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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Coal Is Casting A Shadow Over China’s Remarkable Renewable Achievements

  • China has emerged as a leader in clean energy.
  • Beijing’s dependence on coal is casting a shadow over its renewable energy successes.
  • Currently Beijing is building over 50% of the world’s new coal-powered electricity plants.

China is struggling to balance its pressing need to shore up energy security with its ambitions to position itself at the forefront of the global clean energy transition. As the world gears up for the 27th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly known as COP27, the world’s major political powers will be competing to place themselves at the vanguard of a brave new energy world. While China has made great strides in the clean energy sector and has secured a chokehold on many of the supply chains that feed into renewable energy expansion the world over, however, Beijing has also continued to burn increasingly massive quantities of coal in order to keep the lights on at home.  From some angles, China has already won the clean energy race. In the west, the kind of rapid decarbonization called for by the Paris Agreement and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been all but impossible to achieve, due to the massive inertia built into the thoroughly carbon-based economy and the incredible strength of fossil fuel lobbies and their political allies. China, however, has none of these roadblocks due to its authoritarian power structure. This has allowed Beijing to progress leaps and bounds beyond the West in terms of renewable energy technology, know-how and infrastructure. 

In fact, as Europe tries to move away from Russian energy to condemn the human rights violations and war crimes perpetrated by that authoritarian government, it’s had to pivot to relying on China – another volatile country with its own dismal human rights track record. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine Europe has smashed solar energy expansion records as they scramble to regain control of runaway energy prices and meet demand before a long, cold winter ahead. This has been a major boon for China, which currently produces 75% of the world’s solar panels.

China’s preeminence in renewable energy supply chains isn’t just good for Beijing’s bottom line – it is also a major point of political strength and a serious win in the country’s battle of one-upmanship against the United States. China doesn’t just want to take control of supply chains, it wants to win an ideological war and be a major power leading the global decarbonization movement. 

So far, Beijing hasn’t been shy or quiet about its successes. As the Chinese Communist Party's oft-propagandized news outlet the “Global Times” reported last week: “In contrast to the US government's retreating commitment to the industry under former president Donald Trump and the lip service paid by incumbent President Joe Biden, China has the political courage, economic incentive, technological capability and moral consensus to lead the global renewable energy drive and the fight against climate change.”

However, for all of China’s genuine successes in the field of clean energy, Beijing is also quietly building more and more coal-fired capacity overseas as its own domestic energy sector struggles to keep up with the nation’s gargantuan demand for electricity. China has not been able to keep up with its own energy needs for decades, and has long been one of the world’s largest energy importers. And now, China can't even count on its considerable hydropower capacity thanks to severe and worsening water shortages

Related: Oil Prices Slide As China Reaffirms Covid Containment Strategy

As a result, “carbon dioxide emissions from China-invested power plants overseas now stand at an estimated 245m tonnes per year,” Al Jazeera recently reported. This stunning amount equates to the annual emissions of Spain and Thailand. It’s no mistake that these plants are being built on foreign soil, as this allows China to avoid reporting such emissions as their own. Currently, Beijing is building over 50% of the world’s new coal-powered electricity plants.

This irony is certain to be a point of contention heading into COP27, which threatens to become a power struggle between the West and China instead of a cooperative alliance against the common threat of climate change. “Not only will this dynamic unfold as a competition between economies in China and the West, but as a paradigm of global engagement and investment on climate mitigation and adaptation, particularly with respect to engagement with the developing world,” read a recent report from the Atlantic Council. 

While such a power struggle threatens to divide the world into “climate camps” and even to feed into a sort of climate imperialism, a decarbonization Olympics between the U.S. and China could ultimately be what is needed to accelerate climate action on a grand enough scale to meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement and avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • Steve Walser on November 07 2022 said:
    If "world leading", supposedly, renewable energy worked China would have no need to build more coal fired plants than the rest of the world put together. Some remarkable achievement! The Chinese are no dummies and for all the wailing in the West about catastrophic global warming they realize the REAL threat to continued growth and prosperity for their people comes form relying upon intermittent sources of baseload power. Sure, one can use solar panels and windmills to fill in here and there but to rely upon it is crazed and they obviously know it.
    All one has to do is travel east of LA through San Gregorio pass to understand what will happen in 20 years to all this "remarkable" renewable energy as you will see hundreds of abandoned and leaking windmills from the last time the US went through a crazy time in the 1970's and 80's. They are broken down and abandoned as the cost to remove them exceeds their scrap value. Multiply that be a thousand and see what the future holds!
  • Mamdouh Salameh on November 07 2022 said:
    China, the world’s largest economy based on purchasing power parity (PPP) is virtually leading the world in every field. Renewable use and investments are no exception.

    However, China, like major economies of the world, gives precedence to its energy security and the needs of its economy over energy transition and the fight against climate change. If this means a more usage of coal of which China has considerable reserves, then let it be.

    The irony is that it is Western green policies that have caused the global energy crisis thus triggering shortages in the market and staggering energy prices and leading to more coal use by China and many others.

    In both the United States and the EU, coal use has soared and in both continents coal-fired electricity plants have been resurrected.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

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