China: A revolution is here, and clean energy is the spark

China faces particular challenges and responsibilities in safeguarding future

As the world’s fastest-growing economy and as the nation with the largest population, China is experiencing diverse and profound political, economic and diplomatic challenges. Among the most acute of these are to do with energy and the environment.

Even as China draws the benefits and accolades of being an economic powerhouse, it also takes on another wholly undesirable mantle: that of the world’s largest emitter of carbon.

That in turn increases China’s importance in the climate-change debate. As a leading member of the developing world, too, it has a big say in the energy security debate, and all of this political and diplomatic clout enables it to influence international energy and policies and the economics that go with that.

Historically, the emergence of great powers has been accompanied by the rise of a new generation of energy, an element that is fundamental to the prosperity and security of nations. As others have suggested before, the prerequisite of significant structural changes in the international system is an energy power revolution based on the emergence of next-generation energy-led countries.

Technological innovation is critical in the energy structure and, furthermore, next-generation energy will determine not only the future of the international economic system but shifts in political power.

Since the modern international system was set up, the energy chain has undergone two important changes. The first was during the Industrial Revolution in the 1860s, ushered in by Britain, which was marked by a transition from the era of fuel-wood, or the bio-fuel era, to the era of coal. The second change was the second industrial revolution, in the United States in the 1920s, which saw a transition from the era of coal to the era of oil. Today we are in the midst of a third revolution, a transition to an era of clean and low-carbon energy.

Under the long-cycle theory, the ownership and use of new energy is closely related to national technological and institutional advances. Countries with a dominant position in new energy must have an institutional and technical advantage stemming from their possession and use of new energy. They have to break through constraints imposed by previous economic structures, which leads to big changes in the global industrial chain, allocation of resources and national competitiveness.

There is every reason to believe that those new-energy powerhouses will ultimately change the global distribution of power through international competition. As history shows, every significant structural change in the international system has been due to a revolution in energy. The country or non-state entity that seized a new energy chain or part of it was challenging the status quo.

As the world debates collective action against climate change, most countries have found that economies based on new and clean energy and on low-carbon and clean energy hold the keys to the future.

The European Union’s carbon aviation tax aimed at boosting the bloc’s competitiveness and promoting climate negotiations could also boost its creativity and competitive edge. The Low Carbon Economy Report by the Royal Institute of International Affairs says that the EU promoted climate negotiations not just because it was a pioneer in low-carbon economics, but because it also wanted to predominate in global governance and lay the foundations for the future economy.

Considering China’s huge economy and the rapid growth in its emissions, it clearly matters when it comes to energy and climate change. China is developing many energy resources, and putting in place a system that supplies stable, economic and clean energy. It is working hard to develop a recycling economy so it can garner the highest possible economic and social benefits using the least energy possible. Since the late 1990s China has been promoting clean, renewable energy to try to balance growth and environmental concerns and ultimately to reduce its reliance on coal.

In 2010 it set the goal of meeting 15 percent of its primary energy consumption through non-fossil fuels by 2020. It is targeting the development of non-fossil energy including wind power, solar power, biomass energy, solar energy, and thermal and nuclear power equivalent to 480 million metric tons of standard coal by the end of 2015, according to the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) for the renewable energy industry issued recently by the National Energy Administration.

Hydropower is the leading source of renewable energy. It provides more than 97 percent of all electricity generated by renewable sources. The dams and hydropower plants also play an important role in water resource planning, in preventing flooding, making rivers navigable, solving irrigation problems and creating recreation areas. During the 12th Five-Year Plan China will begin building more than 60 key hydropower projects, and the aim is to have 430 GW of total hydropower installed capacity in the country by 2020. However, debate about the negative impacts of dams and hydropower plants is heated, most of it focused on environmental problems.

By the end of 2015 the country’s wind power capacity is expected to reach 100 million kW, with annual electricity output of 190 billion kW/h, the plan says. China’s wind power will reach 100 million kilowatts by 2015 and annual wind power generation will be 190 billion kilowatt hours. Of that, offshore wind power will account for 5 million kilowatts; solar power will be 15 million kilowatts and annual solar power generation will hit 20 billion kilowatt hours.

China enjoys many advantages in developing solar energy. It has become a world leader in photovoltaic cell production. The demand in the country for new solar modules could be as high as 232 mW each year from now until 2012. The government has announced plans to expand the installed capacity to 1,800 mW by 2020. If Chinese companies manage to develop low-cost, reliable solar modules, then the sky is the limit for a country that is desperate to reduce its dependence on coal and oil imports as well as the pressure on its environment by using renewable energy.

China has overtaken the US to become the largest producer of zero-carbon energy. The US is the hegemony and China is the rising power, but clean energy will create a new paradigm for relations between the US and China in energy. Cooperation between the two on clean energy is noteworthy, and both countries are leading the world in investing in renewable energy and should seek to resolve trade disputes and eliminate protectionist trade policies. The US should closely look at sales of Chinese renewable energy products in the US market and seek to reduce trade barriers.

The difficulty lies not in new ideas, but in escaping from old ones. Whatever the outcomes and motivations, in order to deal with the energy-water-food nexus, China should understand it is in its economic and national interest to move ahead with clean and zero-carbon energy development. Together with recently announced plans, China’s clean energy development marks a sea change in the reform of the international system.
By Yu Hongyuan,
The author is professor and deputy director of the Institute for Comparative Politics and Public Policy, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.