China: Two Roads Diverged in a Polluted Wood

China: Two Roads Diverged in a Polluted Wood

China’s economy has grown rapidly until it is now the second largest economy in the world. It is a superpower. But there are still 400 MILLION people in China who do not have access to clean cooking fuels. They are still using coal and wood for cooking and for heating their homes in the winter. The difference between the upper tiers and lower tiers of its economy is so much that it still qualifies as a middle-income, developing country. But, because it is using its massive economic resources to further its energy interests internationally in both developing and developed countries through foreign assistance, overseas investments, trading relationships, and diplomatic efforts, it is not only a superpower – it is a hybrid-superpower.

China is not done growing yet. Already, it is the world’s largest consumer of energy, and it will most likely double the amount of energy it consumes before it is done growing. China is the latest producer and consumer of coal, which contributes the most toward its massive greenhouse gas emissions. Between 1990 and 2018, Chinese coal consumption increased from .99 billion tons to 4.64 billion tons. Since 2011, China has consumed more coal than the rest of the world combined.

All this and renewables too

But it is also a world leaders in solar and wind power production. It has constructed five of the top ten largest energy producing hydroelectric dams in the world. This makes China not only a superpower and hybrid-superpower, but the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation, says it is in the position of becoming the world’s renewable energy superpower. Due to this potential, it is facing a great deal of pressure from other countries to continue down the renewable path.

China and the Paris Agreement

The United States became a leader in emission reduction by moving away from coal and toward natural gas. A little over 38% of our electricity generation comes from natural gas. While in China, it is only just over 6% as of 2017. But it would seem China is planning to leapfrog over natural gas and move straight to renewables. In accordance with the 2016 Paris Agreement, China committed to getting 20% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.

But will it work?

Despite the pressure to go directly from coal to renewables, this may not be the best course for China. It might not be ready. An article by Marc Prosser points out, “Grid connection, constraints in grid management, less than optimal turbine models, and siting of wind farms have all lowered actual use of energy generated by wind turbines. As a result, the amount of electricity fed into the grid to displace conventional, polluting power sources, such as coal and oil, has been limited. One study shows that wind energy units (individual windmills) in China were producing much less electricity per unit of installed wind capacity than their American counterparts.

Making all the difference

The disruption caused by the ongoing pandemic and trade issues with the United States, are also areas that could slow down China’s plan to increase renewable energy production. It is at a crossroad, and what it decides could impact the entire planet. As the top global producer of pollution and home to seven of the ten most polluted cities on the planet, it has to pick its road, and pick it soon. Will it continue with coal, forsaking its promises in favor of the easy path, or will it drastically reduce emissions by following the path of natural gas and/or renewables? Like the poem by Robert Frost, the path it chooses will make all the difference.