China looks serious about moving towards a low-carbon economy

Greener than it looks: China is already the world’s largest producer of renewable energy (pictured: the city of Shenzhen)

The recent US-China agreement on carbon emissions was greeted with scepticism, but China appears to have set itself firmly on a path to a low-carbon future.

China is well-known for being the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but what fewer people realize is that the country is also the leading producer of renewable power. In 2013, China invested more in renewable energy than the whole of Europe combined and, for the first time, it invested more in renewable power capacity than in fossil fuels*.

One fifth of China’s energy comes from renewables

In 2013, China’s installed renewable energy capacity stood at 378 gigawatts (GW) and generated over one trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity, by far the largest share in the world. More than 30 percent of generating capacity was hydropower (water), wind and solar, and 20 percent of power generated came from these renewable sources.

China’s impressive progress towards renewables is down to a combination of policy and investment. The country’s 12th five-year plan (2011-2015) identified seven strategic industries for development, among them “New energy” (non-fossil fuels), “Energy conservation and environmental protection” and “Clean-energy vehicles”. China’s target was for renewables to account for 30 percent of generating capacity by 2015; it actually reached that in 2013.

Part of the reason was its willingness to invest on a large scale in technologies such as high-voltage direct current (HVDC) power transmission, which allows huge amounts of electricity to be transported from distant hydropower, wind and solar plants to the population centers where it’s needed.

China is also creating conditions for companies to invest in new technologies, for instance by introducing a standard for fast charging electric vehicles (EVs) to encourage innovation and stimulate their market acceptance. The move prompted a partnership between ABB and the country’s largest producer of EVs, BYD, to develop the world’s largest fast charging network. BYD and ABB have since entered an alliance to develop energy-storage solutions, which should enable even greater take up of renewables.

China’s emissions may well peak by 2025

In announcing the US-China climate agreement with President Obama, China’s president Xi Jinping promised that his country’s emissions would peak no later than 2030. By making such a commitment, China has framed the level of ambition for other countries, especially in the developing world, ahead of a crucial United Nations climate summit in Paris next year.

The US-China agreement is widely seen as not being enough to stop global temperatures rising by more than the critical threshold of two degrees Celsius. But the assumption is that China will actually do better than it has promised and that its emissions could peak as early as 2025. Further clues may emerge in the targets of China’s 13th five-year plan, which is currently being worked on and takes effect in 2016.

What seems certain is that China now intends to assume a leadership role in international climate negotiations. That’s a welcome move for a country that is both the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and its biggest producer of renewable energy.

* All figures sourced from Renewables 2014 Global Status Report, unless otherwise indicated

Read more: Wind power in China: new opportunities in a transforming market

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About the author

Jonas Hughes

I am a writer and editor in the Corporate Communications department of ABB. I have worked as a journalist and communicator in Switzerland, Britain, North America and South Africa, and am interested in how technology affects the lives of ordinary people.
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