Even before President Donald Trump promised to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord in early June, China already appeared poised to lead the world’s green energy charge. Or so it would seem for anyone who read about the May 24 unveiling of China’s record breaking, 40-megawatt floating solar facility, the largest of its kind and the latest in a slew of headlines (both here and here) about China’s hefty investments in renewables.
Yet experts say the scale of such efforts by no means guarantee success, in the same way that the United States’ withdrawal from the climate pact won’t make China a green energy forerunner by mere default. Ma Jun — who has become one of China’s most prominent and outspoken ecological activists — tells The Diplomat that China’s “wind and solar power capacity hasn’t been fully tapped” because of a lack of enforcement and faulty policy that keeps renewables from being more economically competitive, leading to a “huge amounts of waste.”
That shortfall is more than significant — as high as 20 percent for wind and 30 percent for solar, according to Alvin Lin, China climate and energy policy director at an ecological nonprofit called the Natural Resources Defense Council. And the problem is only worsening. Such curtailment rates — what environmental NGO Greenpeace describes as “the amount of power that could have been generated and used but wasn’t” — doubled for wind between 2014 to 2016, while solar curtailment jumped 50 percent in both 2015 and 2016.
To solve this issue, China must take a great, green leap forward, according to Li Shuo, the senior global policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia. “We need electricity market reform, and we need to apply a more market oriented approach,” he says, before criticizing how the Chinese electricity system favors coal. “In most countries… it depends on operational cost. So once you put turbines, it doesn’t cost anything to generate, because it comes from the wind. But coal will cost you because it needs to burned — so in theory it should be market oriented, and wind and solar will be automatically prioritized.”
Yet even if renewables become more viable on the market, there will be no guarantee of ecological and economic synergy. Xiamen University professor Lin Boqiang — an energy expert who has offered consultation to oil behemoth PetroChina — recently told the New York Times that “China is now No. 1 in the world in installed capacity of wind and solar power. This would not be possible without all the talk about climate change and a low-carbon economy.” But because the United States is dropping out of the Paris climate pact, Lin tells The Diplomat he is concerned about “how that will affect all the industry behavior and countries’ policies around the world. What will happen if they ignore CO2 emissions?” Lin adds that China’s carbon friendly policies would hamper its ability to compete.
Even without such circumstances coming to pass, leaving nations scurrying from the climate commitments, the Paris accord’s initial promise has already been inhibited in Ma’s eyes.
The activist says the pact’s “full implementation very much relies on bottom-up action by different stakeholders, especially the business community. The impact on their confidence could be quite a problem,” thanks to President Trump’s rejection of the accord. He says this is because the Paris agreement “is different from the Kyoto protocol, which was legally binding and top down. The Paris accord is non binding, it’s based more on voluntary commitment.”
Worrisome as those issues may be, Alvin Lin maintains an outlook as sunny as rays being soaked up by China’s ever growing number of solar panels. He says, “Even as Trump withdraws the United States from the Paris agreement, China and the EU are working to strengthen their cooperation on clean energy and carbon pricing, and China is also looking to expand its cooperation with other developing countries on low carbon development and expanding renewable energy.”
He is also heartened by the government’s pledge to reduce wasteful renewable curtailment by five percent before the end of the decade, a threshold that he says China can reach with policy shifts and technical upgrades. Li of Greenpeace East Asia agrees, adding that more interconnectivity between the currently “fragmented” power grids from one province to the next will greatly prevent waste and help China’s renewables finally reach their capacity.
Lin says other promising signs include China’s commitment to invest $360 billion in renewables in its current five year plan, the country’s target to lower coal consumption to 58 percent before the end of the decade (an unpredicted low in its use of that sooty energy source), its plans to move forward on a carbon cap and trade program before 2018, along with its current 3.5 million green energy jobs, the highest of any country around the globe and an “area for growth” in Lin’s eyes.
Meanwhile, Li’s faith in China as the forerunner in the fight against climate change stems not from such stats, but instead a head of state’s speech. To him, Trump’s withdrawal announcement was preempted six months earlier, when President Xi Jinping stepped to the podium at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “He made a speech urging countries to stand with the Paris accord, and it was right before Trump’s inauguration,” Li recalls. “That’s a clear indication that his message was intended for the incoming American administration. It was also a strong reaffirming of the Paris agreement, and China’s resolve to implement relevant requirements.”
It was a grand and reaffirming gesture in Li’s view, though he sees even greater indications daily on the street in Beijing, as more and more citizens strap on masks on smoggy days, buy air purifiers and quickly gain awareness about the capital’s notorious smog, while also taking to social media and other platforms to voice their concerns. “The public clearly sees the need to take action, to reform our energy system and our over reliance on coal,” he says, adding: “This provides a strong domestic political driver to take continuous action.”
Alex Wang, an assistant professor of Law at UCLA School of Law focusing on comparative environmental law, strikes a similar chord. “Perhaps the main reason for us to believe that China will take actions that support climate change mitigation is that Chinese leaders very much see clean energy, energy efficiency, and reduced carbon intensity as squarely in the national interest,” he tells The Diplomat. “The country has developed to the ecological brink.”
However, Wang also believes caution is in order. “[S]uccessful implementation of these goals is not a foregone conclusion… turning this ocean liner around will still take decades.”
Kyle Mullin is a magazine editor and freelance reporter based in Beijing.