China leads the world in green energy, but it just can’t stop emitting greenhouse gasses

China’s impact on decarbonization at home and around the world remains uncertain. Although China currently leads the production of several critical clean energy technologies, its ability to pay for renewables amid a massive debt buildup is unclear. China, the world’s largest coal producer and clean electricity energy generator, will likely continue to play a highly ambiguous role in the global energy transition.

The Good: Chinese renewables are advanced and Chinese cities are dramatically cleaner than they once were

China is playing a central role in the development of renewables and other clean energy technologies, such as nuclear energy. China’s electricity generation from clean, zero-emission sources, such as wind and solar, hydropower, and nuclear energy, surpassed the United States’ clean energy generation in 2014. China accounted for about 28% of global clean electricity generation in 2022, up from just 3% in 1991.

China’s clean energy generation is also well-diversified. In 2022, wind and solar power accounted for about 44% of all Chinese clean electricity generation, surpassing hydropower generation for the first time.

China is dramatically expanding domestic deployment of solar, wind, and nuclear energy. Chinese solar capacity installations alone reached 78 gigawatts (GW) in the first half of 2023, nearly three-quarters of the 106-GW capacity installed by the rest of the world combined in 2022, according to IRENA.

China’s wind capacity installations ramped up in the first half of 2023, adding 23 GW in the six months through the end of June, up sharply from the nearly 13 GW deployed over the same period in 2022, data from China’s National Energy Administration showed.

China also is planning to expand its number of nuclear reactors, which currently have a capacity to produce about 56 GW of power. The world’s largest energy consumer is building 21 new nuclear reactors with generation capacity totaling just under 22 GW.

Because nuclear energy enjoys a high usage rate — or what’s called a capacity factor — China’s rise in nuclear capacity will play a big role in reducing emissions.

China’s development of clean energy sources not only has limited its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also has played an important role in improving urban air quality.

Today, major Chinese cities suffer significantly lower pollution levels than they did in the early 2010s. A rise in Beijing’s use of natural gas over coal cut the capital’s own particulate matter (PM 2.5) concentration by more than 50% since 2010, data from the U.S. Embassy show.

While several important factors contributed to improving air quality in Beijing and other Chinese cities, growing renewables penetration on the electricity grid and China’s surging sales of electric vehicles, which do not produce tailpipe emissions, played a critical role.

China has made impressive headway not only in its expansion of clean energy generation, but also in cleaning up air pollution in many cities. Yet China’s overall climate impact remains highly ambiguous due to its continued extensive use of coal and a highly inefficient deployment of renewables.

The Bad: Coal use is rising and deployment of renewables very inefficient

China is the world’s largest renewables producer and by far the worst contributor to CO2-heavy fossil fuel emissions. In 2005, China surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s largest emitter of fossil fuel emissions and now accounts for about 33% of total global emissions.

China’s growing emissions are largely a consequence of its reliance on coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. It is difficult to overstate how environmentally destructive China’s coal consumption is for the world.

“More greenhouse pollution than every car, train, ship, and aircraft in the world,” is produced by China’s coal industry, writes David Fickling. China’s coal consumption has nearly tripled since 2000 and now accounts for over half of all the world’s coal consumption.

China’s coal addiction is unlikely to ease soon. A recent report from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the Global Energy Monitor (GEM) found that coal power capacity starting construction in China in 2022 was six times larger than the rest of the world combined. While China’s total coal consumption, and total emissions, may begin falling by the end of the decade, the construction of additional coal capacity comes with high environmental and economic tradeoffs. China’s use of scarce capital for the construction of additional coal capacity will constrain resources availability for cleaner energy sources, such as wind, solar, and nuclear energy.

While China has made impressive strides in building renewables capacity, its generation of clean electricity from these assets is much less impressive. China’s capacity factors (usage rates) of wind and solar are very poor when compared to other countries, including the U.S.

Several causes are behind China’s lower usage rates. While China cannot change its geography, its renewables deployment strategy is suboptimal for solar potential and onshore wind potential. Instead of deploying utility-scale solar and wind assets in renewables-rich regions of the country, such as Inner Mongolia, China is dispersing renewables generation to areas of south China which suffer from unfavorable solar irradiation, slow wind speeds, or both.

China’s misallocation of solar power generation capacity is particularly egregious. Over half of China’s new solar power comes from bespoke installations on individual homes and businesses. This power, known as distributed solar, typically suffers from lower usage rates and is more difficult to maintain than power generated by a utility-scale solar panel farm. Even worse, China is deploying solar to regions that suffer from poor sunlight coverage.

It’s not clear why China is deploying solar so wastefully. Dysfunctional inter-provincial electricity transmission has constrained the development of renewables and could favor distributed solar. It’s also hard to discount the influence revenues and employment from coal can have at the local government level.

There is evidence that security may be driving China’s solar deployment strategy, overshadowing environmental and economic concerns. Solar generation generally increases system resilience and official policy prioritizes solar installation on the rooftop of buildings used by the Chinese Communist Party. The provinces of Shandong and Zhejiang, home to two People’s Liberation Army naval bases, receive disproportionate amounts of distributed solar, even after adjusting for population and electricity consumption.

Whatever the cause, the world’s largest solar power market is installing solar panels capable of producing tens of GW of power in less sunny regions, panels that would be better placed in sunnier parts of the land. Beijing’s failure to optimize the domestic deployment of renewables, as well as its continued addiction to coal, is making world climate targets more difficult to reach.

The Uncertain: China’s role in the energy transition

China’s ambiguous role in the energy transition will not be resolved anytime soon. In September 2020, General Secretary Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 stated that the People’s Republic of China will “aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.” These are China’s so-called Double Carbon objectives. Xi’s declaration, as well as an updated 2030 climate pledge, left considerable doubt about the level at which China’s emissions will peak, and how soon the country will reach net-zero emissions.

It is also unclear if China will be able to accelerate investments in clean energy development. Although China’s production of batteries, electric vehicles, and solar panels currently enjoy cost advantages such as economies of scale and high levels of committed investment, the country’s massive debt buildup may constrain Beijing’s ability and willingness to continue lavishing subsidies on other clean energy technologies.

Of course, geopolitical tensions will remain a huge wild card.

Given its status as the world’s largest carbon emitter and producer of clean electricity, China will very likely continue to play a highly ambiguous role in the global energy transition, for better and for worse.

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