.
Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said: “You take out of the equation the cheaper brown coal fired power, and you put in its place gas, renewables … you will get higher prices and you will invite more instability.”
It is clear that energy generation is shifting inexorably towards renewables. In fact, the International Energy Agency says 2015 marked the first time that renewables represented more than half the new power capacity switched on around the world.
Yes, China has some significant environmental challenges and, as the recent smog shows, transition will take time.
However, critics in the West should recognize and acknowledge what China is doing in response to those challenges.
And if, as many experts predict, we see a two-speed world for renewable energy evolving, China is clearly in the fast lane. Other countries like Australia, with its policy uncertainty and lack of urgency, have some considerable catching up to do.
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