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China’s road towards a low carbon society

China has upgraded its target for national solar power installations for 2014, raising it to 14GW from 10GW.

In 2013 China added 12GW of solar power and doubled its rate of solar installations. Before this, no country had ever added more than 8GW of solar power in one year.


The sleeping dragon has awoken

These numbers were presented to a Norwegian audience during an Arne Næss seminar in Oslo last week. Arne Næss, who died in 2009 aged 96, was Norway’s best-known philosopher, whose concept of deep ecology both enriched and divided the environmental movement. The Arne Næss seminars are dedicated to creating awareness on sustainable developments and the environment.

This time, I was invited to share my views on how China is leading by example – setting the speed and direction toward a low carbon society. I must admit that I am deeply fascinated by the challenges inherent in the task of moving this enormous country forward. And let us remind ourselves of what enormous means;

  • China has a population of near 1.4 billion – this is more than 4 times the size of the population of the US and almost two times the size of the entire EU.
  • China is barely among the top 100 countries counted by GDP pr. capita and probably the largest economy in the world before 2020.
  • China started its modern industrial development during the “opening up” as late as the early eighties; about 15 years after US “put a man on the moon”.
  • And China today is not only fuelling its own development. It is the world’s factory and produces most of the stuff you and I use in our daily life.

Of course – it is possible to make a long list of what China can improve, do better and different. This is more often than not the focus in western media. For this reason I found it very refreshing that the organizers of the Arne Næss seminars asked us to focus on the positive trends and developments.

5 Years plan with clear priorities

In short, my message to the audience was this; I am impressed by how the Chinese Government and people are stepping up to their challenges. Their 5 year plan, which focuses on innovation, social reforms, increased domestic trade and the road towards a low carbon energy system, provide a solid foundation for moving the country forward – in the right direction.

Photovoltaic power (PV) is becoming increasingly cheaper and easier to install, and the Chinese Government has been as surprised as European governments by how quickly it can be deployed.

To give you an example, China added a total of just over 100GW capacity in 2013 – an amount larger than the entire electricity capacity of the UK or South Korea.

And while coal remains China’s main power source, with 39.7GW installed last year, hydro power contributed the next largest increase, with 30.5GW added in 2013, solar 12GW while wind saw 14.1GW added (and bringing the total wind power capacity to about 90 GW).

USA also hit a record in 2013 with 4.2 GW solar (Japan 7 GW and Germany 3.3 GW).

China is now almost building as much solar energy pr. year (14GW) as the total solar capacity installed in USA up to now (16 GW).

wind china Env-00071

China’s road forward

And China’s road to a low carbon society is a road moving the country from a “low cost” to a “high tech” producer, a road that will contribute to establishing global brand recognition of their products.

Here are some interesting trends to consider;

China has made significant progress in infrastructure development and built a world class railway system. The next step will be to speed up the transition to low-emission and emission-free cars in order to curb the increasing smog and air pollution in the cities. Today 500 000 people suffer from an early death due to air pollution.

A carbon quotas system for the industry is already under pilot implementation in 7 cities and provinces, ready to be scaled up to a national system.

China can transit to an 80 percent renewable electric power system by 2050 at a cost far less than that associated with a continued reliance on coal, according to a recent report released by World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The report stated that around 80 percent of China’s electricity generation can be met by renewable sources, if appropriate policies and measures are taken, and on the condition that energy efficiency improves aggressively. As a result, China’s carbon emission from power generation could be 90 percent less than currently projected levels in 2050 without compromising the reliability of the electric grid or slowing economic growth.

Today there are more than 700 mill Chinese users on social media, reflecting a rapidly growing middle class.  The environment is the fourth most popular subject discussed in various social media channels, preceded only by the topics of “Inflation”, “increasing social inequality” and “corruption”. 

Last year more than 6 million young professionals graduated from Chinese universities and Shanghai and Hong Kong are topping the annual OECD PISA tests.  

It takes time to turn a super tanker

During the seminar, Håkon Vennemo, Economist at Vista Analyse with long experience from China, gave the following very fitting metaphor on the developments in China; “It is like turning a fully loaded super tanker”. It takes time from the captain initiate the turn until the vessel actual completes the turn.

In my opinion, the political leadership in China has definitely given the order to turn the country towards a low carbon future. The Chinese leadership will have plenty of challenges going forward. However, the dragon is awaking and is, as far as I can see, well equipped to gradually move away from a fossil world into a low carbon future.

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