Dragon babies—children born during the Chinese Year of the Dragon, beginning in February—are considered particularly lucky. And they could be off to a good start, with researchers predicting that China’s roaring economy may reach peak carbon emissions during 2024. The babies will be joining a country that leads the world in solar power installation and electric vehicle production, and has more and faster high speed rail than any other. But it also produces the most emissions—at least a quarter of the planet’s greenhouse gases—and is building almost all the world’s new coal power stations. China is no stranger to ambitious national policies—the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s kickstarted its industrial might, but at the cost of millions of lives. Can, and should, Western democracies try to compete with the climate efficiency of an authoritarian one-party state?
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Big Brother’s Big Climate Vision
1. More solar. If you blinked, you’ve missed the startling roll-out of China’s “whole country solar” program. China installed around 210 gigawatts of solar panels last year alone—that’s twice what the US has in total, and four times what China installed in 2020. It can do this because grid connection, financing and contracting are largely centralized and streamlined, according to this fascinating in-depth look at China’s carbon footprint from Carbon Brief. China is now on track to have over 1000 gigawatts of solar installed by the end of 2026—about as much as the entire world has today.
2. More nuclear. The big benefit of nuclear power is always-on, carbon-free electricity that can smooth out the peaks and troughs of renewables. Its big downsides are cost and delays that inevitably creep in. While China isn’t immune to public pressure and spiraling costs, it has the political heft to steamroller mega-projects through to completion. The World Nuclear Association notes that China has 26 nuclear power stations under construction, with another 6 to 8 being greenlit every year. And as with solar, China now wants to export its nuclear tech around the world—a market previously dominated by Russia.
3. More EVs. Chinese carmaker BYD just overtook Tesla as the biggest seller of electric vehicles. The company has a highly integrated production model and a short supply chain, making its own batteries and selling entry-level models for as little as $10,000. Thanks to the government’s broad support for EVs, a rich supply of raw materials, subsidies for electric buses, taxis and cars, and public charging networks, China now accounts for nearly 60% of the world’s EV sales. Check out this recent deep dive into the Chinese EV market by the Harvard Business Review.
4. Decoupling growth from emissions. There is some encouraging evidence that China’s climate policies are paying off. This insightful blog from Energy Monitor shows that while China’s GDP has increased by an order of magnitude since 1990, emissions per capita have only doubled. China appears to be achieving the tricky feat of decoupling growth from carbon emissions.
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Big Problems on The Way
1. More cattle. You can’t build your way out of the carbon crisis with solar panels alone. As Chinese consumers grow richer, their expectations and tastes are changing. And when the world’s most populous country decides that beef is healthier than pork (according to a recent McKinsey report), the global impact can be huge: beef has a carbon footprint about six times greater than pork. China’s growing thirst for milk alone, estimated to triple by 2050, could increase global greenhouse gas emissions from cows by more than one-third.
2. More coal. China knows that if it wants to hit its goal of net zero emissions by 2060, it will have to do something about its coal power stations, currently responsible for about 70% of its carbon footprint. It sounds great that the country has decommissioned over 70 gigawatts of coal plants in the last decade—until you hear that China has 243 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity permitted or under construction. The Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air says that there is simply “no effective enforcement of the policies limiting new project permitting.” As well as the economic benefit to mining communities, China climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said last year that energy security concerns meant phasing out fossil fuels remained “unrealistic,” reports Reuters.
3. More repression. In China, there’s often a dirty side to the clean energy revolution. Time recently ran an eye-opening story by Quillan Robinson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He notes that between one-third and one-half of the world’s solar polysilicon is produced in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, often in conditions of forced labor. While the US has a law to prevent the importation of such material, it can be washed through other countries. “Today, a majority of solar modules produced globally can be traced to the Uyghur Region,” writes Robinson. And because China’s energy mix is still so dominated by coal, Chinese panels have about a 30% larger carbon footprint than those made in the US.
4. More control, less nimble. Mallie Prytherch at the Brookings Institution has observed that “Beijing’s turn toward increasingly centralized decision-making may, ironically, create greater obstacles to achieving China’s goal of adapting successfully to a world that is subject to the most severe consequences of climate change.” She believes that effective adaptation to climate change requires a vibrant civil society and a great deal of latitude for local decision-making, debate, and experimentation. Instead, China’s adaptation projects are predictably monolithic top-down efforts such as constructing the largest water transfer system in human history; raising nearly 6,000 miles of sea walls; and relocating hundreds of thousands of ‘ecological migrants’ in low-lying areas (whether they like it or not).
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What to Keep An Eye On
1. Diplomacy. The US and China disagree on many things, from Hong Kong and Taiwanese democracy, to the war in Ukraine. But one thread binding the two superpowers over the past four years has been a generally shared commitment to tackling climate change. The retirement of both nations’ veteran climate envoys (Xie Zhenhua and John Kerry), as well as US election uncertainty, could put that fragile détente at risk.
2. Chinese carbon trading. Just last week, China’s voluntary carbon market officially resumed trading. The CCER scheme had been suspended since 2017 due to low trading volume and a lack of standardization in carbon audits, reports the South China Morning Post. Now any company can purchase offsets for its emissions, opening the door to new projects. The four approved methodologies for offsetting are forestation, mangrove cultivation, solar thermal power and grid-connected offshore wind power.
3. Tariffs. The Biden Administration is currently reviewing tariffs applied to Chinese EVs, solar panels and other strategic goods, while a tariff waiver on Asian solar cells using Chinese components is also set to expire. Despite billions in incentives for greentech, US companies can still struggle to compete, especially in solar, where Chinese companies enjoy a dominant 80% market share. In short, don’t expect the tariffs to disappear anytime soon.