Sometimes there are great examples of sustainability that have immediate and obvious beneficial impacts. But sometimes, in the real world, things are a bit tricky. China, for example, is the biggest polluter in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause climate change. They overtook the U.S. in this not-so-desirable leadership about a decade ago, as their manufacturing sector has grown relentlessly, often with few environmental protections. More recently, however, China has shifted its outlook, and is investing heavily in renewable energy.
In early 2017, China’s National Energy Administration announced a plan to invest $363 billion in renewable energy, with the goal of dominating the world in renewable energy generation and equipment manufacturing. The Chinese plan states that about half of new electricity generation will be from renewable sources by 2020. Further, 13 million new jobs will be created in the renewable energy sector by 2020. China plans to focus on renewable power supplies like wind, solar, and hydro, which each hold potential in distinct regions. For example, solar power will get $145 million with the goal of increasing solar capacity by five times its current level. To give us perspective, that is like adding about 1,000 major new solar power plants over the next few years. China is already the world’s top producer of solar power. Because demand continues to skyrocket, now stimulated by the national government’s new commitments, most experts say the costs of renewable energy will continue to go down.
Dominating the Industry
It is interesting that China’s new policy is more than simply an act to promote environmental sustainability; indeed the Chinese are basically staking claim on the renewable energy industry. The economic power of China, already a big player in renewable energy, will now expand rapidly, as they seek to manufacture all components of wind and solar energy production. With the huge investment from the Chinese government, jobs that could have been created in the U.S. or other countries may well go to Chinese workers. Because of the huge market within China, their companies will be able to produce these products at a huge scale, ramping up production and driving down costs.
On top of all the recent investments, the shift has already been happening on the ground. For example, China installed more than one wind turbine every hour, every day, for the whole year of 2015. They were also active with solar installations; China covered the area of one soccer field with solar panels every hour for all of 2015, too.
But this shift to renewable energy faces a big challenge because the Chinese coal industry has a lot of political power. Coal has traditionally been the main supplier of energy to China’s electric grid, and indeed the country has continued to build coal-burning power plants. This important announcement by the Chinese national energy administration did not mention how or if coal power would be reduced.
In a country as huge as China, with its powerful industrial economy, it is a huge challenge to make the shift from coal power to clean power. Even with this important policy commitment, there will still be significant fossil fuels being consumed. By 2020, renewable energy will only comprise 15% of total Chinese energy consumption.
China has a history of environmental degradation due to its industrialization at-all-cost goals. It has a very poor environmental record over the last 100 years. Yet China has recently made massive and significant commitments to support renewable energy. Maybe China, and other countries, will make this much-needed shift away from fossil fuels in the near future.
Lesle Duram is an Advisory Board Member for the World Geography: Understanding a Changing World database. This commentary is excerpted from Dr. Duram’s upcoming book, Environmental Geography: People and the Environment (ABC-CLIO, 2018).
About the Author
Leslie Duram is professor of geography at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She is the author of Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), Encyclopedia of Organic, Sustainable, and Local Food (Greenwood, 2009), Environmental Geography: People and the Environment (ABC-CLIO, 2018), and numerous research articles. She served on the Illinois Local Food and Farm Task Force and was a Fulbright Scholar to Ireland.
Duram, Leslie A. “Which Country Wants to Dominate Global Renewable Energy Manufacturing? The Answer May Surprise You.” World Geography: Understanding a Changing World, ABC-CLIO, 2018, worldgeography.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/2138965.