China leads the world in solar power growth

China is slowing its coal power expansion, driven in part by terrible air pollution problems as well as the country’s growing sensitivity to its international standing in the fight to curb global warming. The government has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions after hitting a peak in 2030 and to double its carbon-free energy generation at the same time.

Because burning fossil fuels is the leading driver of global warming, energy decisions made by China and the United States have a major impact on the health and welfare of nearly every living thing on Earth. In November, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced ambitious plans to reduce their carbon pollution in the next 15 years.

It’s important to put China’s coal use into the population context: China, with a population of about 1.4 billion, emits between 10 and 11 million tons of carbon pollution a year, while the United States, with about one-quarter the population, is the No. 2 carbon polluter, emitting around 6.5 million tons a year, according to the World Resources Institute.

According to information gathered by NASA Earth Observatory, the total installed solar power capacity in Gansu province hit 5.2 gigawatts last year, and the country is targeting an additional half gigawatt by the end of this year.  Nationwide China’s installed solar capacity was just more than 28 gigawatts by the close of 2014—that’s three times the capacity installed in 2013. Just halfway into 2015, that capacity has grown to 33 gigawatts.

China has expanded its renewable energy resources remarkably fast, with hydro-, wind, and solar power growing to nearly 10 percent of the nation’s energy mix between 2006 and 2013. China has also become the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.

But China has continued to expand its coal-fired power capacity at the same time. In 2007 the country outpaced the United States to become the biggest greenhouse gas polluter on Earth: China burns around 4 billion tons of coal a year, more than four times the amount that the U.S. burns.