China now the number one producer of renewables
Despite a reputation for pollution-clogged skies, China is currently attempting to transform itself into a green superpower.
China taking steps to rid itself of dependence on fossil fuels
In many cities in China an ugly screen of grayish-white smoke can be seen hanging ominously in the distance, while in the worst affected cities, such as Beijing, visibility is sometimes reduced to just a few meters. But the problem is not just one of inconvenience and poor aesthetics. Every year more than 500, 000 people die from air pollution, and rates of lung cancer are rising sharply. There is a currently a shortage of foreign professionals and experts in China, which has forced the government to institute a campaign to encourage such people to re-locate to China. In cities like Beijing it seems, concerns about the health-effects of pollution have become so serious that people are simply packing up and leaving.
But many Chinese people don’t have this option. As a result, an increasing number of people are taking to the streets to demand that that the government enforce the laws; every year there are some 50, 000 environmental protests.
Coal it seems is the chief culprit. Coal kills one quarter of a million people a year, and China is the largest consumer and producer of coal in the world. Back in the days when growth rates were still astronomical, a period stretching from the year 2000 to 2010, consumption was growing at an alarming rate of 10% a year. But there are definite signs that the situation is beginning to improve-albeit at a rate that is depressingly slow. In 2015 coal consumption dropped by some 3.7% and China has pledged to cut emissions from coal plants by 60% by the year 2020.
The force driving this gradual reduction in the consumption of coal is the government’s determination to boost the use of renewables. The policy was first put into place around about the year 2000, and in the relatively short time that has elapsed since then the rate of progress has been astonishing. So much so in fact that China is now number one in the world. At a rate of 43 GW installed capacity, the country is currently the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic power, putting it ahead of Germany the previous occupier of the number one position. It also leads the world in terms of wind power, and as of 2010 it became the world’s biggest producer of wind turbines. Its dominance in both the solar and wind sectors is such that its generation of water, wind and solar power is close to the combined output of both France and Germany. And there is no sign of a let up in the vast sums of money that the government continues to invest in the renewables industry; according to a report published by the Worldwide Watch Institute China is set to achieve its aim of obtaining 15% of its energy from renewables by the year 2020, and possibly it may even exceed that figure.
With production running at full throttle, however, the risk of over-capacity is high, and China’s renewable companies have been focusing on the export market for some time now. Between the years 2011 and 2013 exports came close to tripling. Part of the reason for that rapid growth is low cost, and in particular cheap labor; Chinese companies are able to undercut German counterparts by as much as 30%. Multinational companies have reacted by moving some of their production facilities to China. The most prominent of these is the Danish company Vespas, which has opened the world’s largest wind turbine factory in northeastern China.
Indeed, the ramping up of Chinese export production is one of the factors behind the plummeting prices of renewables in the past five years or so. Prices continue to drop sharply despite the depressed oil market, and to such an extent that renewables are sometimes able to compete directly with carbon fuels in the market overall-and not just in isolated areas as was the case before.
But what is it that has prompted the government to take action? It is impossible to calculate precisely the extent to which the government is motivated by a concern with global warming, but certainly it’s worried about the extent of the environmental degradation that has occurred. Apart from the political ramifications that have expressed themselves in the form of continued local demonstrations, experts have warned that if the environmental situation grows worse it is likely to have, and some say that it already has, serious economic consequences. Energy security has undoubtedly played a role, however. In a world of diminishing energy resources competition is bound to grow more intense, and China has been sometimes forced to rely on sources of oil that have exposed it to the risks of war or terrorism. What is of most concern is that so much of its oil has to be transported by sea. If a serious confrontation with the with United States did occur, say over the issue of Taiwan, for example, that would expose it to the risks of blockade, an action that would have a crippling effect both on its economy and its ability to conduct war.