Keeping Up With China and India in the Transition to Clean Energy

Keeping Up With China and India in the Renewables Race

Climate skeptics in the U.S. have often cited fast-rising carbon emissions in the developing world — and China and India in particular — as a reason to postpone our own transition to clean energy. By their logic, climate change is a global problem, and if the world’s two other largest emitters aren’t doing their fair share to solve it, why should we? However, in recent years that skeptical narrative has been turned on its head by major investments and bold new policies around the transition to clean energy in both countries.


Let’s first look at China. This is a country which relies on coal for almost 64% of their primary energy (more dependent on coal than even the U.S. at 42%), and in which the burning of fossil fuels propelled their explosive growth into a dominant world economic power.

But starting in 2012, China became the world’s #1 investor in renewable energy, and last year their investments were still climbing, another 17% to $110 billion total (almost double the 2015 U.S. investment). In 2013, they banned new coal plants in three key economic regions, which grew to shutting down all four major coal-fired power plants fueling Beijing, along with the closing of over 2000 smaller coal mines.

In November, 2014, as part of a landmark climate agreement with the U.S., China declared for the first time ever to stop the growth of CO2 emissions, and pledged to transition to clean energy sources for 20% of their total energy production by 2030. In figures recently released by the Chinese government, they are already ahead of that schedule.

In 2015 solar installations increased by 74% and wind by 34%, with coal usage decreasing by 3.7% and imports by 30%. They are the world’s leading manufacturer of solar panels and are #1 in overall solar capacity. Recently released first-half 2016 numbers show China added over 20 GW of PV generating capacity, a year-over-year increase of over 300%. In 2017 they will introduce the world’s largest cap and trade program.

In its new Five-Year plan, China’s recurring national blueprint outlining their social, economic and political goals, they have pledged to reduce emissions per unit of GDP by 40% — 45% by 2020 (compared to ’05 levels); increase the share of non-fossil fuel energy to 15% by 2020, and ban commercial logging in natural (and carbon consuming) forests.

Just as important is their new philosophy, which will guide and drive their future. China’s President XI Jinping proclaimed they would be transitioning away from their previous economic model, and move toward a more sustainable model of development. This is an incredible change, and notably it comes at a time when their economy is slowing down.


As for India, they have a more problematic energy future. A quarter of their population still has no power at all, and a large amount of those who do, do not have consistent power. It is estimated over 350 million people, or about 73 million households, still use harmful (and expensive) kerosene for cooking and lighting. Add to that India’s fast-growing economy and an abundance of cheap coal reserves available for future electrification, along with an intense national desire to grow their economy into a global power, and the threat of major increases of carbon emissions is clear.

However, they also stand to lose as much as anyone if climate change goes unchecked. And they too are making substantial changes, starting with their goals and vision around the transition to clean energy. In 2014, India pledged to build 100 gigawatts of solar power by 2020 — five times the current U.S. total— and set a goal of 100% electric vehicles by 2030. That perhaps is a moon shot goal, but to achieve it India is also proposing a very creative self-financing method that requires no government or public financing.

India’s renewables investment rose 22% to $10.2 billion in 2015, and they recently doubled their coal tax — the third time since 2010 it has been increased — applying it to all domestic and imported coal. Add to that a reduction of subsidies for imported oil, and importantly they now have fossil fuels and renewable energy on a much more level playing field.

In 2016, India has already seen pledges to invest over $100 billion in renewable energy from international companies, and even major Indian oil companies (Indian Oil Corp., and Oil India) and coal-fired electric utilities (Tata Power and NTPC) are investing heavily in utility scale PV installations.

On the ground one is starting to see villages running entirely on solar power; India’s Domestic Efficient Lighting Programme has provided over 60 million LED bulbs to families, and a new requirement is in place to include energy storage when a solar project is tendered — a vital component not only for stabilizing India’s supply but as well for 24-hour electrification of rural areas.

For the UN accord in Paris, India pledged to derive 40% of its electricity from renewables and other low carbon sources by 2030, and signed the Paris accord on April 22 — symbolically the first day it was available to be signed.

The Big Picture

We could go on with facts & figures, but suffice to say India and China are indeed doing something to combat climate change. They are not waiting on us. And vitally, they aren’t arguing at the highest levels about the existence or effects of climate change like we are.

Peggy Liu, the chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, stated in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, “there is really no debate about climate change in China…China’s leaders are mostly engineers and scientists, so they don’t waste time questioning scientific data… (it) is a practical discussion on health and wealth.”

In announcing the electric vehicle goal, India’s Power Minister Piyush Goyal said: “We are thinking of scale. We are thinking of leading the world rather than following the world. India will be first, (and) largest country in the world to think of that scale.”

China and India are on board with the transition to clean energy. As are the nearly 200 other countries, including the U.S., that recently adopted the historic Paris climate agreement. All countries have a vested interest in combating climate change, and all are needed. China and India are vying for leadership positions for this new era. America should be all-in as well, and join the opportunity to lead the world. A rising tide floats all boats.

Photo Credit: Danny Howard, 2011; CC-BY-SA.wylio

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