Four Things You Need to Know About China’s Record Solar Installations (They Aren’t All Pretty)

We’re used to big numbers from China, but the reported 20 gigawatts or so of solar power that was installed in the first half of 2016 are worth a close look.

The figures are preliminary, but the story that they tell is clear: In the first half of the year alone China installed more solar power than any other country has ever done in total, since the dawn of solar power, except for Germany, Japan, and the U.S.

China’s first-half solar installations were larger than the cumulative total of everyone outside of the big three listed above – larger than Italy, Britain, France, and Spain, all of which for years had aggressive subsidy programs to encourage solar power.

For China, the 20 gigawatts of new solar power installed in the first half of 2016 is as much new solar capacity alone as Switzerland’s total electricity generating capacity.

Is China’s solar power infatuation a bubble that inevitably will burst? Or is something more fundamental happening in China’s electricity market, where more than 60 percent of electricity is still produced by coal?

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here.

Chinese Government Subsidies Play Major Part In Electric Car Maker BYD’s Rise

South Korea’s Samsung group apparently bought into China auto maker BYD as a way of improving its prospects in China, where it has struggled against government protection of the local industry. If that’s the case, it could hardly have picked a better partner, for BYD has been one of the principal beneficiaries of government largesse, emerging as a state champion in electric vehicles and hybrids on its way to becoming the world’s largest electric car manufacturer.

BYD sold 58,000 electric and plug-in hybrids last year. New energy vehicle sales were up more than two-and-a-half times from 2014 , and BYD’s popular Qin and Tang models give it an 80% share of China’s plug-in hybrid market.

The Shenzhen-based auto maker announced July 21 that Samsung, South Korea’s largest chaebol, bought a 2% stake in BYD for $450 million as part of a share placement that saw the car- and battery-manufacturer raise almost $2.2 billion, funds that will be used to expand its electric vehicle production.

Electric and plug-in hybrid car sales in China quadrupled to 351,000 last year. Government subsidies have played a big part in that surge. Consumers receive a range of subsidies and other perks when they buy electric and hybrid vehicles. But BYD, too, benefits from lavish government support, support that has played a key role as it has established its global lead in electric vehicles.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here.

Hong Kong’s E-Waste Nightmare: Where Old Phones Go To Die

Where do old phones and computers go to die? More and more, aging motherboards and hard disk drives and touch-screens are broken up in illegal waste dumps in Hong Kong, according to a blistering report from the Basel Action Network.

China’s crackdown on corruption has slowed the illegal export of e-waste, much of it from the United States, to southern China, the traditional home of highly polluting electronics recycling sites. That has left more of the toxic material marooned in Hong Kong.

The South China Morning Post’s Sarah Karacs did an impressive trio of follow-on stories to the Basel Action Network’s far-reaching report, which was released in May, by poking around Hong Kong’s New Territories.

The Basel Action Network put GPS tracking devices on dozens of used electronic devices, which were given to designated recycling centers, from Dell to Goodwill. The SCMP then visited the sites where the GPS trackers indicated the goods had ended up and found that seven of the 10 sites were storing electronic waste. “There were hives of stripping-down activity by workers, few if any of whom were wearing protective clothing,” Karacs wrote. The SCMP used a drone camera to catch glimpses of the illegal waste dumping grounds.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here.

Can Cooperation on Climate Change Transcend the Challenges of U.S.-China Relations?

Environmental issues – especially climate change – is about the only area of cooperation in the often fraught Sino-U.S. relationship. I recently moderated a discussion featuring leading thinkers on the issue: Barbara Finamore (Natural Resources Defense Council), Isabel Hilton (China Dialogue), Orville Schell (Asia Society), Deborah Seligsohn (University of California San Diego), and Clay Stranger (Rocky Mountain Institute).

Highlights of the video can be accessed here.

The full round table can be found here

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Is China Doing Enough for the Environment?

