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China’s Energy Transition: Is the World’s Largest Polluter Doing Enough?

by Denise Ramos Asia Aug 28th 20236 mins
China’s Energy Transition: Is the World’s Largest Polluter Doing Enough?

In early August, China’s capital Beijing was hit by the heaviest rains since records began 140 years ago, causing massive floods that killed at least 33 people. Meanwhile, other areas of the country were battling a historic heatwave that exacerbated water supplies, affecting agricultural outputs and hydropower generation. As the country deals with the grave effects of climate change, the spotlight is cast on its involvement in climate action, and whether the government has done enough to combat its rapidly evolving climate crisis. In this article, we take a look at how China’s energy transition is going to understand if the world’s largest polluting country is on the right path.

Beijing’s Heaviest Rain and Hottest Summer on Record

On August 2, 2023, Beijing was struck by the heaviest downpour it has ever experienced since records began 140 years ago. 

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the floods, which killed at least 33 people, prompted authorities to evacuate more than 125,000 people from affected areas. 

The record-breaking rainfall in Beijing was prompted by the arrival of Typhoon Doksuri from southern Fujian province, which made its way up to China after wreaking havoc on the Philippines in late July, killed 39 on the island of Luzon.

Local weather authorities in Beijing recorded 744.8 millimetres (29.3 inches) of rainfall at the Wangjiayuan reservoir in Changping District in early August. In just 40 hours, Beijing experienced the average rainfall it typically experiences throughout the entire month of July. The torrential rains did not spare Beijing’s neighbouring areas either. Hebei was among the worst affected areas, with over 1.2 million people displaced.

Prior to the devastating rainstorms, China experienced an unusually prolonged heatwave. The capital grappled with scorching heat in early July as temperatures jumped past 40C (104F). 

As the effects of climate change grow increasingly destructive, the Chinese government is pressured to come up with feasible solutions.

China’s Recent Major Climate Talks 

The deadly rainstorms came days after the G20 Environment and Climate Sustainability Ministerial Meeting in Chennai, India, where negotiators failed to reach a consensus on key environmental issues. Four of the 68 discussion points – including phasing down fossil fuels, doubling the rate of energy efficiency while tripling renewable energy capacity, and implementing green border taxes – lacked collective consensus.

According to the BBC, China and Saudi Arabia reportedly avoided “making commitments” during the discussions. When questioned about this, the spokesperson of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrote in a public statement that some countries experienced “geopolitical issues” that obstructed the meeting, which China regards as “regrettable.”

According to the latest available data, China is the most polluting country in the world, followed by the US. The country emits 11.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually, more than double the amount emitted by the US. While the US has reduced its annual emissions by nearly 17% between 2000 and 2021, China’s emissions have grown by 215%.

China tops the charts for annual carbon dioxide emissions. Image: Our World In Data.

China tops the charts for annual carbon dioxide emissions. Image: Our World In Data.

According to 2021 data, China tops the chart in annual carbon dioxide emissions from coal, the country’s highest-consumed fossil fuel. China yields an annual amount of 7.96 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from coal – a far cry from the second leading country, India, which has an annual amount of 1.80 billion tonnes.

China’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from coal has accelerated in recent decades. Image: Our World In Data.

China’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from coal has accelerated in recent decades. Image: Our World In Data.

China’s reliance on coal consumption does not seem to grow any weaker. Another report by GEM in collaboration with the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) shows that China approved a record number of coal plants in 2022 for a total of 106 gigawatts worth of power capacity. 

China’s Energy Transition

Despite its heavy reliance on fossil fuels, China’s energy transition, characterised by a rapid expansion of renewable energy, has been nothing short of impressive.

An annual report by Global Energy Monitor (GEM) shows that China has become the global leader in renewable energy deployment. The country is projected to double its wind and solar energy production by 2025 and achieve its clean energy target five years ahead of schedule.The study further states that, as of the first quarter of 2023, China’s operating large utility-scale solar capacity reached 228GW, more than that of the rest of the world combined. China’s involvement in wind power generation stands unparalleled as well, with total capacity surpassing 310GW, nearly equal to the next top seven countries’ capacities combined

The country’s heavy emphasis on renewable energy deployment is certainly helpful in terms of combatting climate change. However, this pursuit of energy transition has come into conflict with other environmental issues

Recently, China has come under fire for its opposition to establishing a moratorium on deep-sea mining, with reports saying that the country would “block the motion for a discussion” during the conference. International negotiations, initiated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) last month, ultimately concluded that a moratorium would be granted until next year. 

More on the topic: Unsettled Depths: The Murky Outcome of Deep-Sea Mining Negotiations

Deep-sea mining has been a hotly debated topic. Major countries like China, South Korea, and Russia have expressed interest in the practice, as the metals extracted from the deep seabeds are crucial elements of the green technology. Indeed, these metals are used to manufacture environmentally-friendly technologies such as batteries for electric vehicles, a market led by China. 

While the green transition is framed as the main goal for deep-sea mining, there are certainly some underlying political and financial agendas as well. China is responsible for 77% of the world’s battery cell manufacturing capacity, housing six of the world’s 10 biggest battery manufacturers. In 2022, the country had more battery production capacity than the rest of the world combined. China also has the largest electric vehicle market in the world, accounting for 52% of global sales in 2021. The metals extracted from deep-sea mining are integral to this flourishing business.

Furthermore, as promising as it may sound, China’s stride towards renewable energy sources would not only be unproductive but also irreversibly damaging if the country continued to rely on coal as its main source of energy. The high reliance on this planet-warming fossil fuel has propelled the nation into a vicious cycle of worsening climate change and increasing power consumption. 

“Coal power projects are mostly loss-making and will provide little boost to economic growth in the future,” Gao Yuhe, a Beijing-based project leader of Greenpeace East Asia, told the South China Morning Post. “The real revitalisation of the economy requires investment in projects such as new energy storage rather than new coal power.”

Final Thoughts

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently declared that we have gone beyond the stage of global warming and have now entered the era of “global boiling.”

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” he warned during the COP27 summit last year.

If China continues to feed into its demand for short-term solutions brought by coal production, all of its remarkable efforts in renewable energy production will be in vain. As the world’s largest fossil fuel consumer, it bears international responsibility for every ounce of fossil fuel burnt and every molecule of carbon dioxide emitted. Until we put a complete stop to coal consumption, China will remain a culprit in the climate crisis regardless of all the wind turbines and solar panels installed.

Featured image:Wikimedia Commons

You might also like: Top 5 Environmental Issues in China in 2023

About the Author

Denise Ramos

Denise is an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, majoring in Journalism and Marketing. She joined Earth.Org in June 2023 for a Summer Editorial Internship. She is passionate about leveraging effective communication to raise awareness of different social issues. She is interested in combatting environmental issues, particularly those involving the oceans and animals.

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