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Historic Climate Deal Highlights Extent to Which China is Rapidly Scaling Green Energy

3 min. read

One of the best takes I've read so far today on the U.S.-China deal to rein in greenhouse gas emissions comes from, not surprisingly, Stephen Lacey at Greentech Media. The headline and subheading of Lacey's article really say it nicely: "Historic US-China Climate Deal Is a Sign of Clean Energy’s Growing Political Strength: China’s willingness to adopt emissions targets reflects its confidence in non-fossil energy." That's right; even as climate change deniers and cleantech bashers love to claim that China is doing nothing, in fact it is moving quickly to scale clean energy. How fast? According to the Washington Post article on this historic breakthrough:

China’s announcement is the culmination of years of change in attitudes among Chinese now fed up with dire levels of pollution that a study in the British medical journal the Lancet blamed for 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone. China has cap-and-trade pilot programs in five provinces and eight cities. It is also the world’s largest investor in solar and wind energy.

Moreover, it has barred coal-plant construction in some regions. Such construction has dropped from more than 90 gigawatts in 2006 to 36.5 gigawatts in 2013, according to the World Resources Institute.

The results of China's sea change in energy policy are there for everyone to see. As Stephen Lacey explains:

China already has plans to get 50 gigawatts of nuclear, 70 gigawatts of solar, 150 gigawatts of wind and 330 gigawatts of hydro installed in the next few years. The new target, while not groundbreaking, would open up the opportunity for China to support nearly a terawatt of additional nuclear and renewable energy capacity.

Seven years ago, when China became the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, there were few signs that the country would slow its rate of coal-burning. The country is still by far the world's largest user of coal, accounting for roughly 50 percent of global consumption.

But a confluence of factors has shifted China's outlook on coal. Domestic backlash against air pollution, growing water scarcity problems, international political pressure and the competitiveness of renewables have all come together to make China more willing to wean itself off coal. In August, China's coal consumption dropped for the first time in a decade.

One point that can't be emphasized enough is how dramatically the cost of solar, wind and other renewables has plummeted in recent years. For instance, check out this analysis by Lazard - one of the world's top financial asset management and advisory firms - which finds that the "levelized cost" of energy efficiency and onshore wind is already lower than for new coal-fired power plants. And, as Lazard illustrates graphically, the costs of wind and solar are on a steep downward trajectory that is expected to continue indefinitely, meaning that the economics of clean energy will only get better and better as time goes by. In turn, that strongly implies a rapid scaling of wind and solar, purely on economic grounds alone, not even factoring in the huge environmental benefits of clean, green energy. Now, the big question is which nation -- China? the US? others? -- will dominate the enormous market for renewable power in the 21st century?

Topics: Clean Economy