Let’s congratulate China for what it‘s doing to fight environmental damage and climate change. It has the world’s most ambitious clean-tech program, investing $110 billion in clean-energy technologies last year, almost as much as the U.S. and the E.U. combined.

From almost nothing five years ago, China now has the world’s largest installed base of wind power and solar power. Coal use has dropped each of the past two years. Electricity generated by coal was less than 70 percent last year, down 10 percentage points from 2011. Low-carbon source such as hydro and wind have made up the difference and are now significant sources of electricity generation in China.

Energy intensity is falling, as China shifts away from its traditional reliance on heavy industry to embrace the service sector. Indeed, China is responsible for much of the good, and unexpected, news from the International Energy Agency that global carbon emissions have plateaued in the past two years despite continued economic growth.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a historic agreement with Barack Obama in November 2014 promising that China’s CO2 emissions would peak “around 2030,’” the agreement was hailed as a big step forward. And it was. At last, China formally put a date on peak emissions.

Good as this news is, China needs to do more.

Originally published as part of an Asia Society ChinaFile Conversation. Can be accessed here

Can China’s top-down approach fix its environmental crisis?

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China has the largest and one of the most dynamic clean tech sectors in the world. The close to $90bn invested in clean tech last year puts it well ahead of both the EU and the US. For all the recent troubles of companies such as Hanergy, China has some of the world’s largest solar, wind and other green tech companies. As growth slows in western markets, they are increasingly looking for business at home.

There is good reason for this too. China burns almost half the coal in the world, and accounts for 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year. Emissions from coal plants in China are responsible for a quarter of a million premature deaths a year.

China’s leaders know that they have a problem. They know that time is running out on the “get dirty, get rich, get clean” strategy pursued by the west. The bill for its environmental degradation is too high for its own people.
 
Originally published in The Guardian. Can be accessed here.

Chinese Coal Cuts

In the fight to limit global warming, no country matters more than China – a massive coal-dependent country, which is responsible for 30% of global carbon-dioxide emissions. Fortunately, it is moving to improve its environmental record. But is it doing enough?

If China could pursue only one goal, it should be cutting its reliance on coal energy. The country is home to one-sixth of the world’s people, yet it accounts for almost one-half of global coal consumption. If China does not reduce that share and cut its greenhouse-gas emissions, keeping global warming in check will prove impossible.

The good news is that coal use in China seems to have fallen slightly last year – a trend that is expected to continue. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis estimates that the share of coal-generated electricity in China will decline from 72.5% in 2014 to 60% in 2020. While last year’s drop in coal use may have been a technical blip, Chinese coal consumption is expected to peak very soon – probably next year.

That means that CO2 emissions – the largest component of the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming – will begin falling, too, enabling China to fulfill its pledge, made last November as part of a landmark climate agreement with the United States, that emissions would peak around 2030. In fact, if China’s leaders act boldly, the peak could be reached even sooner, in the early 2020s.

As China’s coal use begins to fall, its renewables sector is growing rapidly. Last year, China spent a massive $90 billion on renewable energy – far more than the $52 billion invested by the second-largest spender, the US. China now has the world’s largest installed base of wind power, and its solar power capacity is second only to Germany’s. From humble beginnings at the turn of the century, Chinese wind and solar companies have grown into some of the world’s largest and most efficient.

The government’s efforts to promote renewables are driven partly by growing pressure from middle-class Chinese, who are increasingly frustrated with pollution levels. Indeed, the environment is a hot topic in China today, exemplified by the response to the documentary film “Under the Dome,” which takes a critical look at air pollution and the role of the country’s coal and petrochemical companies. More than 300 million Chinese saw the film after its late-February release, which was timed to coincide with the annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress in early March.

The 103-minute production, by the prominent journalist Chai Jing, highlights the health risks posed by the thick smog shrouding China’s most productive cities. The film begins with the story of Chai’s own newborn daughter being diagnosed with a benign tumor. Though Chai never directly links her daughter’s tumor to air pollution, “Under the Dome” delivers a compelling message.

