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.
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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