The public reaction was overwhelming. The film even drew support from the incoming environment minister, Chen Jining, who compared it to Rachel Carson’s influential book Silent Spring. Despite – or perhaps because of – this response, “Under the Dome” and related commentary have been removed from China’s media.

But, though the government may not want not to draw attention to its pollution problem, it certainly is trying to address it. Its investments have already helped to lower global prices of renewables. Researchers at Harvard University and Tsinghua University say that wind power could, in theory, produce all of China’s electricity for the price of coal by 2030.

Still, China should be acting even more aggressively. The authorities should focus not only on producing renewable energy, but also on improving the energy efficiency of existing systems. As it stands, China’s economy is about three times as energy-intensive as America’s (a country that is not particularly energy-efficient itself).

As renewable energy becomes increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels and energy consumption becomes more efficient, China will become better able to reduce emissions without undermining economic growth. According to a recent study by the Tsinghua/MIT China Energy & Climate Project, a combination of carbon taxes – especially on coal – and continued support for renewable power would enable China to reach its carbon-emissions peak in the early to mid-2020s.

Such an outcome would bolster global emission-reduction efforts considerably. In fact, new data from the International Energy Agency show that, in 2014, global CO2 emissions did not rise, suggesting that efforts to mitigate climate change may already be having a more significant effect than previously thought. This is particularly notable because the recent pause in emissions growth, unlike the other three that have occurred in the last 40 years, occurred amid economic expansion at a respectable annual rate of 3%.

As greenhouse-gas emissions become decoupled from economic growth, the world’s chances of successfully mitigating climate change become much higher. As IEA Chief Economist (and future Executive Director) Fatih Birol put it, this development “provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December.”

China still has a long way to go. But its recent progress in reducing emissions shows that, with the right combination of government policies, corporate initiatives, and public pressure, even the largest and most polluted countries can clean up their economies and help fight global warming.

Originally published in Project Syndicate. Can be accessed here

Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis by Julie Sze

China’s environmental emergency, Julie Sze tells us, has given rise to fear, loathing, and, more recently, what may prove to be a historic agreement by Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to limit carbon emissions. The growing crisis has also set off a race to find solutions. From wind farms and solar panels to electric vehicles, Chinese government and businesses are in a race to keep the Chinese dream of a higher living standard from being overwhelmed by coal-choked air, toxic water and clusters of cancer villages.

China needs big solutions for problems that are almost unimaginably large. Setting up entire new cities—so-called eco-cities—was one path to change. On paper, it seemed sensible enough to build high-end showcases that could serve as experimental demonstration sites and diffuse good environmental practices more broadly throughout the country.

Dongtan was the most ambitious of these projects. Set on Chongming Island, the world’s largest alluvial island just north of Shanghai, Dongtan was supposed to exemplify the way in which a rising and increasingly urban China could live in harmony with nature. Crucially, it was also one of the earliest such cities, so the entire concept was something of a blank canvas.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: China Fast Forward by Bill Dodson

Dodson’s book is a bit like China itself: fast-moving, somewhat kaleidoscopic, hard to pin down, by turns baffling, frustrating and entertaining. Reading the book is a bit like watching a movie running at twice or four times its normal speed—it is sometimes a bit jerky, but fast-paced and often entertaining.

Despite writing a book filled with often searing criticism, Dodson dearly hopes that China will somehow pull it off… yet despairs that it won’t. This is a rapidly-paced, even scattershot book, more of a quick tour than an in-depth visit. For anyone familiar with China, most of these arguments will not be new. For anyone who knows less about China or who thinks that China’s rise is unstoppable, there is much here to recommend.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: Greenprint by Aaditya Mattoo and Arvind Subramanian

In their slim book, Aaditya Mattoo and Arvind Subramanian make a case for action led not by the rich West but by the giants of the developing world. The biggest carbon emitter is China; other large developing nations—India (third largest), Brazil, and Indonesia—are also significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions…

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed at www.asianreviewofbooks.com/?ID=1494